Picks and Pans Review: War of the Worlds

updated 07/11/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Justin Chatwin
SCI-FI
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Like his movie's homicidal space invaders, Steven Spielberg shows no mercy. In the director's humdinger adaptation of H.G. Wells's classic 1898 novel, the suspense and scares start early and keep coming with ferocious intensity. Lockup your sons and daughters: War of the Worlds is way too frightening to be seen by anyone below age 12.

The movie sets up its story with hasty efficiency. Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a longshoreman for whom fatherhood obviously isn't a high priority, is reluctantly babysitting his teenage son (Chatwin) and young daughter (Fanning) while his ex-wife (Miranda Otto) and her new, rich hubby go away for a weekend. The skies suddenly darken and massive lightning bolts repeatedly strike a nearby spot. Soon hordes of giant, clanking metallic killers are stalking the land, laying waste to all humans in their path. Ray grabs his kids and begins an arduous journey that he hopes will lead to survival.

Cruise uses his natural intensity effectively, focusing single mindedly on protecting his offspring. Fanning again proves herself remarkably gifted and demonstrates an ability to scream with the best of 'em. Robbins has a brief, creepy turn as a fellow who offers Ray shelter, a section in which War noticeably lags.

There are inevitable echoes of 9/11 here, including ash-covered survivors fleeing alien attacks and posters seeking missing persons. But mostly War is a sizzling summer popcorn movie offering two hours of solid story and gee-whiz, special effects-driven scares, all viewed from the comfortable safety of one's seat in a theater. (PG-13)

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