War of the Worlds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 12:00am

Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins

Director: Steven Spielberg

Category: IIA

The hope with War of the Worlds was that the master of entertainment, director Steven Spielberg, would produce one out of the box, a return to the sort of popcorn crowd-pleaser that established his credentials in the 1970s with the likes of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

And the signs leading up to this release had been pure Spielberg. The shoot was veiled in secrecy, the marketing machine had given us tantalising glimpses of what was to come. But most of it remained a mystery. And the guessing games have filled newspaper column centimetres for months.

Those more cynical might suppose that the studio's careful campaign has been hiding something more sinister than a beastie from outer space could ever hope to be - a box office bomb. So at least War of the Worlds brings with it a sense of anticipation. And for that we can be grateful. Whether you think it's been worth all the fuss is another matter.

Spielberg has taken the action from H.G. Wells' classic tale and transported it smack bang into the flag-flying, blue-collar streets of New Jersey. Here we find a regular Joe - make that Ray (Tom Cruise) - who works hard, and struggles in the face of a ruined marriage and children he can't connect with. The chance for Ray to show that he can behave with some responsibility comes when, after some serious atmospheric anomalies, a bunch of mechanised monsters spring stunningly forth from the earth and begin carving up the real estate, and anyone who might wander into their path.

So Ray packs up his kids (annoying Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) and reunites them with their mother in Boston, all the while keeping impending death at bay, and dealing with the delirium that always follows when the world you know is being blown apart. There's no escaping the fact that the scenes of destruction hark to images still fresh in our collective memories.

But, being a Spielberg production, the effects are the film's main calling card after all. And there are flashes of magic as well. He teases his audience wonderfully well in slowly revealing the monsters - and then throws them right in your face, letting us watch around dark corners as they peer through the wreckage and make some effort to examine the creatures they have come to destroy.

But in putting the family dilemma facing Ray at the forefront of the story he relies too much on Cruise and his kin, and not enough on the fate that's befalling the world. We become bogged down with half-hearted sentiment that never really convinces and we end up wanting more of the monsters.

The ending then falls surprisingly flat, as they make their way to Boston and the creepy critters find there's more to surviving on this strange little planet than first meets the eye.

War of the Worlds is screening now