War of the Worlds is what you might call an A version of a B movie. The tension is high, and the effects are everywhere - as are the aliens - but there's surprisingly little explanation. We don't know why the aliens attack. We don't know where they come from. We don't know how we can stop them. I suppose in that way this movie depicts precisely what a real-life invasion would be like.
But for a movie, we need more. We're staring up at a screen, not a giant Tripod. We're camped out in our seats, not huddled under any structure left standing. We're snackers, not the snacks. And we need to know the story - at least for this type of movie we do. In his most famous alien-encounter movies Spielberg does an excellent job exploring the mind of the visitor. We understand ET because he's lost and lonely. We spend time getting to know the curious visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. War of the Worlds is a completely different type of exploration all together - it's like exploring what we would do if we were thrown into a gigantic blender.
Of course, Spielberg knows his stuff, and the movie is big on fun and excitement. And, for that matter, it's slightly touching as well. Spielberg develops the relationship between a divorced father (Tom Cruise) and his two children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin). He's far from the perfect father - and for once, that's true at the end of the movie as well. Oh sure, he grows, and their relationships are better for it - but with one or two small exceptions - there's no big moment of revelation. Though there are certainly small, poignant moments, (watch for the scene on the boat), at no point does the father put it all together to become super-dad. It's a believable relationship. At least, as believable as can be expected when there's aliens running around.
With a depth of character - and a presumably enormous budget given the can't-miss status of Spielberg/Cruise - this movie transcends the typical sci-fi B movie realm. Sure, there are the late-night movie standbys - Tripods wreaking havoc, cities lying in ruins, mysterious landscapes, etc. - but War does them well.
[I'm going to digress for a second hear to mention another Sci-Fi movie that's in the works: The Tripods. It's expected for 2007, and based on a trilogy of books written by John Christopher. I'm not sure how quickly this will move forward now, because, having read the books long ago, it sure looked to me like Spielberg had read them too. But there's always new ways of doing things, so hopefully this project can still progress.]
Finally though, I should note, that when H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds he was creating something new and exciting, which gripped the imagination and became a classic. It would be difficult for anyone to capture the imagination in the same way, with the same material. Particularly in light of the many well-done Sci-Fi films which have come before this one. War of the Worlds as a book opened the door on a new possibility. War of the Worlds as a film only looks in to see that same possibility from a slightly different angle.
No, this film doesn't have the same power as the novel. And no this film won't become a classic like ET or Close Encounters or any other predecessor. But War of the Worlds is still an amazingly well done film. And it's one heck of a fun blender ride.
I give it a B+