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‘War of the Worlds’ exciting tale of terror

Spielberg in his element in remake of story of alien invasion, chaos

H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” was first officially filmed in 1953, though several unofficial rehashes followed, including “Independence Day,” “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and “Mars Attacks!”

But that was so last century. Steven Spielberg’s scary new edition, the first official remake in 52 years, is a 9/11 update, complete with images of stampeding people, falling debris, mass confusion and vast destruction that are clearly meant to recall the first televised images of the World Trade Center collapse.

Trying to make sense of what’s happening to them, the victims can only wonder what hit them. Were they attacked by terrorists, or did the perpetrators come from somewhere else? Largely cut off from the media that might have informed them, they can only run and hide and guess at what caused the terror.

Spielberg is very good at creating inexplicable chaos on-screen, as he proved in the shipboard sequences in “Amistad” and the D-Day massacre that opens “Saving Private Ryan.” He’s also skilled at suggesting rather than directly portraying horror, as he demonstrated in “Jaws” and “Duel.” And when it comes to constructing nailbiter suspense sequences, like the raptors in the kitchen in “Jurassic Park,” he has few peers.

In many ways, “War of the Worlds” seems made-to-order for him. It even includes a 21st Century version of the strained suburban marriages from “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” with Tom Cruise playing a divorced New Jersey father who is spending time with his surly teenage son (Justin Chatwin) and friendlier daughter (Dakota Fanning) when trouble arrives.

At first the catastrophe looks like an especially fierce lightning strike, a fireworks display worthy of the Fourth of July, and Cruise even encourages his daughter to enjoy the spectacle. But when the electricity and phone service disappear, and most automobiles won’t function, it’s obvious that something more ominous and less predictable is happening.

Soon the lethal extraterrestrial monsters of Wells’ story are dominating the landscape, belching cars into the air, crushing stores and homes, and zapping fleeing people into ashes. The aliens seem to take sadistic delight in tormenting their victims, sending snake-like probes into basements and hiding places, then revealing their more vulnerable and revolting alien selves.

Spielberg handles all of this with a professionalism that is always impressive, even when it’s difficult to connect with the characters. Miranda Otto has only a few minutes on-screen as Cruise’s ex-wife, Chatwin is given few opportunities to get beyond the boy’s standard-issue rebellion, while Fanning does more screaming than any actress since Fay Wray. Cruise is efficient enough, as is Tim Robbins as an alien-hating vigilante who shelters them, but they’re figures in a landscape, dwarfed by the horror surrounding them.

Still, the movie is genuinely exciting for much of its 116-minute length, thanks not only to Industrial Light and Magic’s seamless special effects but Spielberg’s teamwork with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn. They create a startling and compelling sense of immediacy that’s been missing from all previous versions, official or otherwise.