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Photograph by Frank Masi

Road Rage: Humans react in horror as heartless aliens destroy an innocent American sedan in 'War of the Worlds.'

Alien Nation

Steven Spielberg gets his war on

By Richard von Busack

SINCE Steven Spielberg pitched Close Encounters of the Third Kind as "Watergate plus UFOs," it is no surprise that his new film, War of the Worlds, is similarly contemporary, full of terrorist anxiety. Scriptwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman rephrase the national trauma in cinematic terms. The shock and awe of the alien invasion is akin to the technology we unleashed on Baghdad. War of the Worlds evinces more of an aura of guilt and pain than the market-tested vindictiveness of Independence Day.

Ray (Tom Cruise) is so antiheroic he might as well be Adam Sandler. He is a Newark dockworker with a disassembled car engine in his kitchen and a carton of sour milk in the fridge (a tried-and-true symbol of loco parentage). His two ex-kids are dropped off by his testy ex-wife (Miranda Otto) for a typically unsupervised weekend of TV, takeout food, and a mandatory five minutes of playing catch with his teenage boy, Robbie (Justin Chatwin). The father and son bathe in mutual fury and disappointment. Then come the aliens.

So far, it's Spielberg's usual plot: disaster bonds a too-loose nuclear family. Ray learns to father his daughter, Rachel, played by 11-year-old scream queen Dakota Fanning. But the darkness of War of the Worlds is as contemporary as the latest body count from Mosul. The film could be read as patriots vs. envious aliens. At the beginning, we see Ray recoiling from the taste of hummus (Arab chow!). As they flee from the monsters, Ray and his kids symbolically peel back layers of American history, from the new immigrant neighborhood to a red-brick small town to a colonial-era farm house. They come to rest in Boston, where Cruise fondles the ankle of the Minuteman statue.

Some will sum up this thriller as Spielberg's farewell to those hippie-era dreams of a healing E.T. or a sparkly CE3K psychedelic mothership. Finally, he's getting his war on. That's too easy. There are disturbing reverse angles throughout the movie. The family is stranded by a muddy roadside, getting neither help nor advice from the military convoy speeding through. Later, Ray wrestles Robbie to keep him from joining the doomed soldiers, just like so many parents who try hopelessly to keep their headstrong sons from joining the military.

Spielberg is at his peak of competence in this horrific technical thriller. Showstoppers abound. Early on, he undoes the finale in George Pal's 1953 War of the Worlds—instead of a church being the last place of refuge, the aliens casually rip one in half. Clothes flop through the air after crowds are dusted by death rays; it's probably not how the faithful envisioned the Rapture. A blazing passenger train runs loose down the tracks; an airline turbine spins gently in a living room; an Andrew Wyeth riverside scene with cattail fluff floating in the air is interrupted by first one corpse and then many, many. Best is a wordless sequence of an alien probe snooping a flooded basement, a piece that keeps its suspense longer than it could have seemed possible. It's a passage that couldn't have been better engineered by Hitchcock. War of the Worlds is too traumatic to always be fun in the ordinary sense, but it's always a powerful work of filmmaking. It wrings you out. It has the simple, basic qualities of the worst nightmares.

War of the Worlds (PG; 116 min.), directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on the novel by H.G. Wells, photographed by Janusz Kaminski and starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, plays valleywide.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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