Yep, it’s summer – that means Steven Spielberg has a movie to throw our way. Instead of Tom Hanks stuck in an Airport, this time he has Tom Cruise stuck with some alien invaders. The premise of the film is the same as the original H.G. Wells novel: aliens come to earth to wipe us out. Simple enough, eh?
Cruise plays “Ray”, a lousy father who puts himself ahead of his children. Dakota Fanning is “Rachel”, his daughter who has clausterphobia and seems to scream more than anyone ever should be allowed to. Justin Chatwin is “Robbie”, his son who doesn’t like him, and (rightfully) thinks he’s a lousy dad. His ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) drops off the kids with Ray for the weekend at his crappy place in New Jersey, and high-tails it to her parent’s place in Boston with her new husband.
A weird lightning storm heralds the invasion, and before you know it, Cruise and his kids are now on the run from some seriously destructive and mean aliens. We don’t see the aliens for a while – just the tripod machines which they use to wreak havoc and kill LOTS of people with. It’s not graphic, but it’s very disturbing. So now the family decides to make their way to Boston. In the process, Ray learns to love his kids. Rachel learns to not scream so much. Robbie feels compelled to fight for whatever reason he has, and Ray has to make a few hard choices. Along the way, there are a few major set pieces. A ferry crossing gone bad. A farmland battle. And an encounter Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), a former paramedic who is happy to offer them shelter – but at a very big price. (No, it doesn’t involve political speeches, though I wonder who would win: Robbins and his politics, or Cruise and his religion?)
The visual effects are, of course, outstanding. Mostly seamless, there are some truly creepy things happening on screen, and the destruction is eye-popping. Personally, I found great pleasure in the few shots of a post-destruction Boston, but since it wasn’t filmed there, I knew it was all fake. The alien design is a bit too much like Independence Day, but maybe people are running out of unique alien ideas.
Musically, John Williams is doing a masterful job toying with our nerves. From pulse-pounding action music, to tense dissonant clusters, to dodecaphonic emotional musical themes, he’s pulling out the stops. On CD, it’s not the best listen – it’s hard, at times, to enjoy it. But in the film it’s just perfect. There were more than a handful of occasions where I found myself clenching my fists and totally engrossed in the film. To me, that’s a mark of success.
Spielberg is not re-inventing the wheel here, though, with his cinematic style. It’s like, if you were to go through his body of work and find the shots that are deemed “classic Spielberg shots”, you’ll find all of them recreated in this film. They must have laid more dolly track down for this film, than any other in recent history, with all of them ending closer to the actors. Wide-eyed Dakota Fanning gets too much screentime as the camera rushes up to her shocked face, just before she lets out a squeal.
There is one very cool shot though, as they’re driving down a freeway out of Jersey: shot completely on green-screen, this dialogue-heavy scene carries out as the camera revolves around (and sometimes through) the car, as it rushes through traffic. Hard to describe, but it’s incredibly well orchestrated.
In the end, this is probably going to be the big blockbuster film Hollywood was hoping for. While it might not give the industry a much-needed shot-in-the-arm, it will keep moviegoers entertained and cool during the hot 4th of July weekend. You might be one of them.