Given the clampdown on timely press screenings and its star's assorted diversionary tactics, you'd suspect 'War of the Worlds'had something to hide. Yet this update of HG Wells' 1898 novel of alien attack is vintage latter-day Spielberg, re-establishing the director as reigning architect of disaster porn, unleashing a frenzy of the visible to metronomic rhythms of set-up and money shot, set-up and money shot.
Divorced bad dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) has his two kids for the weekend when a freak lightning storm hits his blue-collar New Jersey neighbourhood. Next, an apocalypse: the ground cracks and yawns open, the basso-groan of alien-built tripods begins a terrifying industrial symphony, and crackling beams vapourise the fleeing herds one by one, their suddenly body-less clothes borne into the air like kites. (The mass-panicked humans can pose as much a threat as their predators, as when a deranged zombie mob descends on the Ferriers' car.) Like its characters,'War'is always on the run: no time to explain the alien infrastructure or the crimson kudzu-like vines choking the landscape; when a burning train screams past, we pause to stare wordlessly at its smoking streak, then it's on to the next catastrophe. September 11 signifiers abound – in the thick film of white death-dust veiling Cruise after a narrow escape, and the Red Cross volunteer megaphoning 'We have more blood than we can use' – but any social context or family pathos (yes, Ray rises to the occasion, but so did the dread Giuliani) is thin and wobbly. Nevertheless, the film succeeds as pure sensation, an exacting distillation of fear.