Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise, and Dakota Fanning in War of the WorldsWAR OF THE WORLDS

My first thought after seeing Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds was: Thank God for the aliens, because although the creatures themselves aren't particularly memorable - a gooey blend of the director's beatific Close Encounters visitors and H. R. Giger's 1979 Alien design - their spacecrafts certainly are. The ships' enormous tripod legs, crushing everything in their paths, exude a wriggling, snakelike suggestiveness, and they have vicious talents besides; these tentacles have the ability to either incinerate their victims instantly - making the human race resemble ants at the mercy of a magnifying glass - or toss them into the spaceships' grotesque "mouths," producing more grisly, prolonged executions. (A couple of killings are reminiscent of Steve Buscemi's demise in Fargo.) To the War of the Worlds aliens, humans are a combination of entertainment, nuisance, and snack, and whenever Spielberg gives us evidence of just how queasily horrifying an attack of this nature might be, his movie is gripping and evocative.

My second thought was: Steven Spielberg has lost his mind.

There's nothing wrong with using science-fiction plotlines to create metaphors for the condition of the human race; sci-fi writers do it all the time, and H.G. Wells certainly did in the 1898 novel this film is based on. But big problems arise when the metaphors overwhelm the story, and in the case of War of the Worlds, the film features so many echoes of 9/11, and so many veiled (and not-so-veiled) references to the current war on terror, that you feel guilty for enjoying all the explosions and killings.

In the film's first attack sequence, when the aliens begin to fry an urban populace, we watch as the victims' bodies get hit by the blasts and immediately turn to dust. But what are we to make of the resulting imagery, where hundreds of people are seen running in terror through the ashy remains of their neighbors, while articles of the dead's clothing waft through the air? How are we to take the sight, some time later in the film, of hundreds of missing-person leaflets plastered on building walls while the remaining citizenry wanders about in a daze, unsure of what exactly happened, and horrified that it might happen again? Dakota Fanning plaintively asks, "Is it the terrorists?" while John Williams' violin-heavy score tugs at our heartstrings, and within the first hour, the audience is awash with an overriding feeling of despair and hopelessness.

Yet Spielberg fails to see that using memories of a national tragedy to goose a piddly little sci-fi flick is about as insensitive as Hollywood filmmaking gets. How can the man who made Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan not see how offensive this is? By jump-starting his story with this much misery, Spielberg sets up a trap he can't possibly get out of: It's impossible to fully enjoy the eventual Jurassic Park-esque scares and Close Encounters-on-a-bad-acid-trip visuals when the director never fails to remind us that this is serious stuff, damn it. (It's the end of the world, and I don't feel fine.)

I suppose this funereal approach might have worked if the script was as deadly earnest as Spielberg's handling of it, but screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp don't seem to be on the director's page at all. They've written a goofy, plot-hole-ridden monster mash that's no more realistic than Independence Day, yet Spielberg helms it like Long Day's Journey Into Night. (The first words you hear at the start of War of the Worlds, taken from Wells' novel, are narrated by Morgan Freeman, which gives you a pretty fair indication of what Spielberg is aiming for here; if you want maximum portent with the human touch, you call Morgan.)

When profoundly silly material is treated with near-holy reverence, the results can make the audience laugh at inappropriate times, and lapses in logic that might normally be shrugged off come to seem monumentally ridiculous. Questions nag at you throughout this movie: Why are people incinerated but not their clothing? Why is Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier, a working-class crane operator in Jersey, apparently the only man in the East with a working automobile? (And on that note, how, with debris cluttering the streets, does Cruise always find a clear path to drive through?) Considering the logistics involved, what the hell is the point of the aliens' attack? And what's with the movie's climax, featuring the sudden, unexplained return of a character long presumed dead? (Seeing this, my friend, in a great Simpsons reference, whispered, "I won't bore you with the details of my miraculous escape ... .") The director invests this graceless, dumb-ass script with so much misguided emotion that the movie becomes something of a joke; it may seen ungrateful to suggest it, but War of the Worlds would probably have worked much better with a hack, such as Roland Emmerich, than with Spielberg.

Given the circumstances, the cast doesn't stand much of a chance, but casting Tom Cruise in the lead proves to be a big mistake. No one has ever seemed less working-class than Tom Cruise; the actor might have finally reached a point where he's not believable as anything besides an egocentric actor with a 400-megawatt smile. What he's doing here isn't acting; it's posturing. Cruise gives a hopelessly lazy performance, falling back on all of his old tricks, and the scene of him singing "Little Deuce Coupe" to his daughter, tear ducts in overdrive, might well be the low point of the actor's career.

Cruise's inadequacy might have been overlooked, as it often is, if War of the Worlds featured interesting figures on the sidelines. But it's a sadly underpopulated movie, and the actors we do get only make you wish the aliens would hurry up with that plot for world extermination already. Tim Robbins - all tics and grimaces - gives a rare crummy performance as a basement-dwelling loon, and even the talented Dakota Fanning is of no help. Preternaturally wise one moment and shrieking like a toddler the next, Fanning has little to offer beyond her lovely, wide-eyed stare, and proves that even a prodigiously gifted performer can't save sappy, audience-goosing lines such as "Are we still alive?" The fault isn't hers so much as the director's; Spielberg, once a wizard at shepherding graceful, subtle child performances, shoves little Dakota's suffering down our throats so blatantly that, by movie's end, I was sick of the sight of her.

Spielberg will always be a magnificent technician, and he comes through with some truly clever touches; the scene of a train speeding by, with every car ablaze, is a good, scary bit. These and other effects might be marvelous, but War of the Worlds is an infuriatingly bad movie; who would have thought a summer blockbuster could wind up being both this grave and this asinine?

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