Published in 1898 as Britain suspiciously eyed the unification and militarization of Germany, HG Wells' The War Of The Worlds offered a hyper-real account of an alien invasion. It disguised itself as a cracking read, the stench of burning flesh wafting from riffled pages as gloopy Martians strode into London atop mechanical tripods. It was really about the tragic fall out of blinkered imperialism, the threat of advancing technology and the clanging hypocrisy of organised religion.
The world's moved on but Steven Spielberg was quick to realise that Wells' metaphor is portable, equally applicable to post-9/11 America. Just look at his initial money shot, a 100ft tripod tearing through tarmac at a Newark intersection as cars flip and buildings (notably a church) collapse. Panicked crowds run for their lives, screaming and dropping camcorders as they're chased by a wall of dust, one man yelling, "We're under attack", another bawling, "By who? Who's attacking us?" Like the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, it's shot with an electric docu-realism.
A later scene sees Ray (Tom Cruise, solid as a blue-collar docker) and his two kids (Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning) drive into a knot of terrified, terrorised refugees. Desperate to commandeer his vehicle, the mob smash at the windows and beat him to the ground. Spielberg may let sentiment gush in come the trite, twee conclusion - doesn't he always? - but, for now, this is humanity at its most inhumane.
War Of The Worlds is full of such startling images (bodies floating down a river, tripods swaying on the horizon) but Spielberg knows that less is often more. Jets and choppers whizz past Ray's head, barely glimpsed as they roar over the horizon to wage abstract war. A shattered 747 smoulders in the morning sun. And a ferry rolls on its side as a tripod rears out of the water, its scale hard to gauge as it slips past the oh-so-close lens like a Lovecraftian beast. Like Wells' book, this is war seen through the eyes of one man. What Ray doesn't see, we don't see.
Prepped, shot and locked in just 10 months, it's perhaps not surprising that Worlds is uneven, the fractured family dynamic proving woefully forced, and Ray's claustrophobic confrontation with a deranged man (Tim Robbins) feeling dropped in, a film-within-a-film. But Spielberg's 22nd feature still exhilarates, taking goggle-eyed viewers on an enterprising journey as it morphs from grey, gritty realism to fairytale hinterland, the aliens painting the sky orange (flame) and the ground red (infernal, choking weeds).
What started off like the attack on the World Trade Center has become The Wizard Of Oz, yet Spielberg's inner child can't be accused. Incredibly, inexplicably, it works - lurid colours painting Lucifer's darkest dreams.