- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Nobody does summer movies better than Steven Spielberg. Period.

The Oscar winner all but invented the summer blockbuster with 1975’s “Jaws,” then cemented the category with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981),” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) and “Jurassic Park” (1993).

Today, years after becoming a Serious Director, Mr. Spielberg retreats to his pulp roots with the dazzling “War of the Worlds.”

His remake of the 1953 classic, itself based on the H.G. Wells fiction, is a roller-coaster ride unlike anything to be seen this summer or probably the next. It’s a near classic, if one feels forgiving of its abrupt and deflating denouement.

Tom Cruise, making us forget the TomKat/Scientology headlines, stars as a bum of a dad named Ray Ferrier. He’s left in charge of his teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and preternaturally adult daughter (Dakota Fanning), but he has little food for them in his refrigerator and a set of badly atrophied parenting skills.

That all gets shoved aside when a freak lightning storm turns out to be the start of a full-scale alien invasion. Mechanized beasts, buried underground at some point in the past, rise up from the asphalt and begin razing buildings and instantaneously pulverizing townsfolk.

It’s all Ray can do to keep his children out of harm’s way as these “tripod” monstrosities lay waste to everything in their path.

That initial assault, teased by the “Worlds” trailers, is simply the most thrilling set piece in ages. Mr. Spielberg’s command of the screen, manifested in special effects that somehow astound a decade after the digital revolution taught us we couldn’t be wowed again, has never been more apparent.

The only moments more frightening than the vicious attacks, aided and abetted by superior sound effects, are the pools of quiet between each offensive.

John Williams’ score applies the final flourish, a sonic homage to 1950s science-fiction features.

Gene Barry, the star of the 1953 film, appears in a sweet cameo here, but there’s little else remotely sentimental about this “War.” It’s Mr. Spielberg’s nastiest crowd-pleaser, an endless horror that pushes the bounds of PG-13. Baseball umpires often give veteran pitchers the benefit of the doubt on questionable strikes. The ratings board must have given the director similar leniency when slapping a PG-13, not an R, label here.

Innocents are reduced to dust by the alien’s lasers, a powdery remnant disturbingly evocative of the white coating on those fleeing the September 11 attacks in New York City.

A key character gets put down off camera by one of the so-called good guys, and a scene in which Ray is dragged from his car casts an unflattering light on human instinct freed of societal restraints. It’s unlikely a young Mr. Spielberg would have taken such a grim view of his fellow man.

That theme continues with Tim Robbins’ character, a survivalist freak intent on fighting back against the aliens. Mr. Robbins’ character takes part in another gripping set piece featuring aliens who might have been scarier if confined to our imaginations instead of depicted on-screen. Still, the scene works, even if it’s derivative of a similar cat-and-mouse sequence in “Jurassic Park.”

Even the fractured family at the heart of “Worlds” is both fully developed and engaging. Ray doesn’t know his daughter is allergic to peanuts, and he can’t recall a single lullaby when his daughter is frightened and needs to sleep. Yet Ray’s growth from disaffected dad to family man is sincere and gradual.

Best of all is that signature Spielberg humor that gives us a chance to breathe, if only for a moment.

The director and scriptwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman haven’t abandoned those who demand subtext to their thrill rides. Iconic images and phrases are strewn throughout “Worlds,” from American flags to talk of “empires” and “occupation.” Ideologues can paste together their own allegory, but for everyone else, the details just add more texture to a true event film.

“War of the Worlds” can’t sustain the sheer power of its first half, but few will quibble that the film is the reason people gobble popcorn and stuff theaters every summer.

***1/2

WHAT: “War of the Worlds”

RATING: PG:13 (Science fiction-style violence, strong language and disturbing imagery)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by based on the novel by H.G. Wells.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

WEB SITE: www.warof theworlds.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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