War of the Worlds

Are we all in agreement that the best things about these "aliens invade Earth" flicks are the scenes of death and destruction on a massive scale? That's why audiences will always flock to a good disaster movie: because people dig watching things go boom. (Don't tell me that Titanic is the highest-grossing film of all time just because of the romance.) I'm no different, so I was looking forward to War of the Worlds, despite my reservations about Tom Cruise's acting talents and my waning interest in Steven Spielberg's output. I figured if anybody could make an alien invasion scary and tense, it would be Spielberg; the old boy still has some juice left in him and, special effects being what they are today, some fine visual mayhem would surely be in store.

On a visceral level, War of the Worlds doesn't disappoint. There is scene after memorable scene of horror: A speeding train on fire. A human mob as terrifying as anything that could come from outer space. A woman being zapped to dust before our very eyes. The film serves up an affective vision of hell on earth, shrewdly alluding to several familiar real-life disasters, from September 11th to the Titanic to the Holocaust to even the 2004 tsunami.

Of course, Spielberg also has to have his usual "broken family in need of repair" storyline, and so you have Tom Cruise as a divorced father of two who's got the kids for the weekend while his dreary ex-wife cavorts with her new husband in Boston (unaware, naturally, of the upcoming devastation). As the kids, ubiquitous child star Dakota Fanning and Cruise dead-ringer Justin Chatwin are appropriately snotty – clearly, they can't stand ol' Pops – though their surly attitudes may wear thin on audience members. Fanning's character, for instance, has good reason to scream a lot, but it doesn't make the screaming any more enjoyable.

As for Tom Terrific, I'm happy to report that, with Spielberg perhaps the only director who can get a restrained, no-B.S. performance out of the actor, he isn't annoying at all. And I suppose it's very telling that I'm praising this movie just because, for once, Cruise is mostly tolerable and Spielberg is mostly unsentimental.

Regardless, War of the Worlds offers plenty of thrills and freakouts through the bulk of its two hours. It was only afterward that I started noticing the piles of inconsistencies in the story. The aliens, for example, can't quite decide on the best way to kill Earthlings. Vaporize them with their laser beams? Haul them up to feed themselves and/or their giant tripod war machines? Or just blast them into the water and let them float away? More importantly, how does Cruise manage to start a car, when thousands of other automobiles remain lifeless? For that matter, how can other characters operate video cameras when all other electronics – even analog wristwatches – cease to function when the aliens arrive? To bring up more examples would risk spoiling the plot, but suffice to say, there are so many, and they're so glaringly obvious, that the more I think about this film, the less I like it. On the upside, it remains a technical triumph: the visual effects are, as expected, nearly perfect, but it's the awesome sound design that's the unsung hero here.