A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie features repeated violence by frightening, spider-legged and penetrative machines, in particular directed against a 10-year-old girl. Her high-pitched screams and tears might alarm younger viewers. The aliens blow up streets, buildings, and cars, explode or zap some humans into dust, and literally suck the blood out of others (this last occurs in long shot, but it's clear what's going on). In one scary scene, a mob of humans attack Ray and his kids in their car (again, the girl's reaction is disquieting). The movie also includes some harsh language, tense scenes between Ray and his son, and Ray and his ex-wife, and Ray commits what he sees as a necessary murder off-screen.
What's the story?
WAR OF THE WORLDS stars Tom Cruise as Ray, a disheartened, divorced father, taking care of his two children -- 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and 15-ish brother Robbie (Justin Chatwin) -- for the weekend. A brief game of backyard catch reveals immediately that Robbie resents his dad's absence and selfishness. But the domestic strife soon takes a backseat to the gargantuan trauma brought on by an alien invasion -- lightning strikes awaken towering Tripods, machines on long spider legs that push up from under the streets of Bayonne, NJ, the pavement buckling and cracking as people, including Ray, watch in astonishment. It's the watching that dooms them initially: they can't anticipate that the machines will, seconds later, be detonating buildings and zapping human targets into a dust that recalls the white detritus that clung to survivors of the 9/11 attacks in NYC. What comes next is a prolonged look at unthinkable devastation, framed by one family's reactions. In part, this focus is achieved by Ray's quick thinking -- he steals the only working vehicle in sight, determined to drive the kids to their mother in Boston, imagining against odds that this end will provide safety.
Is it any good?
Gangbusters effects and terrific camerawork propel Steven Spielberg's film well into its last act, when it runs out of energy and ideas. This collapse is especially disappointing because War of the Worlds begins as a provocative look at how terror affects family and community, that is, something more complicated than an explosion movie. If the first part of the film offers an absorbingly detailed look at the family's dysfunction, the ride in the minivan tightens the focus, as they struggle to make sense of the disaster unfolding around them. "Is it terrorists?" asks Rob. No, says Dad, this "came from someplace else." Rob tries again: "What do you mean, like Europe?" This brief comedy only sharpens the scares that follow, not all caused by aliens. Indeed, two of the most awful scenes involve people fighting each other.
This and other particulars -- a monstrous surveillance eye on a sinuous, seemingly endless arm invades Harlan's basement; clothes from disintegrated victims float through tree branches; a peanut butter sandwich Ray has thrown at the kitchen window slides almost imperceptibly down the glass as he wonders what to do next; Ray asks a man who appears to have survived a plane crash, "Are you a passenger?" -- create a potent mix of recognizable and fantastic moments. The film's last minute breakdown is really the loss of such clever details.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the conflict between Ray and his teenaged son, which ignites several arguments: the boy doesn't trust his emotionally distant father, and resents his seeming selfishness in trying to save the family only and not seeking revenge against the aliens. This raises another issue, as the film's images of invasion allude to 9/11, as well as subsequent fears. How does the movie compare Ray's reaction to that of a survivalist holed up in his basement? How does Ray learn to be a more committed father by paying attention to his kids? How does the film marginalize the kids' mother, and to what effects for viewers?
- In theaters: June 29, 2005
- On DVD or streaming: November 22, 2005
- Cast: Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Tom Cruise
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Run time: 117 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images
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