The 1898 science fiction classic that inspired this movie was also called War Of The Worlds. The book was a first; never before had anyone in the still nascent science fiction genre, written about an alien invasion on earth. A massive piece de resistance, the story carried the underlying social message of humility for the then sprawling and invulnerable British Empire. What it also did was spawn a culture, a sensibility, a hypnotic legend of great power, a genre.
It was inevitable for a filmmaker of such a legend-spawning stature of today to take up the story of another vanguard thinker. Steven Spielberg's choice of book to base his latest magnum opus on is a promising merger of minds. The Spielberg signet - pulse stopping, dry-mouthed, jaw-dropping anticipation, the ability to imprint upon the mind by drawing upon primordial, instinctual, archetypal fears, the spellbinding ambience that ET, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones created - joins forces with a classic, before-it-all-began tale.
The box-office returns were assured at conception. What turns the movie takes finally in the deeps of a movie hall were inconsequential to this. And the finished, packaged and shipped War Of The Worlds delivers all that you expect. Almost like a six-sigma certified manufacturing line. All the precision, and no surprises.
The movie starts with a spiraling, Star Wars reminiscent galaxy scape, and an ominous sounding Morgan Freeman voicing over the famous starting line of the book: "Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us." Oh yes! The movie delivers, all right!
The story is now set in the United States, with Tom Cruise playing tremendously well, the part of a divorcee husband Ray Ferrier. Dakota Fanning plays his precocious and rather precociously neurotic 10-year-old daughter Rachel. Justin Chatwin is an embittered, alienated and intractable adult son, Robbie.
The first scenes of random weather disturbances and other harbingers of the alien invasion hit you like bolts out of sheer blackness. The sound and the CGI cinematography create a jarringly fearful impression. The effect is that of a horror movie.
The real rewarding part of watching an alien story written in 1898 by a writer with a social sensibility is a lack of US centric-ness. The movie runs past the eyes of Ray and never stops to visit what is happening in the rest of the world. It has the incredibly believable and refreshing decentralized view. No single giant warship looming over the head suddenly, no single US President and White House controlling the world's response, no military taking over the proceedings and wresting away the part played by the general public.
In doing so, the movie springs real terror and believability. The neat, nearly fairy story like plot of Independence Day and its sense of predestination are missing here. Instead, there is a Blair Witch Project like look, with the camera following a fleeing Ray from one city to another, protecting his young.
The best part of the film is the underpinning tale of Ray and his son, their return to understanding each other, emotionally reaching out to each other. Almost a parallel storyline with an equally buoyant presence, this story draws on the fight with the aliens to provide a catalyst to this re-union. Ray's desultory bonding with his daughter is another highly human component, something to relate to in the chaos of the movie.
For more, the movie is plenty gruesome, with the alien tripods exterminating humans with their super-heated rays and extracting their innards to spread all over the landscape as fertilizer. The fantasy gets questionable of course, but all is always fair in science fiction.
The film suffers from only one shortcoming, although, in my humble opinion, overlooking it is one's duty. It ends abruptly, providing very little by way of explanation for why the Martian war-machines suddenly fall apart and retreat. An explanatory sentence from the book, spoken by Freeman, provides a pointer. It speaks about mankind earning its right to continue existing, having proven its resilience for a million years and through a million threats.
Like a retelling of a Mahabharata or a Ramayana, the twist and the logic of the tale does not decide the merit of this movie. Only the feel of it does. And for one who reveres the story, as it has to be revered, the series of dots where there ought to be a full stop is the essential ambiguity of any great story. The elusive moral, the hidden message, for the taking of only the enlightened. A hazy finish suffices, and that viewer leaves with a mix of deeply sparked curiosity and humble gratefulness.