Byline: Sean Smith
When you're making a $135 million movie about aliens invading Earth, it's good to have some rules. So in 2003, while Steven Spielberg was shooting "The Terminal" in Montreal, screenwriter David Koepp flew north with a list of cliches that he believed "War of the Worlds" had to avoid. "Here are the things we could not have in this movie," Koepp says. "One: no destruction of famous landmarks. Two: no unnecessary beating up of New York City. Three: no politicians or scientists or generals as main characters. Four: no shots of military leaders pushing ships around on a big map with sticks. And five: no shots of world capitals." If they'd been able to peek into the future, they might have added six: no star who's going to have a Howard Dean moment on "Oprah," and turn prerelease publicity into a referendum on his love life.
The good news is that the debate over Tom Cruise--who last week proposed to Katie Holmes atop the Eiffel Tower--will seem far less pressing once audiences get a look at the massive, terrifying spectacle that Spielberg has created in "War of the Worlds." "Every time Steven embarks on a genre movie, he reinvents the genre," says producer Kathleen Kennedy. "He never wants to be derivative." She laughs. "If he ever gets derivative, he's only derivative of himself." "War of the Worlds" marks a return to the crowd-pleasing fare that made Spielberg the most successful director in history: think "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" with a far more sinister edge. There are images here--the wreckage of an airplane, an alien tripod rising to full height behind a ferryboat, a river of corpses, the clothes of the dead floating down through trees like snow--that are just breathtaking. And, OK, Cruise is pretty great.
Based on the 1898 science-fiction novel by H. G. Wells--the first alien-invasion story ever written--"War of the Worlds" isn't really a battle between planets. It's more like the annihilation of ours. Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced, blue-collar guy more interested in fast cars than in his young daughter (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son (Justin Chatwin). But then huge alien tripods begin destroying everything in their path, and Ray finds himself on the run with his kids. "Tom's played so many characters that are capable and cocky, and I thought it would be fun to write against that," says Koepp. "Ray is someone whose life didn't pan out the way he thought it would, and who became kind of a jerk as a result." (Cruise himself declined to be interviewed for this story.)
While details have been changed from Wells's novel, the fear at the core of it remains intact. In 1938, Orson Welles's radio adaptation seemed so real that people …