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Close encounters of the worst kind


Steven Spielberg's new, heavily publicized version of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds seems, in a great many ways, a virtually inevitable event in the director's career. His work displays a professional and personal fascination with the subjects of those Wells novels that have inspired so much exciting cinema, including such classics as The Shape of Things to Come, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. His own explorations of the confrontation with extraterrestrials of a benign sort in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. may have led him to attempt a film on a more hostile gang of creatures from outer space.

For a filmmaker powerfully addicted to special effects of all kinds, the attraction of the subject may have been irresistible, providing an opportunity to surpass the highly regarded 1953 incarnation of Wells's novel. Considered something of a boy genius himself in his younger days, Spielberg in addition may also have been tempted to match or even outdo the work of the great cinema Wunderkind, Orson Welles, whose notorious radio adaptation of the book back in 1938 not only fooled a considerable portion of the American public (not always a difficult achievement), but also demonstrated for perhaps the first time the grand potential of a relatively young medium.

In Spielberg's hands, surprisingly, that familiar story of powerful and malevolent invaders from Mars follows a quite different path and acquires a rather unusual, if typically Spielbergian, subtext. Although he exploits the opportunity for some impressive cinematic wizardry, the director, oddly, almost entirely neglects any violent confrontation between the inhabitants of Earth and the space aliens --- it's supposed to be a war of the worlds, after all --- and focuses instead on the abject helplessness of mere humanity against the superior technology and, well, inhuman cruelty of the invaders.

As a result, the picture deals not with battles but with flight, showing repeated scenes of mass panic, with thousands of people fleeing in terror from some giant three-legged pods striding across the countryside, disintegrating everything they see with that favorite science fiction weapon: our old friend, the death ray.

His protagonist, a divorced, exaggeratedly lumpish working-class guy named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) --- no brilliant scientists allowed in Bush country --- with custody of his two children for the weekend, flees his New York City neighborhood, which looks like Queens, when the aliens descend on lightning bolts and begin their systematic destruction. The invaders awaken their tripods, planted hundreds or thousands of years before, which they then use to stalk people and dine on their blood. Believing that he should bring his sullen teenage son and his terrified daughter to Boston to join up with his ex-wife and desperate to escape, Ray steals a van and attempts to negotiate the nightmare of the panicky multitudes, all fleeing the devastating tripods.

As soon as the flight begins, the movie settles into an odyssey of chaos, with Cruise and the two kids encountering hundreds of other terrified people, all of them, in the time-honored manner, out for themselves, and therefore quite willing to kill Cruise for his vehicle. The unimaginably dangerous journey allows Spielberg to examine one of his persistent subjects, the fractured family and the consequently suffering child, played by Dakota Fanning, who constantly freezes, shivers, and pops her eyes, a most tiresome interpretation of abject fright.

Although it now and then successfully exploits its potential for suspense and shock, even repeating a tense scene from the 1953 movie, Spielberg's War of the Worlds generally retreats from the chance to show some terrific battles or ingenious ploys and neglects the almost obligatory political subtext. The picture pays lip service to 9/11 in its many shots of disintegrating skylines, its rainstorm of clothes and domestic objects falling on the New York City area, and a few easy allusions to the mendacity that currently tyrannizes the nation, but otherwise never reaches for any meaning beyond its banal domestic melodrama.

Although often exciting, the movie, which seems exactly the right work for the director at this moment, still disappoints, a text that never reaches its potential for action or meaning. It suggests that Spielberg, for all his accomplishments, is no Orson Welles and nor even a George Pal.

War of the Worlds (PG-13), starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto; Steven Spielberg, director. Culver Ridge, Eastview 13, Greece Ridge 12, Henrietta 18, Pittsford Plaza Cinema, Tinseltown USA, Webster