Just because you're the best-known, most influential filmmaker in the world, that doesn't mean you won't make some mistakes. The ending of Steven Spielberg's epic re-imagining of the H.G. Wells novel and the 1953 film is one of the bigger miscalculations of his illustrious career. Oh, it sort of stays true to the spirit of both the book and the earlier film, but at the preview screening I attended, it was met with hoots of derision. And they were deserved.
But please don't let those last two minutes keep you away from the otherwise terrific 114 minutes that precede it. Neither film really captures the flavor of the book, which was after all, set in the bucolic English countryside of the late 19th century and didn't have much of a hero for a protagonist. Speilberg's version also focuses much more on the human side of things. The effects are magnificent, but this film is less about the world possibly coming to an end than it's about a man coming to terms with the fact that he's been a lousy father.
Ray (Tom Cruise) works on the docks of New York and takes care of his two kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) only when his ex-wife goes off somewhere with her new husband. The relationship between Ray and all other members of his probably never happy family is, at best, strained. But the kids are with him in his sloppy apartment when a TV news report casually mentions "freak lightning storms" in the Ukraine. Then some clouds move in over Manhattan -- those special Spielbergian clouds that are dark and swirling. Then there are lightning strikes, then cracks in the streets and buildings. Then there's pandemonium when something big and unfriendly -- a metallic tripod creature -- rises from beneath the ground and rampages through the streets firing off a death ray that disintegrates people.
In a blatant and well done nod to 9/11, Ray's face is covered with gray ash, pieces of vaporized people's clothing are floating through the sky like shreds of paper from the Twin Towers, and his kids, who haven't seen what's causing all of this, are screaming, "Is it terrorists?"
Amid the rampant destruction and ensuing crowd panic, Spielberg regular John Williams goes about channeling Bernard Herrmann in his menacingly effective soundtrack, where harsh strings are as scary as the wailing, trumpeting sounds coming from the vicious tripods. And there are other degrees of fright that are tailor-made for comparison. For instance, what's scarier -- a creature attack or a crowd gone stark raving mad? Which is more horrific -- a speeding train, bursting with flames and totally out of control, or a flowing river filled with dead bodies?
An improbable escape from the city -- just go with it folks, it's worth it -- leads to a brief stretch of peace before the destruction begins anew, allowing the script a closer examination of Ray's real problem: the fact that he's never been a good father. And now he has no idea how to even begin. It sure doesn't help that the world is falling apart around them all. This is a fascinating character study of a lost man.
Relative newcomer Justin Chatwin is good as the teenager who's equally angry at his dad and at the invaders. But as the younger sister, Dakota Fanning gives an uneven performance, relying too much either on screaming like Fay Wray or on playing it catatonic.
But don't think that this isn't a film filled with action. At many points, it's loud and unrelenting. And unlike the first film, which cleaned up the book's nastiness, this one gets into the grisly side of things, specifically in slightly off-camera sequences showing that the invaders (they're never referred to as Martians) have other plans for mankind besides simply wiping them out.
A lengthy scene that appeared in both the book and the first film, taking place in a supposedly safe basement, reaches levels of pulse-pounding terror. I would assume that the story is so well known that the climax won't be much of a surprise to most viewers. But that's not at all the problem with the film's ending. It's that Spielberg, as he has many times before, resorts to an unnecessary degree of sappiness when even a small hint of reality at that point would have made the film unforgettable. Thank goodness it's only those last two minutes that need forgetting.