Cinema Signal:

Best Science Fiction Stories of H.G. Wells
by H.G. Wells

. "War of the Worlds"
[Spoiler Notice: This review includes some elements that could spoil the film for some readers. Since we have made it available in advance of the film's release, we have to advise that you read further at your own risk].

This demolition derby of Earth itself offers a story that's so thin it's nearly transparent.

The concept: An alien world implanted machines into the earth's core centuries ago and decide to animate them with an energy ray that emanates from dark clouds and affects electrical power in cities and communities. Thus charged, the machines rise from the earth with great power and destruction and unravel themselves as huge articulated tripods. They proceed to annihilate people with ray weapons. There is no negotiation or approachability. Our weapons are useless against the protective shield they build around themselves.

This affects Ray (Tom Cruise) and his family. Before the aliens arise in his town, we see him at his work running a tall crane unloading cargo in the shipyards. He's a happy-go-lucky, call-to-order guy with a minimal apartment and no food. With a very well paying job like his we wonder why he isn't doing better. Maybe it's the child support.

Sure enough, his ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) delivers their two kids for the weekend. Robbie, his older boy (Justin Chatwin) is a snot nose of a teenager who disrespects Ray every chance he gets, including by calling him Ray and taking his keys and car without a thought despite the fact he has no driver's license.

Little Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is not as rebellious, but when there's a threat of any proportions, she's more inclined to seek the protection and solace of her brother before her father. Quite intelligent, she finds screaming at the top of her lungs a preferred method of communication.

So, once we see what brats he has, you begin to feel for the head of the household -- as inept as he may be as a single father and in any other respect that's visible.

The appearance of the tripods confuses everyone who, by now, are in a state of mass panic. Ray's car is nailed by them, so he appropriates an SUV, loads in the kids who, as usual are demanding things they can't have, and takes off for Mary Ann's (and her new hubby's) house. When this refuge is ruined, they take off for Boston where Mom is vacationing at her parents'.

The 3-legged, high-tech marauders multiply to the point that they're everywhere and the game now is simply running and hoping you won't be shafted into a haze of pixels. After a last stand protest for independence from Robbie, Ray scoops Rachel up and is spotted by Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) who welcomes him into the relative safety of his basement.

The simplicity of this scenario is that's there's nothing more here than dysfunctional family members frantically running for their lives for around 100 minutes (of the film's 116). Not only do they not modify their attitudes by the destruction all around them, but inner growth of some sort stemming from the threat of their own imminent death is apparently too much to hope for from a scenario that is artificial and little more than a vehicle for mechanical and digital effects.

Those, of course, are what sustains interest and, if CGI lights your candle, you'll enjoy the trip. One digial effect is a straight copy from James Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989): the worm appendage of the tripods that seems to have decided that there could be something of interest down in Ogilvy's cellar. This sequence generates the low key suspense of a cat-and-mouse game for a few minutes. But Ol' Ogilvy, who's turning mean and mad, is the one to watch out for.

Golly, is it too much to expect more character development than this from the director of "Schindler's List"? This one-note effort is fun to watch, like a Vegas act is fun to watch. It starts with some emotional promise but simplicity and repetition are as powerful as a raygun in destroying any real engagement. They should have imitated "Independence Day."

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning
This refuge is in the cellar

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