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Spielberg Revitalizes Classic Sci-Fi Thriller <i>War of The Worlds</i>

Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg dusts off a science-fiction classic and updates it to create a chilling thriller about an invasion from outer space. Alan Silverman has a look at War of The Worlds.

There is something scary under the streets of urban New Jersey ... and when it breaks through the pavement even scarier things start to happen.

Tom Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a divorced father taking care of his two children on what turns out to be an eventful weekend as extraterrestrials wreak havoc on the planet. Adapted from H.G. Wells's 1898 novel, War of The Worlds taps into deep fears about unknown, unseen, unstoppable invaders. The story became a part of American popular culture when a 1938 radio dramatization by a then-young Orson Welles sparked genuine panic. It was first made into a film 50 years ago, but with this new version, Steven Spielberg shows he can depict outer space aliens that are not benign and friendly, as they were in his films E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

"I thought why can't I try my hand at the kind of film that Ridley Scott made when he did the first Alien, which is one of my favorite scary science fiction movies of all time. It's just something I had always wanted to do," Spielberg says. "I had wanted to do War of The Worlds ever since I read the book in college before I actually became a filmmaker. It's a great piece of 19th century literature. It was something that I really respected when it was first made by George Pal in 1953; and I just thought we could make a version a little darker and closer to the original novel."

Screenwriter David Koepp, who collaborated with Spielberg on the first two Jurassic Park films, says they made a conscious effort in this script to avoid the clich├ęs and stock scenes of "alien invader" movies: no montage of world cities or landmarks being destroyed, no breathless broadcasters trying to describe the carnage, no "big picture" overview from some battlefield commander. Instead, Koepp says it tells the story through the eyes of this one man and his family.

"One of the things that I thought was so brilliant about the book that no one had ever exploited was its point of view," he says."These vast global events were told from the point of view of one man on the periphery and I think that's the genius of it. So we made our rule 'if Ray doesn't see it, we can't see it.' Then you go about trying to tell your story."

Co-star Tim Robbins believes the continuing appeal of the story is that it draws on the apprehensions of its audiences.

"I think the original novel was a warning against the quickness with which industrialization and modernization was happening; but each generation has applied their own fears to it," Robbins says. " In the 1930's, when Orson Welles did the radio play, there was the impending fascism in Europe. In the 1950's when it was done as a movie there was the communist threat. Today we are living in times when there is a different fear, so I guess each generation will find its interpretation of this classic novel."

Director Spielberg says some of the scenes of panicked crowds running for safety were inspired by news video from the 2001 9-11 attacks: "a searing image that I've never been able to get out of my head" is the way he describes it. While it may reflect real life fears, however, Spielberg insists the film does not make a political statement.

"This movie is a reflection and there are all sorts of metaphors you can certainly divine from the story," Spielberg explains. "I was hoping it would be more like a prism: everyone can see in a facet of the prism what they choose to take from the experience of seeing War of The Worlds. I tried to make it as open for interpretation as possible, without having anybody come out with a huge political polemic in the second act of the movie. I think there are certainly politics underneath some of the scares and adventure and fear, but I really wanted to make it suggestive enough for everyone to have their own opinion. But I certainly gave you enough rope to hang me with."

War of The Worlds also features Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin as the two children of Cruise's character. The amazing scenes of destruction are brought to life through vividly realistic computer imagery and the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The soundtrack score is by another frequent Spielberg collaborator and Oscar-winner, John Williams.