War of the Worlds (2005)

Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Justin Chatwin, Miranda Otto

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Tom Cruise as Ray and Dakota Fanning as Rachel in War of the Worlds

Ground control to Major Tom (Cruise). Pack your protein pills, put your helmet on, and prepare for the ride of your life. Because War of the Worlds is simply awesome. And this coming from me, who went into the cinema determined to hate this blockbuster reworking of HG Wells' prototype alien invasion classic. I love the book, I love love love Jeff Wayne's seventies-tastic musical synthfest version. What no David Essex? No Richard Burton or Phil Lynott? Next you're going to tell me that the Martians don't go 'Ulla'! And they're not even from Mars.

And. and Steven Spielberg! The man who made us love the alien, reducing the entire world to floods of tears as his small, rubber, bug-eyed Extra Terrestrial finally went home. No-one would have believed at the beginning of the 21st century that Steven Spielberg would be responsible for the most terrifying depiction of alien invasion ever to hit our screens.

But post 9/11, things have changed. And as the anarchists run riot in Princes Street Gardens, we are treated to a vision of the ultimate terrorist attack, as the mighty tripod fighting machines stride straight from the pages of HG Wells' book and the darkest recesses of the imagination to arise in all their immense and literally jaw-dropping, cold, terrible majesty. This isn't war, this is extermination.

And at the front of the firing line is Tom Cruise (well, I can think of a few folk who might like to blast him from the face of the earth). But this is not the Tom Cruise we know and love/hate of old, the lantern-jawed, all-American action hero of Top Gun, Mission Impossible or The Last Samurai. Shift working crane driver Ray Ferrier is definitely no superman. Divorced from his wife and barely tolerated by his precocious kids, he's slobby, ignorant and can't even rustle up a sandwich in a crisis. True to the spirit of HG Wells' baffled narrator, as Ray's world collapses (literally) around his ears, he hides under the kitchen table.

In fact, nobody in War of the Worlds is a hero. That'll be because they're ordinary human beings, whose lives are being destroyed. From rubber necking ambulance chasers looking for trouble, they quickly regress into hungry zombies swarming helplessly across a blistered landscape, turned feral in their desperate attempts to escape the deadly aliens. Lucky Ray and his children have a car - not for long, as they're dragged through the windows kicking and screaming and beaten into the ground. Like Dawn of the Dead, the message is clear: when push comes to shove, we're all out for number one, and the man with the gun is the man who gets his way.

Tom Cruise is up to his elbows in red weed in War of the Worlds... ulla!

Bleak? Just a bit. Gripping, edge of yer seat action this is (and you will occasionally have to restrain yourself physically from standing up and yelling at the characters, not to mentioning giving Dakota Fanning's Rachel a hefty slap) but it's certainly not an easy ride. Deliberately uncheesy, there are no easy, light entertainment Independence Day images to brighten the scenario. No flashing heatrays blowing up the White House or decimating Mount Rushmore. Instead, in a series of scenes that are as brilliantly understated and heart-stoppingly harrowing as anything in Schindler's List, we have human suffering. And if you're waiting for any Will Smith style quips and humorous one-liners to dispel the tension, you're full out of luck. There's one funny line, and that's your lot.

Tim Robbins as nutter Hank Ogilvy, with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds

Marred only by a somewhat implausible sentimental ending, War of the Worlds is a towering achievement, Spielberg proving yet again why he is the undisputed king of big screen spectacle. Tom Cruise tackles the anti-hero role with his usual brow-furrowed, starey-eyed fervour, bringing to the character of Ray a fierce intensity that would probably have been lacking had Hollywood's usual everyman suspect, Tom Hanks, taken the part; Dakota Fanning is an amazing child actress and utterly convincing (even if, as I said, you do want to slap her); even Tim Robbins pops up as a crazy, boggle-eyed hybrid of the Artillery Man/Parson role. But the real stars of the show are definitely the aliens, which are brilliantly and utterly convincingly realised with CGI - and the noise they make may not be 'ulla' but it's very scary - like 100 Viking horns blowing at full blast (okay, so that doesn't sound very scary). Watch out, folks - in the cinema, someone probably can hear you scream.

So all in all, a five star triumph. Move over Batman - the summer now belongs to the Martians. Uuuuuullaaaaaa!

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