Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, Spielberg's ‘ordinary Joe', a docker divorced from his remarried wife (Miranda Otto). It's his turn to have the kids for the weekend – moppet Dakota Fanning and teen Justin Chatwin. He's forgotten, of course, as he's a pretty useless dad. But soon he has the chance to redeem himself as this is also the weekend that the Martians attack. What follows is one heck of a harrowing journey as Ray flees with his family to the supposed safety of Mum's Boston home. And the enemy isn't always Martian. But in Spielberg's hands it isn't just Ray and Co. who go through the mincer. The two hours fly by as the Bearded Wonder sucks us into one scary scenario after another.
Yet Worlds isn't a jokey, I'm-a-hero actioner like Independence Day. Like the book, Spielberg shows the effects of the Martian attack on a handful of people. The tripods, death rays and aliens are seen through the eyes of Cruise and Fanning. A bit like Shyamalan's Signs – with explosions and heaps more tension. And Spielberg doesn't stint on eye-popping action – the trashing of Joe's town and the fate of the townsfolk are brilliantly done. A ferry-disaster scene is as scary as any Titanic tip-over. He's also re-hashed some stock-in-trade touches – the aliens-in-the-basement is pretty much velociraptors in the kitchen ( Jurassic Park ). They could equally be noisey tanks ( Saving Private Ryan) or the skittery, wiry things in Minority Report .
But Spielberg's aces are his actors. Cruise is spot-on as the antihero awakening to his responsibilities, and 11 year old Fanning ( Man on Fire ) is astonishing, with nerve-shredding reactions that should be beyond an actress her age. The script is pared down and realistic (David Koepp Panic Room, Spider Man ), the visuals are great and there's a menacing score from Spielberg's John Williams. War of the Worlds is faithful to the spirit, and even some of the letters, of the book. At times it even has a B-movie look, like the 1953 film. But the ending is more of a whimper than a bang. It's appropriate – but probably not what popcorners will be expecting.
Spielberg has ditched the schmaltz and Worlds shows us the rawness of Martian and human. It's a terrific movie with a downbeat feel, all wrapped up in solid performances. There's some strong water at the bottom of Spielberg's Wells and it's really quite refreshing.