Spectacular effects, mostly subpar perfs, typical Spielbergian superficiality, and inexplicable plot elements mark this latest incarnation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 classic.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced blue collar automobile enthusiast with an attitude, who has to watch his surly son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and spoiled precocious daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) for a couple of days, as his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and new husband leave for some R&R in Boston. By the next morning, though, strange and deadly things begin to occur.
Continuous lightning strikes, unlike anything they have ever seen, blast down from the sky, and all electrical appliances, including watches, cell phones and cars, simply stop operating. As Ray walks into town to investigate, he sees a lot more stalled cars, but then observes a huge Tripod emerging from deep underground. The Tripod is revealed to be a efficient killing machine that incinerates people to fine dust (although leaving their clothing mostly intact), destroys buildings, and is definitely not of earthly origin.
Covered by human ashes as he races home, Ray grabs the two kids and commandeers a vehicle, running because its solenoid was replaced at his suggestion, and takes off. Unsure of his destination, he agrees with the children to head to Mary Ann’s home, only a few miles away.
They spend the night in the basement, fearful of impending attacks. Ray rises early, and carefully walks outdoors, only to encounter a scene of incredible destruction. A large passenger aircraft has crashed in the neighborhood, taking out several houses. As he gets closer to the plane, he sees a man scavenging food and drink, from the onboard supplies. The man is part of a network news crew, and a woman in the crew shows Ray some footage, replete with images of many Tripods, and how the aliens controlling them descended to Earth via the lightning.
She goes on to explain that the Tripods must have been buried for thousands of years, awaiting the return of the aliens, to wreak their final havoc on Earth. At that, their news van speeds away. Ray decides to take the kids to Boston, in hopes of hooking up with his ex, to bring comfort—such as it may be—to his children. The balance of the pic records their perilous journey, and the fate of the alien invaders.
Spielberg’s spin on the original story pegs this invasion as a return trip, and therein lie several difficulties that should have never made it through script development:
No matter how advanced the invaders are, NO culture is going to bury weapons for thousands of years, with an eye to (re?) conquest. Why limit yourself to old technology? And, while we’re at it, what did the aliens do here on their first trip? Did the first wave die of bacterial/virus infection, as well? If they did, wouldn’t they have sent a message back home to that effect?
If the aliens were unaware of the microorganism problem, that must mean that they didn’t land the first time, but somehow shot all the weapons deep into the Earth, in preparation for the invasion. OK, but then why wait so long? And, how is it, that with all the millions of construction projects that occurred on Earth in the thousands of years between visits, not a single Tripod was ever encountered by any human?
Of course, all of this begs the question as to the purpose of their mission. In Wells’ novel, the Martians need a new planet NOW, not thousands of years in the future. Given a return trip, more explanation seems essential. Unfortunately, nobody told Steven.
In his quest for spectacle, Spielberg shows a military force get wiped out, in a lethal firestorm. Standing close at hand is Robbie, who should have been killed but miraculously survives, for the big reunion at the movie’s end. Via a very silly contrivance, Ray must temporarily choose between the two kids, and lets Robbie run off to be near the action. As Ray and Rachel run to take shelter in the cellar of a conveniently still standing farmhouse, they can see this colossal explosion, and they and the audience can only assume that Robbie has been killed. In Spielbergland, though, protagonists are invincible. Heck, even Mary Ann and her new hubby (on-screen for about 30 seconds total) somehow survive the onslaught.
What are the chances that five people, spread into two groups, could all emerge unscathed from this level of destruction?
Finally, it’s very difficult to really enjoy a movie that has no likable characters, but welcome to Steven’s world. Ray is a selfish jerk, and will probably remain one. Maybe he reflects Spielberg’s concept of blue collar America. Rachel is extremely annoying, and could portray the director’s concept of a typical kid. Robbie’s character arc is the most promising, but he is absent for one-third of the pic. Mary Ann does little save flash a beatific smile, on account of her being pregnant, fashionably in her late 30’s or early 40’s. This is the softer side of grrrl power, in that she originally married beneath her station, but now hangs with the Boston brahmins.
Yet, the sure bet is that the F/X will make up for all the deficiencies of this feature, even if the overall box office trend is down.