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MOVIE REVIEW

The sum of all fears

'War of the Worlds' unleashes a harrowing story of devastation but pulls back in the end

Late in ''War of the Worlds," there's a shot of a battered highway sign reading ''Welcome to Boston" that made the preview audience with whom I saw the film burst into nervous laughter. Then the crowd fell silent -- more silent than I've experienced in a packed theater in many moons -- as the smoking ruins of our city came into focus.

''War of the Worlds," it turns out, is serious stuff, at times more so than it knows how to handle. Far from being a cowboy-up wham-a-rama like ''Independence Day," Steven Spielberg's updating of the 1898 H.G. Wells sci-fi classic tries to seriously envision what a cataclysmic alien assault upon Earth -- which in Hollywood terms always means America -- would look like. The Wells novel has already provided the material for a 1953 film and a 1938 Orson Welles radio show that scared the pants off the country. Spielberg wants to scare us, too, and to a more topical purpose.

This is, for better and for worse, his 9/11 movie, but while it's emphatically not for children, it ultimately treats a viewer like one. When the blue-collar hero played by Tom Cruise -- covered with the gray ash of his vaporized Bayonne, N.J., neighbors -- throws his kids in a car and hits the highway, his son screams, ''Is it terrorists?" ''This came from someplace else," he yells back, and you can almost feel the relief of the audience at being let off the hook of current events. It's just special effects, kid -- everything will turn out OK by the end credits.

Before we get there, however, ''War of the Worlds" envisions a believable and frightening hell on earth, with a startlingly unheroic Cruise at the center of the action. The first hour alone stands as Spielberg's most confident filmmaking since ''Saving Private Ryan," a film that ''War" at times resembles (there's a little ''Jurassic Park" and ''Jaws" in there, too, not to mention all of ''Close Encounters" turned inside out).

Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a dockworker who's two steps away from being a deadbeat dad, and it's a mark of the star's unfussy immersion in the role that I forgot all about his recent looney-tune shenanigans five minutes in. Ray's ex-wife (Miranda Otto, from ''The Lord of the Rings") drops their two kids off as the film starts and heads with her yuppie new husband to Boston for the weekend, but not before looking around Ray's bachelor pad -- car engine on the kitchen table, sour milk in the fridge -- with a sniff of distaste.

You can feel the bad history between them, and things aren't much better between Ray and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning, who, when she's not screaming or in clinical shock, is her usual freaky little Bette Davis self). A backyard game of catch between father and son -- the latter wearing a Bosox cap just to tick off the old man -- is loaded with hostility, and Spielberg captures the unraveling family dynamic with a skill that recalls Richard Dreyfuss's domestic life going south in ''Close Encounters." Once again we're reminded that this is a director who knows from broken homes.

But there are strange lightning storms in Ukraine, and electro-magnetic pulse blackouts elsewhere around the world. And suddenly they're in Ray's backyard. The sequence in which the hero and his neighbors watch uncomprehendingly as a freakish hurricane eye approaches, lines of laundry whipping in the wind then ominously going limp, is gorgeously fraught with portent, and the following scenes, in which the community takes to the erupting streets and slowly begins to panic, is captured with clarity and an eye for the awful detail. On a personal note, as someone who happened to be living directly across New York Harbor when the planes hit and whose family and friends breathed the ashes for weeks afterward, let me tell you: This is how it felt.

Rather too conveniently, Ray and his children commandeer the one car not affected by the aliens' EMP burst, and head first to suburbia (where there's a terrifying sequence involving a downed plane), and then to Boston, where his ex-wife presumably waits. Their journey becomes increasingly apocalyptic as they join the throngs trying to cross the Hudson, and ''War of the Worlds" at this point plays like a blockbuster response to the little-seen 2003 Michael Haneke film ''Time of the Wolf," in which Isabelle Huppert and her family crisscrossed the French countryside in the wake of an unknown disaster. The comparison bears mentioning only because both Haneke and Spielberg want their pampered, middle-class audiences to consider what it's like to be refugees, and they want us to consider it hard.

But ''Time of the Wolf" didn't have aliens, and ''War" has them in spades: death-dealing battle machines that look like Stealth fighters atop snake-like tripods the height of skyscrapers. They come from underground, from underwater, from above, and they're ruthless. ''They've been planning this for years," says Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). ''This isn't a war. It's an extermination."

Harlan is a chatty, creepy survivalist whom Ray and Rachel meet while huddling in a basement, and it's with his appearance that ''War of the Worlds" begins to develop engine trouble. The three stay in that basement for a sustained, claustrophobic sequence -- it's probably 20 minutes, but it feels like a week -- in which they fight off alien probes and a recon mission by the critters themselves. Robbins plays his role with a minimum of subtlety (it's a Hollywood liberal's idea of a Middle American rube), there's a bit that echoes the velociraptors-in-the-kitchen scene from ''Jurassic Park" a little too closely, and the whole thing ends with a development that completely changes our opinion of Ray, and not necessarily for the better.

Curiously, in the next scene he emerges from that basement as Tom Cruise, action hero, and when the character disappears up the sphincter of an alien ship -- sorry, that's what it looks like -- I half expected him to come out holding Katie Holmes. The last third of ''War" alternates bloody horror show with increasingly dubious derring-do, and then, as with ''A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," Spielberg goes preposterously sentimental on us in the clinch.

When this happened, the preview audience hooted in derision and started filing for the exits, and who can blame them? We're older and wiser now; we've had our own close encounters, and not with E.T. If you're going to take us back to 9/11 -- and even amp it up to 11 -- you can't try to flatter us by pretending that everyone comes back alive. To do so condescends to audiences and trivializes the real event, and some of us may even find that offensive. ''War of the Worlds" pushes some of the right buttons and enough of the wrong ones to make you wish that Spielberg would move on from aliens already and use his unparalleled talents to focus once more on earth.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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