Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is expecting no more than a weekend with his children when a freak and violent storm strikes his city. As Ray and his neighbours go to investigate, they discover a hole in their street, from which climbs a three-legged alien machine. As the startled crowd reacts, runs or just stands and looks in awe, the machine’s death ray begins firing, and all hell breaks loose. The Martians are here (and have been for quite some time, we discover), and they want us dead.
This is an invasion from one family’s perspective. There are no television broadcasts of what else is occurring in the world, no CGI enhanced destruction of famous landmarks à la Independence Day; the viewer feels isolated and uncertain, as does the Ferrier family (Dakota Fanning gives an exceptional performance as the terrified daughter, Rachel). All they can do is run and try to survive. For once, Tom Cruise does not save the day; his is not even a particularly heroic character. There are a few plot holes and handy coincidences throughout the storyline, but the special effects are truly amazing, and I suppose something had to suffer.
Spielberg’s film is a modern recasting of H.G. Wells’s story, and while the constant threat of attack is common to book and film, the origins of the threat are treated differently. At one point, Rachel asks if the attacks are caused by terrorists, and the urge to dissect the story’s subtexts suddenly increases.
The death rays are particularly fearsome. As they strike, the bodies of their victims crumble into clouds of dust, leaving only empty clothes and white ash to mark their destruction, and terrifying survivors.
Perhaps Spielberg was here referencing both the Holocaust and 11 September 2001; the images of people covered in the dust of others and of clothes fl uttering to the ground are powerful ones. In an interview on the second of the two discs in this presentation, the director cites the attack on the twin towers as an influence on the way the film was made.
Wells’s most compelling point survives the Spielberg translation – that humanity’s sophisticated technology of destruction is unable to defeat the invaders. Instead, a part of life on the planet widely deemed insignificant in Wells’s day and prone to be overlooked even now succeeds where humans fail.