Ray Ferrier, a New Jersey dockworker, is a failed husband and failing father, disconnected from his teenage son, Robbie, and younger daughter, Rachel. Hours after his ex-wife drops the kids at his place for the weekend, strange things start happening. A massive storm gathers over the lower-middle-class neighborhood. Lightning repeatedly strikes an intersection close to their home. The power goes out, and all the cars roll to a stop. Then, as Ray watches, the streets heave, crumble and disintegrate, and something big begins to emerge from deep within the earth.
Based on H.G. Wells’ classic sci-fi work, Steven Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds sticks to the story of desperate dad Ray as he tries to protect his son and daughter from the massive destruction of an alien invasion. Hampered by his own fear and sense of failure, Ray struggles both to keep his family alive and to keep their already strained relationships from imploding. The aliens rain down absolute and merciless destruction from their massive tripods—war machines that navigate on three flexible “legs” hundreds of feet tall. Ray’s newly discovered protective instincts propel his attempts to escape the carnage, face down rioting refugees and get his kids across the ravaged countryside to Boston to reunite them with their mom.
Though clearly a selfish dad before the crisis, Ray discovers a sense of paternal responsibility in protecting his kids from the invasion, risking everything to keep his family together and alive. Robbie and Rachel are close, supportive siblings who have learned to take care of each other in the wake of their parents’ divorce. The brother assists others trying to board a ferry and feels the urge to fight the enemy alongside the National Guard. A couple stops to help a seemingly lost child. Strangers save Ray’s life when he has a close encounter with an alien ship.
After the initial repeated lightning strikes, one character says God is “p—ed off” at the neighborhood. In a voiced-over quote from Wells’ book, God, “in His wisdom,” is credited for a key and unlikely turning point in the story.
The body count in War of the Worlds, both seen and implied, is massive. In every place the relentless alien war machines attack, we’re left to assume most of the human population is obliterated. We see numerous people vaporized by alien lasers, lost to explosions, presumably crushed by flying debris and drowned in a water attack. Dead bodies float down a river and hang limply from a downed airliner.
Survivors riot over a rare working car, smashing windows and bloodying faces. Tearing at a broken windshield, a man’s hands are bloodied. Guns are fired in a crowd. One panicked man shoots another and takes his car. The military engages in all-out assaults against the machines, complete with automatic weapons fire, air strikes and huge explosions.
The aliens take some humans alive, storing them in external “baskets” to be ingested by the apparently biological war machines. Gallons of what appears to be blood flow freely from the machines. At one point, the air is humid with human blood, as we see a living person dropped to the ground out of view and then impaled with a giant alien needle to suck out his blood. Blood-colored vines cover the ground and structures in areas the aliens have conquered. To protect his family, Ray apparently kills another man (off-camera) who is recklessly putting them at risk of capture.
God’s name is used for swearing a dozen times (about half of the time His name is combined with “d–n”). There are also at least a half-dozen misuses of Jesus’ name. We hear 10-15 s-words (once with “holy”), a couple uses of “a–” and “a–hole,” and several slang references to male anatomy, including “d–k.”
Two characters drink peach schnapps while hiding out in a cellar.
Viewers may find the Ferrier family hard to warm up to. Ray is self-absorbed and distant from the kids. Meanwhile his son is cold and rebellious. Desperate attempts to protect his family lead Ray to treat other humans on the run from the aliens as expendable. We are expected to excuse him for murdering a troubled man, which is disturbing despite his understandable motivation.
H.G. Wells’ classic invasion story finds new life in the hands of one of the best cinematic storytellers of our time. And though director Steven Spielberg throws in some visual references to George Pal’s 1953 version, gone is any hint of 1950s sci-fi campiness. From the devastating “tripod” alien war machines to the exoskeletal aliens themselves, the eye-popping visual effects are pure 21st century.
War of the Worlds is darker and scarier than most of Spielberg’s work, especially his sci-fi work. The brilliantly paced action sequences, hair-raising effects and detailed set pieces bring to mind his Jurassic Park, Minority Report or other classic adventures. But the tone of the film comes closer to the gritty, near-hopeless feelings deep inside Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Don’t expect the congenial diplomacy of Close Encounters or the good times and chest-thumping found in alien invasion flicks like Independence Day.
Some have suggested Spielberg and writer David Koepp are also working a political angle, following H.G. Wells’ path in writing the original 1898 book as an allegory about the British empire overreaching its grasp. Said Koepp to USA Weekend while speculating about possible subtexts, “It could be about how U.S. military interventionism abroad is doomed by insurgency, just the way an alien invasion might be.”
More obvious is the film’s wrestling with issues of parenthood. Tom Cruise gives a convincing performance as the less-than-noble Ray. His relationships with his resentful teen son and innocent daughter (the always-amazing young actress Dakota Fanning) are the film’s heart. If any lessons are learned, Ray comes to understand that he should have started investing himself in his children long before he was forced to do so by this outside crisis. His family would have been stronger when the devastation hit.
In promoting the film, Spielberg and his team talked repeatedly about their attempts to keep the human side of things “real” within the fantasy of this alien invasion, mentioning specifically the emotions raised by 9/11. That commitment to reality leaves little room for comic relief and traditional adventure “thrills” in the wake of so much violence, terror and loss of life. Yes, the story consists of a series of near misses and escapes. But the John Williams score doesn’t swell victoriously when Ray and his family survive another close call; it just warns us to brace ourselves for more of the onslaught. War of the Worlds is expertly crafted and effectively scary, but it’s hard to call this summer blockbuster “fun.”