While an excellent SFX sci-fi thriller, War of the Worlds falters as a domestic drama, which is, unfortunately, the heart of the film.
As alien invaders attack planet Earth, dock worker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) must protect his estranged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as he finally assumes the responsibility of being a father while the world collapses around him.
Seen through the eyes of one man, War of the Worlds suffers from the bad decision of casting Tom Cruise in the lead role of Ray Ferrier. It's not that Cruise can't act (in fact he tries his best). He is just too big and too controversial to play the everyday man trapped in an extraordinary situation. Hugh Jackman or Dennis Quaid would have been much suitable in the lead role and would have come with less baggage.
Dakota Fanning -who acts way to mature for her age - does not convey the vulnerability and innocence her character is supposed to have. Tim Robbins is average in a minor role constantly crossing the line between playing crazy and going over the top, and Miranda Otto is wasted as Ray's ex-wife.
The most interesting role belongs to Justin Chatwin. Granted the rebel son is a clichéd part, but this time out instead of Cruise playing the hero it is his son who has heroic aspirations to fight back and save the world. Maybe a sign that Cruise is leaving the heroes to a younger generation?
The films strength lies within the excellent direction by Steven Spielberg, with War of the Worlds containing some of the most terrifyingly intense scenes he has ever put on film.
The rise of the alien tripods from below the Earth's surface is a perfect example of exceptional film making, combined with jaw dropping special effects and excellent set design. Another scene where a mob of desperate survivors swarm all over Ray's van with his family inside leads to a chilling conclusion, the exceptional camera work and Tom Cruise's great acting creating a gut wrenching piece of cinema.
There are familiar elements in War of the Worlds when compared to other Spielberg films, the theme of the broken family being the most obvious (and distracting). War of the Worlds could have been another great film in Spielberg's back pocket; it's just a shame about the cast.