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Film review War of the Worlds is really a disaster movie in the garb of a science fiction blockbuster. Steven Spielberg's contemporary reimagining of the H.G. Wells classic puts one family's fight for survival in centre frame as the Earth is menaced by alien tripod fighting machines.

Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, an immature divorced father of rebellious teenage son Robbie and 10 year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Cruise is a talented actor but fails to convince as a New Jersey dock worker, and less than perfect father, trying to stay one step ahead of the mayhem around him and link up with his estranged wife. Watching Cruise on this film is like watching a slight bloke trying to lift a huge weight and you yearn for a more muscular actor (a young Ernest Borgnine, perhaps?) to fill his shoes. Tim Robbins, always a thoughtful actor, is also miscast as Ogilvy, a cellar-dwelling survivalist the family encounter whose interest in Fanning we fear may be less than wholesome.

Unlike most conventional disaster movies the cast is small. Spielberg's real interest is in creating a sense of foreboding and fear of unimaginable horror exploding into the world which contrasts with the cheerful upbeat tone of thematically similar Independence Day. The triumph of War of the Worlds is its careful use of special effects to put this vision on the screen. It's genuinely scary even if it's not vintage Spielberg.

ET is back and this time he has a really, really bad attitude but the last act of the film falls away towards a flat ending. It's their machines - not the invaders - that leave the cinema goer hiding behind their popcorn and when we finally get to see the aliens inside it's a bit of a let down. Perhaps more time in pre-production might have corrected this defect? The film was originally scheduled for a 2007 release and was only pushed forward when a gap appeared in Cruise and Spielberg's mutual diaries.

Troops feature prominently in the film even though we don't get to know them individually. The film makes constant references to 9/11, at one point Cruise emerges from his children's home to a scene of devastation surrounded by the wreckage of a crashed airplane. As people are vapourised by aliens, Robbie Ferrier demands to know if this is the work of "terrorists".

In the same way that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers grappled with McCarthyite concerns about "reds under the bed" we have a film that deals with the preoccupations of our day - the War on Terror. Expect a logical plot and you'll be disappointed but those happy to watch to engrossing, technically accomplished "B-movie" will find much to enjoy. ®

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