War of the Worlds

In a culture where “horror movie” has come to mean something full of gore and mutilation, Steven Spielberg’s approach to “War of the Worlds” is a breath of fresh, bloodless air. I spent much of it agape in horror, terrified by what was happening to the citizens of Earth and their buildings — yet when it was over, I realized I’d seen only a smattering of blood and not a single severed limb or decapitated body.

Spielberg is such a fantastic director — and this is just another example, along with “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” of his preternatural ability to tell thrilling, technically superior adventure stories — that he can make “War of the Worlds” intense and frightening without battering our senses into submission.

Based on H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel and bookmarked by narration from it, the story is set in modern-day New York state, in an unnamed community where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a divorced blue-collar worker. He is the father of two kids, rebellious teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and precocious young girl Rachel (Dakota Fanning), but their mother (Miranda Otto) has custody, thank goodness. Ray is very interested in his car; his attention to his children falls somewhere below that. When Mom drops them off at Ray’s place for the weekend, she has to remind him that there’s no food in the house.

Before much has happened, though, there is an odd series of lightning strikes in town, all seemingly aimed at the same spot in the pavement. Then all the neighborhood’s machines, from cars to wristwatches, stop working. As everyone gathers around the spot where the lightning struck, a sinkhole develops, followed by the emergence of a huge tripod controlled by — you guessed it — extremely unfriendly extra-terrestrials.

The rest of the story will be more enjoyable for you if I just say that all hell breaks loose and leave it at that. Ray is suddenly responsible for the welfare of his children, a position to which he is not accustomed;if this film doesn’t resolve Spielberg’s daddy issues once and for all, then I fear nothing will. So yes, there is some of that, as well as an interlude with Tim Robbins in the part he was born to play, that of a raving conspiratorial lunatic.

But the focus is primarily on summer blockbuster-style chills and entertainment, with grim humor and familiar emotions sprinkled through what is essentially just a series of stuff gettin’ blowed up. Why we humans derive such enjoyment from seeing our environment realistically despoiled by fictional evil-doers is a subject for psychologists; as a movie critic, I can only tell you that this film is a primo entry in the genre. I don’t care if it makes me a bad person, seeing people turned to dust by death rays is AWESOME.

The screenplay, by little-known writer Josh Friedman and the excellent adventure scribe David Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room,” “Spider-Man”), makes a bold decision that proves to be the film’s single greatest strength: It shows everything from Ray’s point of view. There are no scenes that take place without him in them. Now think of the other disaster/destruction films, like “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Deep Impact,” whatever. They usually have three or four story threads: the Everyman hero, the scientist whom no one believed until it was too late, the U.S. president making grim televised declarations, the wise-cracking African-American. These characters may cross paths ultimately, but their stories are essentially separate from one another — and that’s not to mention all the footage of major world capitals being wiped out. Most disaster movies are told through an omniscient point of view, in other words, focusing on a few specific people but also showing the effect of the calamity on the entire world.

Not so in “War of the Worlds.” Here the focus is on Ray and his children. We see only what they see. A TV news reporter shows Ray, from her van, brief clips of footage shot in other cities, and that’s the extent of it. We know only what Ray knows. We are as lost as he is.

It all plays into Spielberg’s major theme here, which is to scare us, not just with the obvious methods, but in darker, more subtle ways, too. There is the fear of being caught in a panicked crowd, the fear of being separated from one’s children, the fear of being in situations one cannot control. The fear of hiding from something that is too big to hide from. The fear that the people you trust won’t know how to help you. The panic and terror experienced by the characters in some scenes is palpably overwhelming.

Technology has changed over the years, but masterful filmmaking has not. Alfred Hitchcock used quick editing and careful camera angles to make us think we’d seen the knife actually pierce Janet Leigh’s flesh in “Psycho’s” shower scene, when in fact we never did. Spielberg does the opposite: He uses long, unbroken takes to make us think we’re actually seeing massive machines destroy property and obliterate humans, when in fact the humans are on a separate sound stage, and digital effects are doing most of the work, and the machines don’t even exist.

A lesser filmmaker would have done all this with spastic editing, cutting quickly from one shot to another to disorient us, to hide the fact that so many of the film’s components aren’t real. But Spielberg knows we’ll be more convinced — and thus more frightened — if we see it presented coolly. He depicts the destruction matter-of-factly, without bombastic movie tricks, sometimes without even any musical score. Just as Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” made digital dinosaurs look like real, living beasts, “War of the Worlds” seems to have been made by recruiting actual alien ships, wrangling them onto a sound stage, and training them to work with actors.

Where Spielberg is hamstrung, eventually, is by his source material. Wells’ story has an anti-climactic resolution, and Spielberg has kept it. Maybe there is a trade-off between realism and entertainment. Wells’ version is very logical; it’s just not very exciting, unfortunately. But Spielberg’s technical skills are second to none, and the childlike love for a good story for which he is renowned remains intact in this marvelously entertaining, 90-percent-satisfying blockbuster.

B+ (1 hr., 56 min.; PG-13, scattered profanity, plenty of mayhem and destruction, a little hand-to-hand violence.)