War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images). Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto.

War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is a profoundly frightening film, preying on our post-9/11 fears as well as his own unequaled skill as a technical craftsman to make what will likely be most of the best big-budget film released this year. I say most, because, for all of his other accomplishments here, Spielberg still can't avoid a pandering and falsely upbeat ending.

This is not a problem with the source material - H.G. Wells' novel -, which is just as potent as it was when originally published. Centered around the family of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), War of the Worlds details an alien invasion in which there is little hope of mankind's survival; military strength is useless and victory can only be defined as "not dead yet." Left in charge of his estranged children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), Ray spends much of the movie either on the run or hiding in buildings, sequences that Spielberg invests with terrifying bluntness and immediacy.

From the aliens' arrival to Ray's meeting with a potentially insane farmer (Tim Robbins), War of the Worlds is an impeccable feat of visceral filmmaking. Ray flees from the aliens' massive "tripods," and we follow in several long, shaky tracking shots, as buildings collapse and people are vaporized all around him. This is followed by the most stunning sequence in the film, a trip through a crowded freeway, in which Spielberg's camera, in one shot, swoops from the interior of the car to the panic on the streets, back into the car; it's a bravura evocation of the terror created in moments of destruction and confusion.

Cruise is miscast as a blue-collar worker, but it's largely irrelevant. He does his best to invest Ray with emotions beyond terror, and occasionally succeeds; but terror is all we really need here, and Fanning is more than up to the task, screaming and crying with devastating realism.

Thankfully, the film is also not afraid to shy away from the complex moral issues that arise in these situations. One sequence has Ray defending his car from an angry mob; no one is in the moral right, and how both Ray and the mob act serves as a particularly chilling reminder of mankind's selfishness when left to fend for itself. Or consider Ray's reaction to Robbins' unhinged survivalist, as he realizes that he may have to commit a murder to save the lives of his family.

It's a shame, then, that the ending is such a cop-out. It isn't how the invader's are defeated, which is the same as it was in the novel, for better or worse; no, it's the utterly implausible survival of a particular supporting character, an attempt at a happy ending that is at once hopelessly false and morally questionable. Should Ray not have to sacrifice, to suffer loss, just because he's the protagonist?

Spielberg lets the audience off the hook. We don't have to confront this sacrifice, because it wouldn't be happy, it wouldn't be right. It's a cheat and an insult, and a betrayal of the frighteningly grim film he had been fashioning up to that point. It's a misstep that could sink the film, if the rest of it weren't pretty much a masterpiece.

So thank God it is.

© 2005 Matt Noller, not that anyone would ever want to steal this