It takes courage to hide. In his strongest and most substantial movie since Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg again reminds us how human survival often depends on human qualities that aren't entirely admirable. Schindler was no saint, nor were the Jews whose labor he exploited, and nor is Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), the baffled, frightened, frequently overmatched hero of War of the Worlds (which opens Wednesday, June 29, at the Metro and other theaters). Though Spielberg and Cruise had me fooled at the start of War, showing divorced blue-collar Ray masterfully operating a massive shipping-container hoist on the docks of New Jersey. Ah-ha, I thought: Like Ripley wearing the hydraulic cargo-lifting suit in Aliens, there's going to be a payoff to this. But Spielberg, faithful to the previously and not very well filmed 1898 H.G. Wells novel, isn't interested in easy payoffs. As usual for Spielberg, War is a film about divided families, yet it's also a film that earns its final hugs. There can be no cheap and predictable reconciliations when death is so random and pervasive.
"Is it terrorists?" asks Ray's teenage son (Justin Chatwin). Covered in ash, his father can't even answer. What he's seen is beyond terrorism, in the same way that 9/11 was beyond anything we could previously imagine. Unquestionably, War is a post-9/11 movie, with the ash, fleeing refugees, and countless flyers posted in search of the missing. But the ash—cremated human remains—also makes it a Holocaust movie. "This is an extermination," Ray is told, and it's on a mechanized scale beyond anything the Nazis could've conceived. (Rwanda and Hiroshima are also invoked.)
How did the aliens—not Martians, as in the novel—get to Earth? How did they hide their crablike, three-legged battle-bots on our planet? What do they look like? Are they bulletproof? And why are they so mad at us? War eventually answers most of those questions, and I'll leave it to Spielberg to surprise you with the particulars. (Though Morgan Freeman—damn his sage, mellow voice!—drops some hints in a prologue and postscript read from the novel.) The director lets you see the carnage through the limited perspective of a guy whose wife (Miranda Otto) sensibly left him long ago, whose son snarls at him, "You're an asshole," and whose wise 10-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning) has to remind him she's had a peanut allergy "since birth." Catch a clue, Dad, will ya?
Gone is the Top Gun cockiness, the smirk, the laugh, and most of Cruise's other bad traits as an actor. (And here's a disclaimer: This review will contain no references to Scientology, Katie Holmes, or jumping on couches, because I'm tired of all that shit, and you should be, too.) Spielberg has him dialed way down—the opposite approach from Paul Thomas Anderson's direction in Magnolia—and this is Cruise's best performance since that picture: vulnerable, both a step ahead and behind of events, afraid to tell his kids he's making it up as he goes along. For a guy who loves his children but finds them a pain in the ass, Ray is the accidental father, not the accidental savior of mankind. There is no Will Smith punching the alien moment out of Independence Day; for Ray, just making sandwiches for his family requires heroic effort. (Although he also does some fancy driving in the sole functioning minivan on the East Coast.)
SOMETIMES ACTORS seem lost and diminished in a big effects movie, but all the CGI blasting and lasering and exploding actually takes the pressure off Cruise. He doesn't have much dialogue, and he cowers better than most men walk. Spielberg makes the best of his star's latent, coiled energy by refusing to let him use it very often.
He's also canny about showing the shark. The armored, spider-walking "tripods," bristling with tentacles, lasers, and wormy surveillance cameras, appear relatively soon, making a wasteland of those portions of New Jersey that aren't already . . . well, you know. But he hides their fleshy occupants until the movie's late stages—they're not the acid-blooded invincibles of the Alien series, but creatures a few chromosomes short of being cute. For Spielberg, obviously, there's a perverse kind of pleasure in making their spindly fingered bodies a close cousin to E.T. They breathe our air, they sniff our family photos, they have a certain familiar curiosity to them—the way you or I might examine a new and exotic piece of fruit. If they are evil monsters, theirs is an evil of monstrous asymmetry: They literally walk, or scuttle, on three legs. Figuratively, they're unbalanced, evoking a sort of dread and taboo response in Ray when he glimpses them.
Meanwhile, Ray's fellow Americans are acting with the madness of the mob— violent, desperate, crazed with fear, almost like zombies. (Co-writer David Koepp's The Trigger Effect dealt with this same breakdown of civilization.) They bring out the worst in Ray (who's packing a gun), and Spielberg is not at all sentimental about the way they die and swarm and trample one another in their panic. This skepticism—verging surprisingly close to misanthropy— is epitomized by Tim Robbins in a small role as a cranky recluse who shelters Ray and his daughter. Yes, the troops are brave, and most people basically prove their decency, but those aren't the scenes you remember most about War.
Instead, it's Fanning huddled in the cellar like Anne Frank and Ray pointing a pistol at a fellow human that stick with you—along with an eerie, silent rain of empty clothing falling on a forest. Spielberg insists on making Ray a better dad, but he doesn't overdo the parenting lessons for once. (He may not control whether his kids live or die, but he can at least choose to be a better father.) Never mind its release date, the fairly intense and disturbing War is not a summer movie, not Spielberg lite. He uses the aliens like the shark in Jaws: to show how people survive as much by luck as by wit or skill (though the lucky do also tend to be the virtuous). The power of nature is supreme, and supremely uncaring. For that reason, some viewers will consider War a downer, with an insufficiently active and enterprising hero. I'd argue that's Spielberg's entire point: He wants you to think of those unfortunate ones who didn't make it onto the list.