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By Pete Vonder Haar | June 30, 2005

The 4th of July is a great holiday, because there’s nothing quite so American as commemorating your independence by blowing stuff to hell. Every year, thousands of kids (and adults) risk eyeball injuries, arson charges, and burns to their extremities in order to celebrate our sacred right to destroy things.

For that reason, movies released around July 4 have increasingly seized upon this aspect of American culture to offer us destruction on a planetary scale. “Independence Day” and “Armageddon” come to mind, and both reveled in the guilty pleasure we’d feel at seeing revered historical landmarks blown to atoms by marauding aliens and killer asteroids, respectively. In that grand tradition, here comes Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.”

Our film opens in New York City, where dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) comes home to find his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) waiting to drop off their two kids for the weekend. Both 10 year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and surly teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) are none too thrilled at the prospect. Tensions are apparent between Ray and Robbie, and just when it looks like it’s going to be a really long weekend, aliens conveniently arrive and provide the opportunity for some quality family bonding.

Seriously, describing the feeling of sitting through the first half of “War of the Worlds” is as close as I’ve come to actually using the phrase “edge of your seat” with a straight face, but damned if Spielberg doesn’t still know how to push our buttons. From the first appearance of a Martian tripod, the action is breakneck-paced and surprisingly vicious.

And yet, unlike other global disaster movies mentioned, “War of the Worlds” is distinctly free of gratuitous money shots featuring the destruction of national and global landmarks. The mayhem is decidedly local, as is the focus. We know, through the helpful plot-advancing appearance of a roving news team, that most of America is “off line,” to put it mildly. Thankfully, we’re spared yet another tired sequence showing the destruction of the Empire State Building and the White House, et. al. These initial scenes are all the more effective because we know this is Ray’s neighborhood, and his neighbors, who are being obliterated.

This is some bleak material for Spielberg (“Schindler’s List” notwithstanding), who goes further than usual to show us the depths to which human beings under duress can sink. Some of the more intense scenes don’t involve Martians at all, but rather crazed mobs desperate to escape the coming destruction. Ray’s encounter with the somewhat deranged Harlan Ogilvie (Tim Robbins), an ex-ambulance driver the family holes up with in a basement, also doesn’t have a very pleasant resolution.

Cruise’s performance is central, of course, and I couldn’t help wondering if his recent spate of bizarre behavior might not be the result of decades of Scientology brainwashing, but actually a concerted effort to establish Ray as unsympathetic in the eyes of the audience. I mean, Ray’s not just a bad father in the absent and non-participatory sense, but also in the sense of endangering his children needlessly. Not so much Robbie, a headstrong teenager who wants nothing more than the chance to fight back against the invaders, but rather Rachel, who becomes progressively more traumatized as these horrible events unfold around her. Trouble is, Ray – who should be making a beeline in the opposite direction of any conflict – repeatedly drags his daughter to the forefront of the action.

All told, “War of the Worlds” is very effective, with a couple of notable exceptions. First, I understand that a certain suspension of disbelief is required for any movie based on a Martian invasion of Earth. However, if a director insists on maintaining real world rules apart than that, he’d better present the survival of his main characters as something more than a remarkable series of coincidences. I won’t spoil anything, but some of the Ferrier family’s luck strains the limits of credibility at times.

Finally, the ending came damn close to ruining the whole thing. I’m not talking about *that* ending, where we learn what happens to the aliens (I’ll give you a hint: these aliens aren’t going to fall for a biplane in the tailpipe). No, I’m talking about the scene where we see what happens to Ray’s family. I won’t spoil it, but I think your viewing experience would definitely be enhanced if you left the theater after the 110-minute mark. Rarely has the term “Hollywood ending” been quite as appropriate, and seldom has a denouement of that nature come so close to tainting all that came before (the post-credits scene from the “Dawn of the Dead” remake comes close).

Even given all that, “War of the Worlds” is a solid film, and Spielberg and Cruise doubtless have another blockbuster on their hands. I thoroughly enjoyed the street level perspective of the world being destroyed, it just would’ve been nice if they hadn’t crapped out at the end.

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