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Aliens turn America into an abattoir in this intense Steven Spielberg movie. Tom Cruise stars as the dad trying to keep his estranged kids ahead of the wave of destruction
There is one moment in Spielberg's War Of The Worlds where fleeing people pause at a level crossing. Suddenly an express train blazes by, every shattered window billowing fire. That train is this film. By the time the end credits roll, you'll be in the foetal position.
The days when audiences kicked back their heels and laughed at the vaporisation of the White House in Independence Day are long gone. Ironic destruction is passé. War Of The Worlds has a pummelling, exhausting intensity, moving from mass extermination to private claustrophobic horrors - in Spielbergian terms, from the crowds crammed in train carriages in Schindler's List to the taut cat-and-mouse of the director's early Duel. The clichés of the event movie are stripped out. No love interest. No wisecracking buddy. No concerned president pondering the disaster. 'War Of The Worlds' is so influential in all its incarnations that the filmmakers have had to work hard to make sure you haven't seen it all before.
Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a blue collar guy with an estranged wife, (Otto) and two children, a teenage son Robbie (Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Fanning). He's got the kids for the weekend, although his fridge is empty and in the lounge are some engines he's working on. News reports are coming in of strange electrical storms over the Ukraine but everyone is too busy playing the dysfunctional family to notice. Father and son play a tense game of catch in the yard - they both wear baseball caps but for different teams. "You're an asshole. I hate coming here," says Robbie.
The bizarre storms appear over Ray's house, knocking out all the electrics, mobile phones and cars in one enormous magnetic pulse. Ray heads to an intersection in New Jersey, where crowds are gathered round a smoking hole in the ground, just as they did in HG Wells' original novel, where English daytrippers headed out to Horsell Common near Woking for a glimpse of the capsule from outer space. Both Wells and the George Pal-produced 1953 adaptation of the book drew out the crowd's tentative approach to the capsule, sending a priest to make peace with the aliens, but here we cut straight to the destruction. Something bucks and writhes under the road. The tarmac cracks. The front of a church splits off. Out comes the tripod. It emits a foghorn war cry, the bass note from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind's peaceful melody. Then the carnage begins.
As the tripod unleashes its death ray upon the crowds, turning them into a grey dust, we are right back in the fall of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, when clouds of cement particles rolled down Manhattan streets. Ray flees home caked in the ash of his fellow New Yorkers, gathers up the kids and flees in the city's one remaining working car. The struggle to keep his family alive as overpasses explode, ferries capsize and the might of America's army is reduced to one giant fireball leads Ray into very dark moral places, including murder.
It's not just 9/11 that inflects this latest adaptation of Wells' landmark novel. At one point Rachel stumbles to the banks of a river filled with the dead, recalling the Asian tsunami. The American civilians become refugees fleeing the frontline of the conflict, like the people of Fallujah. When Ray and Rachel hole up in a basement with Tim Robbins' deranged, bereaved ambulance driver - who might even be a child abuser - the needle of parental anxiety pings off the scale. These cellar scenes are some of the most intense in the film, recalling Anne Frank trying to remain silent in the attic while the Nazis rummage around downstairs. Here Ray witnesses the full extent of the aliens' evil; mass extermination then the voracious consumption of the dead. The landscape is strewn with bloody fibres, the indigestible nerve endings and tissues. And you think: people are going to take their kids to see this?
Topped and tailed with Wells' sonorous prologue and epilogue, the great writer's description of "With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe" is posited as our pre-9/11 attitudes. The envious eyes with which the aliens regarded our planet become a prophecy of the kind of conflict over resources the West will face over the rest of the century. Delivered with the intensity of middle-aged parental anxiety, War Of The Worlds fearfully stacks up the horrors awaiting ordinary people, the 'Book Of Revelation' rendered in computer generated special effects.
An unstoppable juggernaut of action and anxiety that will have you blundering from the cinema in a state of nervous exhaustion. Don't expect any soft drink promotional tie-ins with this summer blockbuster.
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On Film4: 04 April 2015