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War of the Worlds is a remake (one of three in 2005) of the classic 1953 movie inspired by H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel. Focusing on a divorced father named Ray (Tom Cruise) he is about to spend the weekend with his distant teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and his vulnerable 10-year-old girl Rachel (Dakota Fanning). The three are not close, with Ray seemingly ill-equipped to communicate with them, but when the inevitable alien attack begins, his need to protect them becomes priority where thinking fast and acting faster rule the day.
It’s observed that the creatures are riding beams of electricity into the ground where enormous tripod warships emerge. This happens right in front of Ray and naturally, panic overruns the city (and soon the world) as these devastating machines obliterate buildings and people while rampaging over anything in their way, themselves shielded by energy force fields no bullet or missile can penetrate. In a scramble, Ray thinks that taking the kids back to their mothers is the best thing he can do, but as they make their escape, passage becomes nearly impossible, and when they arrive, no one is home. More devastation follows, most notably a crashed 747 airliner that just missed the house, as they continue on a quest to reach safe haven, if there is any, alive.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, the story is not too concerned with logic, but rather characters and set-pieces. Everything is tossed into the action basket to great effect, staging and presenting some truly astonishing sequences, including a terrifying bit on a ferry boat and then a much more personal moment in the basement of a survivalist’s (Tim Robbins) home. While the movie lacks the narrative punch that should have put this leagues ahead of others in the genre and Ray is wedged into a heroic role at the end that feels forced. Still, there is a lot of great entertainment here, with Cruise delivering a pitch-perfect performance with plenty of satisfying thrills. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
As the invasion gets underway, the landscape becomes an apocalyptic nightmare of chaos as Ray and his children fight to survive. After they attempt to cross the Hudson River, an alien mega-sized Tripod attacks and the boat capsizes, with hundreds struggling to make it to shore. Ray manages to get himself and his kids there, and they are immediately met with even more horror as the number of Tripods increase and the military arrives in defense. As a battalion of tanks and armored personal carriers engage the aliens, hundreds upon hundreds of people are caught in the middle on the crest of a nighttime hill with both combating sides firing upon the other in plumes of smoke and fury. Amid this cacophony raining around them, Ray learns that Robbie doesn’t want to stay with him. He is drawn to the fight and to take up arms with the soldiers and face off against the invaders. Ray flat-out refuses to let his teenaged son go, desperately clinging to him as Robbie tries to pull away, pleading with him to stay as the boy claws his way up the hill to be in the battle.
Desperate to keep his family together, Ray is forced to leave the terrified Rachel alone for a moment as he puts his weight on Robbie and forces him to the ground as the air around them lights up with smoke and tracer fire. Meanwhile, another couple, fleeing the madness, sees Rachel standing by herself and attempt to rescue her, not knowing that her father is nearby. Looking back, Ray sees this and becomes torn between his children, not wanting to lose either but forced to choose. Robbie assures his father that this is what he wants, “I want to see this,” and to please let him go, which Ray finally, achingly, submits to, seeing that Rachel is being whisked away. Father and son say goodbye as Robbie runs over the crest and Ray rushes down to get his daughter as a hellfire of explosion overtake the hills, giving us the impression Robbie has met his end.
No parent should have to choose which child to leave behind, but that is the choice Ray faces, and what his responsibilities are to them. Robbie is independent and not close with his father, but there is respect, especially as the invasion escalates with Ray showing Robbie some behaviors that he hadn’t seen before. Like many who are victims of a horrific attack on their home, be it a city, state, county, or in this case, world, loyalties drive them to rise to the defense of that home. They want, they need to fight. Robbie feels this pull and is willing to sacrifice himself to that end. Ray understands this, but he fights a different battle. Ray is older and he has crested a different hill, that of a father charged with the safety of his children and with Robbie old enough to make his own way, he realizes he must let him go and now dedicate himself to Rachel. It’s a heartbreaking choice, but a necessary one. This single moment, buried in the context of the massive alien attack, is the central theme of the film, the evolving relationship between Ray and Robbie that sees a father accept the maturity of a son to go out into the dangerous world on his own. A parent must face this with any child, hoping they have prepared them for the task, and while Ray doubts himself, his feelings of inadequacies as a father a burden he sees in Robbie’s eyes every time they meet, his greatest act as a father is his trust. He lets his son go and that choice, metaphorically shown by the explosion of fire behind him, reveals the absolute loss of control he now has over any decision Robbie makes. It’s a great movie moment.