Spielberg is one of a handful of directors who love to make films. You may ask yourself: Don't all directors love to make films? Yes, I think most of them get into the business because they love the magic of the movies, but at some point, fame and money and power take hold and they start to make sequels, remakes, poorly conceived star vehicles, etc. Spielberg has made his share of sequels, but even these films show his enthusiasm, his love of film. As a director, he has been involved in some of the most successful films ever made. With each new film, he adds a skill or learns how to create more intriguing drama or suspense. Just about every film is better than the last. "The Color Purple" is very moving, but "Schindler's List" is devastating. "Jaws" is suspenseful and frightening, but "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a roller coaster ride. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is great, but "E.T." is a classic. With a small number of missteps along the way, Spielberg has learned to blend of his love of the magic of film with a very accomplished skills, a skill matched by few of his contemporaries.
"War of the Worlds", starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, blends the best elements of Spielberg's best films into a cohesive, scary, thrilling, suspenseful summer blockbuster. And it's a darn good ride.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dockworker in New Jersey, rushes home to meet his ex-wife and their two kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Cruise) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Ray's kids share a strained relationship with their undependable father; they clearly don't like spending time in Ray's cramped, dirty, poorly stocked apartment. Catching a little sleep, Ray awakes to find Rachel has ordered healthy take-out (his refrigerator is bare) and Robbie has taken a joy ride in Ray's beloved restored Mustang. Noticing a strange storm behind the house, Ray and Rachel join their neighbors outside to watch. The sky is filled with a large, dark circling cloud and Ray realizes that all of the wind is blowing towards the clouds. Soon, lightning repeatedly strikes one spot a couple of blocks away and this renders all electronics powerless and all cars are out of commission. Ray and a number of locals find the spot where the lightning hit and soon the ground begins to rumble.
The original story was written by H.G. Wells in 1898 (which is pretty amazing, if you stop to think about it) and was made into a memorable radio broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938. The radio broadcast was so scary, so believable, people actually thought we were being invaded. In 1953, the story was turned into a film starring Gene Barry, who makes a cameo in the new version. I have never seen the 1953 film, but I imagine the narrative in the 2005 version is quite different. In "Worlds", Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp center the action on Ray and his two kids. Everything they see and experience is what we see and experience. This helps to make the film personal; we identify with Ray and his kids and feel concerned for their safety. When they are in danger, the film is supsenseful. We want them to make it out safely. When they are in danger, the film is scary. As they journey through a changing landscape, we make the journey with them. This helps to give the film a soul and heart that most summer blockbusters don't have.
Spielberg has always been at the top of his game when it comes to films with a lot of special effects. He and George Lucas practically invented the modern era of special effects (some people would like to vilify them for this). In "Worlds", there are certainly a lot of special effects and CGI work, but the work is so seamless, and blended with the live action so well, it appears to be real. Often, a filmmaker will use every trick in his book, just because they can (I'm looking at you George Lucas and "Star Wars I, II and III") and the human element is completely disregarded. In "Worlds", the special effects make the human element all the more real. Because Ray actually appears to be running from large alien ships, we are rooting for him to be successful. A lot of money and time was spent on the effects work for this film and it shows. Everything blends together realistically.
Another key indication of Spielberg's achievement is that not all scenes are dependent on special effects for their success. Much like in "Jaws" and "Close Encounters", we don't get a good look at the aliens until far into the story. Sometimes, they are surrounded by clouds and lightning, others, we see them in a fleeting reflection. Isn't it more suspenseful when you don't immediately see the entire alien? Or monster, in the case of a horror film? The best directors know this which is why the best examples of these genres don't give us a look at the shark or the aliens until late in the film. Later in "Worlds", we already believe the aliens are trying to take over, so we don't need to see them in every scene. A particularly suspenseful scene involves Ray and Olgivy (Tim Robbins) as they play a game of cat and mouse with each other and some alien foot soldiers.
Tom Cruise has definitely become one of our finer actors. His silly appearances on recent talk shows aside, he is an accomplished actor and he has been making some bold decisions lately in the projects he works on. "Collateral" was a bold choice for the megastar. Playing a hit man roaming the streets of Los Angeles is not normally a role we would expect to see Cruise play. He took the role and did a great job in it. "Worlds" is a safer bet for him. Spielberg + Cruise + Aliens and special effects = summer blockbuster and studio green light, but the actor brings much more depth to the character than we might expect. He is a father with flaws and problems and doesn't have a great relationship with his kids. In most summer films, we would see a few minutes of this type of character, to "establish it" and then the action kicks into gear and all character nuances are forgotten. In "Worlds", Ray's flaws carry through. He grows in believable, small and acceptable ways. "Worlds" is not Cruise's best work, but for a summer blockbuster it is surprisingly good.
Dakota Fanning plays Rachel, Ray's daughter. Is Fanning the reincarnation of some great actress from the golden age of Hollywood? This little girl is a great actress. In most of her films, she brings an amazing range of emotion to the role. "Worlds" is no exception. In one scene, she is being carried by her Dad, watching the action behind them, horror registering on her face. We don't see what she is witnessing, we only watch the horror in her eyes. It is truly mesmerizing to watch such a young girl deliver such a convincing performance.
Spielberg has created a real roller coaster ride of a film. He has taken the thrills of the "Indiana Jones" films and married them with acting on the par of "The Color Purple" and added special effects that would rival "Close Encounters" or "A.I.". This mix has created one of the best summer blockbusters I have seen in some time.