"War of the Worlds" is the granddaddy of the genre, literally and figuratively. Its source material predates the spate of 1970s disaster flicks and their reinvented, mega-budgeted, over-the-top-several-times-over 1990s counterparts by almost a century: H.G. Wells authored the classic sci-fi novel in 1898 (decades before the term science-fiction even existed). In 1938, the work was brought to terrifying life by Orson Welles' radio play, which famously caused a frenzy as millions of horrified listeners, believing they were hearing a real news broadcast (thanks to the dramatic device of interrupting the narrative with fake panic-inflaming bulletins), became convinced that Martians were indeed invading the Earth and the end was nigh. As quaint and naive as that sounds, after seeing this epic, soul-shakingly visceral Steven Spielberg-directed glimpse of our most devastating fears realized, audiences can't help but have tremendous sympathy for anyone deceived for even a moment that such horrors might really be happening.
Intense, nuanced, heroic and human, Tom Cruise makes you forget all about Scientology, Katie Holmes and Ritalin as Ray, a self-involved divorced dad of two who barely has time to awkwardly converse with his visiting kids before an apocalyptic freak lightning storm scares the bejeezus out of everybody. Citizens gather to gawp at the site of the bizarrely specific repeated target of the strikes -- a crater that once was a major street intersection. Momentarily, everyone finds there's infinitely more bejeezus to be scared out of them than they ever thought possible as an ominous rumbling from underground is followed by the emergence of a gargantuan arachnid-like machine that immediately begins marching around the city eviscerating everything in its path, picking people out of the fleeing crowds and instantly turning them to dust with a single laser blast.
Now, one might have delusions of "Star Wars" and "Independence Day" and imagine that what happens next is the Ewoks trip the AT-ATs and Will Smith pulls the driver out by the scruff of its neck and kicks its sorry extra-terrestrial ass back to its own solar system. But the invaders have perhaps learned something from our bad ninja movies and are attacking all at once instead of one at a time. There isn't just one of these machines -- there are hundreds, maybe thousands, all over the world. We don't know for sure because an electromagnetic pulse has downed all electronics across the globe (save for some spectator's video camera -- continuity guy, could I please see you in my office?).
Ray and his surly teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and precocious 10-year-old daughter (who else but Dakota Fanning) must put their contentions over take-out food and pinings for Tivo far behind them as they race out of town -- despite the increasing realization that nowhere is safe. Ray taps into unknown reserves of bravery for the sake of his kids, but this isn't "ID4" and wisecracks will not save the day. Almost every moment of "War of the Worlds" is heart-racing, jaw-dropping, knuckle-biting, date-grabbing adrenaline. The special effects are so seamless that audiences suspend disbelief willingly or not, effectively experiencing the closest thing to being at the end of the world as you can get from the almost-forgotten safety of a comfy seat.
With all that buildup, anything less than Roland Emmerich strapping himself to a nuclear warhead and launching himself onto the enemy is going to disappoint modern audiences, and a subtle, wry, Morgan Freeman-narrated epilogue is not the catharsis most of us yippee-ki-yay-mother-effers will be looking for. But it's a denouement that has its merits, abstruse and ironic and non-ass-kicking though they may be. Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Colin Wilson. A DreamWorks release. Sci-fi action/thriller. Rated PG-13 for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images. Running time: 115 min