Steven Spielberg may have an interstellar army of computer effects at hand, but it's not yet feasible for the director, much as he might wish, to digitize a new ending for Close Encounters. The genius architect of the Hollywood blockbuster has brought that brittle fantasy of escape from adulthood back to the editing room at least twice since 1977: putting disco balls in the mothership to justify a tweaked "special edition" in 1980, then taking them out again in the late '90s to restore the film's dignity (and make his other minor changes definitive). What the endlessly revisionist
Spielberg--now an Oscar winner, philanthropist, and father--hasn't been able to do is make CE3K's tale of a beleaguered family man (Richard Dreyfuss) who catches the first spaceship off the planet look remotely flattering to the mogul.
But he can make another movie. War of the Worlds--or W.O.W., as the studio's baseball caps would have it--bids to be as relentlessly nerve-jangling as Spielberg's Jaws or Jurassic Park: Its E.T.s are out for human blood. (Wow!) Here, though, the negligent father (Tom Cruise) redeems himself, thumbing a ride on an alien craft in order to stay with the kid. Spielberg also revises, none too subtly, the H.G. Wells and '50s Hollywood versions of War (Are those giant red straws available at Burger King?), stopping along the way to spruce up key shots from other people's blockbusters: Titanic, Signs, Aliens, The Abyss, The Perfect Storm, Starship Troopers, and Mars Attacks! to name a few. Spielberg has nothing to prove to M. Night Shyamalan or anyone else, but these extraneous scenes of CGI envy evince a desperation on the part of the innovator to catch up, if only in his own mind.
Apparently Spielberg also feels the need to scrub his own A.I. and Minority Report of their box-office imperfections, for W.O.W., whose horrors are largely confined to the ongoing alien "tripod" stomp in Dolby, is hardly a film of ideas. "Is it the terrorists?" asks Dad's cute preteen daughter (Dakota Fanning) in the first of several clunky allusions to life after 9/11--none as indelible for me as the airport security-style check-in at the New York screening I attended. (You can bring cell phones onto planes, but not to War.) Cruise pulls off one effective scene with each of his two young co-stars: Dad failing to persuade his teenage boy (Justin Chatwin) to stay with the family once U.S. Army tanks begin to engage the enemy (of course the kid wants a ringside seat for the big payback); and his tearful admission to Fanning's doe-eyed Rachel that he doesn't know any of the soothing lullabies she needs to hear. (The latter moment becomes a Moment, alas, when Cruise compensates with a few off-key lines from "Little Deuce Coupe.")
In his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes: "The inevitable comparison of Star Wars and Close Encounters reveals [George] Lucas as a toymaker, and Spielberg as an admiring explorer of the mind's power." Maybe--but that was then, this is W.O.W. What the maker of Close Encounters is mainly exploring in his latest blockbuster is the power of last-minute, high-security screenings to prevent aliens from sharing his "intellectual property" in cyberspace. About halfway through War of the Worlds, Spielberg does dare to depict humanity in a terrorized, stratified state--but not at all in terms of class or race or religion or any of the myriad other heavily patrolled borders that help define the horror of how we live now. That job he leaves, at Worlds' end, to a film whose apocalyptic vision of the new America can't be reduced to a clever acronym: George A. Romero's Land of the Dead.