War of the Worlds is the seminal science fiction classic about alien invasion. H G Wells novel was published in 1898, dramatised on radio in 1938 by Orson Welles in a programme that caused widespread panic, filmed once before in 1953, made into a top-selling rock musical recording in 1976 and the forerunner of numerous similarly-themed books and films, not the least of which is 1996s Independence Day which borrowed heavily from some of its ideas.
Now with Steven Spielbergs new movie comes what must be the ideal marriage of novel and director. With his Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. Spielberg gave us passive aliens who instilled a sense of wonder. Not so with the invaders of Wells classic tale whose sole purpose is to wipe us out.
Spielberg expertly builds the tension in the opening passages of his contemporary re-telling of the story. Dockworker, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) returns home to find his ex-wife, Mary-Anne (Miranda Otto), her new husband and Rays kids, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenager, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who - much to their discontent - are spending a weekend with Ray. Ray, it becomes clear, is no prize as a father
but hes about to be put to the test.
A curious looking storm, lightning that is unaccompanied by thunder and the sudden breakdown of everything electrical send the townspeople, including Ray, out into the street searching for answers. The eruption of that street, the towering, menacing tripod that emerges from it and the horrific death and destruction it wreaks in seconds is a heart-pounding sequence that is arguably the movies most terrifying.
Panicked, frightened and covered in what appears to be dust - but is actually something more grisly - Ray returns home, packs the kids into a car and heads for Boston where Mary-Ann has gone to visit her parents. He soon discovers that the monolithic machines are spread across the planet and that humankinds time on it finally seems to be up. As the family travels across the country through a demolished landscape that is literally turning red with death, the peoples panic turns to rage and the seemingly unstoppable machines continue to eradicate all signs of life.
As always, Spielberg delivers some mind-blowing set pieces and suspense during the familys terror trip, not least of which is a close encounter of the creepiest kind with the inhabitants of the machines during a brief stopover in the cellar of a crazed man called Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) who puts their lives in jeopardy.
Moviegoers familiar with the 1953 movie might pick up on some references in Spielbergs film - and watch out for the grandfather and grandmother at the end; they are played by the original movies stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.