Wells, well: Sure, it's stupid, but...
There are several things we know (or think we know) going in to Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds:
* The special effects will be better than in Byron Haskin's 1953 movie, also based on H.G. Wells' novel.
* It still won't be realistic enough to send you out, as did Orson Welles' 1939 radio version, thinking Earth has really been invaded by aliens.
* Even though it's Spielberg's response to the 9/11 attack and the aliens won't be as cuddly as E.T. or as musical as those of Close Encounters..., the movie won't be as hard-edged as it might have been had another director made it.
* Tom Cruise won't be as easy to take seriously as he was before L'affaire Holmes.
Here's what we know coming out of Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds:
* The special effects are awesome enough that they should overpower any backlash against the world's biggest movie star. We love to see stuff destroyed, and there's lots of that here.
* You'll never forget you're watching a movie, but nobody makes better popcorn movies than Spielberg.
* It's got characteristic Spielbergisms, especially related to family values, but in terms of sustained intensity, it's the director's darkest film since Schindler's List.
* This is definitely a Tom Cruise vehicle, which means his character flaws are as hard to believe as his impossible heroics; but if George W. Bush can withstand negative publicity, Cruise, who's a much better actor, should be able to too.
Morgan Freeman opens and closes with narration more or less from Wells' novel. If you know the story, you'll be reassured by the opening image, which suggests the ending hasn't been tampered with. Fans of the earlier movie should welcome a glimpse of its stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, in one of the final shots.
With occasional news reports in the background telling of "electromagnetic storms" around the world, we're introduced to the Ferrier family. Ray (Cruise), who's not the world's greatest dad, is taking the kids for the weekend from his ex, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto). Teenage Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is openly hostile toward his father, while daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is blunt but not cold.
The "storms" hit Ray's New Jersey town as aliens retrieve killing machines that have been buried below the earth's surface, maybe for thousands of years. This involves tearing up whatever's over them, which also destroys buildings in the vicinity. (There goes the neighborhood!) Meanwhile, their death ray disintegrates people but leaves their clothes.
The aliens cut off all power in the area, not just electricity but cars and cell phones as well. Ray manages to outrun the death ray and get his kids into the only functioning non-military vehicle in the Northeastern U.S. He heads for Boston, where Mary Ann was going. Rachel calls him on his intent to dump her and her brother on their mother, but Ray makes a serious effort to protect his children, even when at one point he has to make almost a "Sophie's choice" between them.
The trip is too easy at first but gets tougher when they near the Hudson River, where thousands of refugees are trying to get to the ferry. What happens to that boat shouldn't happen to the Titanic.
The Ferriers are sheltered for a time by Harland Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a survivalist who's had his cellar prepared for just such an emergency. He has a macho philosophy that if he's going to go, he's going to take at least one of them with him, so he locks horns with Ray, whose children's survival comes first. Hey, maybe he is the world's greatest dad.
An alien probe comes snaking through Ogilvy's cellar looking for signs of life in one of the film's most suspenseful sequences.
It's easy to find fault with War of the Worlds. It's too intense for too long, Ray's survival skills are preposterous, and things work out too neatly for him in the end. Well, you can carp all you want, but it's the rare individual who won't get caught up in the story as Spielberg relates it, even as every rational bone in their body tells them how stupid it is.