Now here is a frightening film. Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is dark, tense and merciless, unrelenting in its vision of death and mass destruction. The director’s light-hearted sense of humor is found only in small pockets in a movie otherwise engulfed in an adrenaline-soaked dread. And, no, there are no metaphors for current events; the movie acknowledges the possibility of terrorism and brushes it off with a cynical sneer. No, it tells us, these are not terrorists — they’re something far worse.

The film opens with a small-scale familiarity. There is a family. The father (Tom Cruise), a blue-collar bachelor who knows the locals better than his kids, has custody of the latter for the weekend. His children, played with a sterling competency by relative newcomer Justin Chatwin and celebrity whiz-kid Dakota Fanning (“Hide and Seek”), have another life with their mother and make no secret of their preference between the two.

But then something begins to happen. Lightening strikes in erratic bolts. Cars everywhere lose power. There’s an ominous hole in the middle of town that “the weather” seems to have created. Then there’s the inevitable line of stock dialogue that is somehow still inspired: “There’s something moving down there,” a character says. True, but the thing about “War of the Worlds” is that it reveals itself to us only in pieces; its trailers are wisely bare-bones teases that allow it to unfold naturally into the primitive stunner that it was intended to be.

Very loosely based on the quintessential 1898 H.G. Wells novel, “War of the Worlds” knows that the extravagant special effects sequences its nine-digit budget eagerly supplies just aren’t that interesting without a human drama to anchor them. The characters are functional, if not fully developed, as a flawed group of people that react to the film’s events as something of a personal tragedy — it’s not so much the fate of mankind that concerns them, but maybe that their father doesn’t know they’re allergic to peanut butter; that he takes an active role in their lives only after they are nearly killed; and that he, in fact, doesn’t know what will happen to them.

While the movie avoids allegorical overtones, there’s a symptomatic undertow to its stark imagery that endows it with an uncontrived extra-textual weight. A particularly affecting scene explores the aftermath, but not the actual impact, of a crashed commercial airline; another features a blazing train that unexpectedly glides past onlookers with a furious intensity. These moments, practically asides to the main narrative, cement the film’s emotional impact in a way that its character drama can’t compare.

Equally impressive are the movie’s digital dreamscapes, which are some of the most technically impressive ever put on film. There’s just something uniquely red-blooded to them; if you put this movie up against “Star Wars: Episode III,” the Lucas film would look like a high-priced, computer-animated cartoon.

The film ends as it began — with eerily serene narration from Morgan Freeman, whose raspy tongue must be that of God (just watch “Bruce Almighty”). And speaking of God, or at least someone who thinks of himself that way, this leaves us precious little room to talk about Cruise. Let’s just say that he’s a movie star for a reason. Amidst soccer moms everywhere who are self-righteously losing their schoolgirl crush and a growing hole of public scrutiny, Cruise’s effortless screen presence carries a film like this as few other actors could ever hope to — and that’s all that should really matter to us, anyway. Cruise is a madman, Freeman is God and Spielberg is playing with aliens. Everything is in its right place.

 

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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