War's on 

Nothing cuddly in Spielberg's newest alien trip.

AT WAR: Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning.
  • AT WAR: Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning.
It’s interesting — given the dark, real-world doings of a few years back — to look at the differences between that last alien movie director Steven Spielberg did and his newest, “War of the Worlds.” Then: Cute, cuddly alien; an interstellar traveler who wants to get home. Now: Evil, slimy alien; an interstellar traveler who wants to turn your skull into a souvenir ashtray. I think Spielberg’s underlying message is clear: E.T. came to earth, reported back what Reese’s Pieces-eatin’ wussies we are, and his people decided to kick some homo-sapien ass. Alien strategy aside, “War of the Worlds” turns out to be a surprisingly good movie, easily eclipsing all the “Exploding World Landmarks” pictures of a few summers back. Tom Cruise plays Ray Farrier, a work-a-day Joe from New Jersey who is sweating out a weekend visit from his kids, precocious Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and suitably smarmy teen-ager Robbie (Justin Chatwin). Soon after his ex-wife leaves, however, a freak electrical storm rolls in over the town, frying every car and electronic device within a hundred miles. After a series of lighting strikes, huge mechanical monsters rise up from the earth and begin incinerating everything in their path. Ray steals the one working car in town and heads for Boston, where his ex-wife is supposed to be staying with her parents. In between, Ray, Robbie and Rachel get caught up in the mass panic that follows the emergence of the machines — punctuated by terrifying scenes featuring hordes of the tri-legged robots wreaking destruction and havoc far and wide. While he’s not that good of an actor in my estimation of the concept, Cruise can still make you believe in what he’s doing and look good doing it, which is three quarters of the battle. Spielberg, however, is on all eight cylinders, with a film that often looks strangely familiar. Buildings implode. Crowds rush away as dust billows through the streets — at one point covering Cruise so that he looks like one of those Manhattanite ghosts of 9/11. Spielberg’s camera often lingers on long walls covered with flyers seeking the missing, and hovers over the heads of fleeing crowds. Like any good artist, Spielberg seems to have let the real world seep into his dream of a world under attack. In all, “WOTW” is a great popcorn flick, especially when you slow down and look at Spielberg’s often-masterful shot composition. Though the film seems to be reaching for some kind of bigger message, “WOTW” never quite makes it. With a suspenseful and sharp storyline, however, the lack of message is no real loss. — By David Koon “Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag” roars louder and is more explosive than your typical Jerry Bruckheimer-produced theatrical release, and it may be a bit much if you’re carrying a 3-year-old with you, as we were at a recent showing. But most older children will love it, as will the adults, as this new IMAX film at the Aerospace Education Center both thrills and educates about the current U.S. Air Force and its mighty power. It’s said that most casualties among fighter pilots occur within the first 10 missions and the number drastically drops after that. The Air Force’s “Operation Red Flag,” which brings together modern air power from six nations to Nellis Air Base in Nevada for war games, is supposed to provide the fighter pilot with the experience of those first 10 missions. And don’t think they can’t be as deadly. As seen through the eyes of flyer John Stafford, whose grandfather was a highly decorated WWII fighter pilot and inspiration to his grandson, we see the 40-minute IMAX and Air Force version of “Top Gun,” going inside “Operation Red Flag” and watching our subject pilot grow over the two-week course while trying to avoid other aircraft, mountains and more. Visually entertaining while often assaulting to the eardrums, it’s one of the more informative and fun IMAX films we’ve seen. — By Jim Harris

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