On the Run Again 

Spielberg goes back to the chase with "War of the Worlds."

For subtext-plumbers as well as people just munching popcorn in the dark, there's no misinterpreting that first strike as an allusion to the World Trade Center attacks, with dust-soaked people running from a centralized catastrophe and a father assuring his kids it wasn't a terrorist attack. Less obvious, but just as arguable, are the statements that come later. Spielberg at one point explicitly bridges the perspectives of victims when one character notes that invading occupations never succeed, and another rigs himself for possible suicide bombing. It's good to remember the original material's ties to atomic anxiety and the Red scare. If anyone was asking why the film should be remade, Spielberg answers by showing us what it's like to be invaded by a remorseless mechanized army with ambiguous intentions. As for the pipe-laying and blood-sucking that follow, you can draw your own conclusions.

"War of the Worlds" is never lost in grandiosity, however. Spielberg is often criticized for believing a scene has to be big to be effective. While this is accurate, he reminds us here that he doesn't need the big picture. Overstuffed turkeys like Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow" carry us all over the world, as if to remind us it exists. Spielberg wisely puts us in immediate danger and leaves us there. As Ray, his son (Justin Chatwin) and his daughter (Dakota Fanning) make their way north, we're thankful for the occasional report that the rest of the earth is being barbecued, but we really only care whether they get across the water safely.

Unlike most of its sci-fi kin, "War of the Worlds" doesn't flaunt a flamboyant get-up of visual trickery. Special effects are adequate but not overblown. Scenes filmed in rural Virginia (Rockbridge County) of an army versus alien scrimmage actually seem thrifty. Ray's son wants to go over the hill to fight, too, but his father holds him back. "I have to see this," the son pleads. I wanted to see it too, but Spielberg doesn't show us. Why? Not for lack of money. The most ready answer is a squeamishness to portray American soldiers being obliterated. It's a hard one to argue, except that in a film so politically charged and violent, it seems a tad irresolute, if not inconsistent.

Withdrawing from the battlefield, Spielberg returns to intimate quarters — notably a rustic basement watched over by the crazy eyes of Tim Robbins, his domain outfitted with slotted windows from which we can see the rest of humanity being pulped in alien juicers. Here the movie stumbles on a few "Jurassic Park" moments, and one wonders soon after why the director and his writers, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, stick so doggedly to the original's ending. To be honest, much of this story now seems quaint and unsophisticated. There are plenty of places where one could argue for an update, leaving the best parts of "War of the Worlds" unconcerned with war or worlds. It's the old game of monsters chasing us around in the dark that matters. We may have grown a little tired by now of the formula, but for summer fun, it sure beats a bunch of drippy talk about a dark side. ***1/2 S

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