The ‘World’s’ seen better days

Spielberg blows the lid off post-Sept. 11, 2001, hysteria with update to H.G. Wells’ classic catastrophe

Steven Snyder

There’s a clear change in the title of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of “War of the Worlds” – not one of words but of emphasis.

Other versions of the classic 1898 H.G. Wells sci-fi thriller focused more on the last word, and the ideas of martians and interstellar invaders finally making themselves known on Earthly soil. But there is less awe this time around than terror, and less interest in the worlds these invaders came from than the war they’re waging – on us.

And what an efficient war it is. Following a string of electrical storms around the world, towering mechanical tripods start arising from beneath the Earth’s surface, exploding through the pavement of a disoriented New Jersey. Caught unaware are seas of open-jawed humans amazed by what they see, among them Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise).

Make no mistake, it is here, less than 15 minutes into the film where the work will define itself. It is here where Spielberg will set the tone for what is to come and where Cruise will adopt the facial expression he will project with for a full two hours.

Spielberg answers the call with a vision and an approach that is nothing less than savage. In one of the most electrifying and terrifying sequences ever conceived, Ray’s frantic run back to his house for his children (Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning) and his desperate attempt to flee from urban Jersey makes us feel the full weight of this war before we ever come to see who’s really waging it.

It’s a sort of perfect storm for Spielberg, who has always excelled at using the unknown as a force for fantastical joy, whimsy, suspense or terror. From the murky depths of “Jaws” to the snake-covered pits of “Indiana Jones” and even the faceless killers high atop Omaha Beach in “Saving

Private Ryan,” he uses this technique like no other. Here, he is able to bridge our collective fears of natural disasters, alien invasions, the apocalypse and terrorists to create a fear machine that seems stuck on high gear.

Along the sidelines lie other fears as well: Airplanes drop from the sky, cars stop working, mob rule runs wild – in this land of the National Rifle Association no less – and children run off to the war of all wars blinded by notions of patriotism.

To say this is steeped in post-Sept. 11, 2001, agitations is to be laughingly naive. This is the nightmare incarnate,the doomsday hour, the apocalypse we think the terrorists want to wreak and just why we’re willing to give up our own freedoms to stop it from happening.

These robotic machines hunt without purpose, kill without mercy and harvest humans to advance their way of life. When Ray’s daughter asks, “Is it the terrorists?” it’s not a shocking bit of poignancy, but an afterthought. We’ve already been thinking that for a few minutes.

When Spielberg cops out at the end, then, with perhaps the worst family reunion in the history of movies, how are we supposed to take it – when this relentless, global carnage is brushed aside in favor of relief over the survival of one white, upper-class family? Does he think he’s giving us a genuinely happy ending, or is he pacifying us that this was all just a nasty dream?

If it’s the former, he failed. The ending leaves a nasty, contrived taste in our mouths as we think about all those millions we’re supposed to disregard just so we can be happy for Scientologist Tom.

And if he’s aiming to pacify, well, he’s either 100 minutes – or four years – too late, depending on how you see it.

So pass down a brat and a beer and stay away from the movie theater if you want to pretend all is well. Happy Independence Day.