The filmmakers waste no time cutting to the gutting. After an ominous bit of narration by Morgan Freeman, who warns of creatures from a faraway planet observing Earth with "envious eyes," we're introduced to the film's heroic trinity -- dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two kids, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning ) -- just in time for what appears to be an electrical storm wreaking havoc in their New Jersey neighborhood. We learn just enough about their strained relationship to know they can barely survive each other in peacetime, much less when under attack by alien invaders: Ray broods and pouts, calls Robbie "a dick" when he finds out the boy's a Red Sox fan, and tells Rachel to order takeout when he turns in while the sun's still up. They're clearly in need of a little therapy, but being chased by aliens offers some pretty good bonding experiences just when you most need them.
As it turns out, of course, the storm awakens giant, three-legged metallic machines that have been hibernating beneath our feet for perhaps thousands of years; the attack isn't from above, you see, but from below. And for a few moments, even as the Earth rips open, buildings split apart, and church steeples topple into neighborhood streets, Ray seems to be enjoying himself and the spectacle of destruction. With his wide eyes and fearless grin, he recalls Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, running toward the very thing everyone else is fleeing. But Ray doesn't linger for long: A tripod emerges from its concrete cocoon, stretches its legs, honks its horn, and begins zapping everyone in sight with a death ray that reduces humans to ash, leaving only their clothes behind. Ray's smile, soon enough, is hidden behind a mask of deathly dust.
And for the next 100 minutes, the movie becomes a chase, as Ray and his family try to stay ahead of the aliens who are waiting around every corner and in every cranny. But rarely has the inevitable and obvious been so terrifying: Spielberg's landscape is by turns barren (for a while, you're led to believe Ray and his children are lone survivors) and crowded with desperate hordes who will turn to murder to save their own skins. And there are shocking, terrifying images -- a flaming train hurtling down the tracks, soldiers waging a pointless war against invincible and ravenous enemies, a ferry doing its Titanic impression as aliens emerge from the sea below, or simply the sight of pulsating red vines spreading into a basement in which Ray and Rachel have taken refuge with a nutty survivor named Ogilvy (Tim Robbins, in little more than a cameo). There's even a scene filmed entirely in the dark, perhaps the most chilling effect in a movie full of computer-generated images.
War of the Worlds, which is strikingly faithful to Byron Haskin's 1953 big-screen version, plays sort of like Spielberg's homage to Spielberg: It's a hodgepodge of bits and pieces borrowed from Jaws, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark (another Z-grade story elevated to grade-A status) -- even Schindler's List, with its scenes full of bedraggled survivors marching to the beat of soldiers' orders. The director gets off not only on gross-out theatrics (in one what-the-hell moment, Cruise is sucked into what appears to be an alien ship's asshole, armed with a fistful of hand grenades) but also the deeper meaning of shallow thrills. This is scary sci-fi set in a real world that's even more terrifying: "Is it the terrorists?" Rachel asks Ray as her world's being reduced to rubble by invaders she's yet to lay eyes on. And later, the Ferriers pass by a wall papered with crudely handmade "missing" posters, recalling the fliers posted all over Manhattan after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
The worst you can say of War of the Worlds is that its ending fizzles after so much sizzle, but this time it's not entirely the fault of the director, whose brilliant and underrated A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report likewise petered out with unsatisfactory resolutions. The filmmakers are, for the most part, remaining faithful to Wells' novel, which suggests that humans not only own this planet but deserve it. War of the Worlds earns its finish, like the marathon runner who reaches the end of the race and collapses in a heap of exhaustion and relief. Spielberg may be rid of his giddy optimism and youthful hope, his sci-fi may now sport a darker shade of red, but he's still a masterful entertainer, even when all he wants to do is scare the living hell out of you.