(2005)4Jeremy WheelerSteven Spielberg has crafted one of his most horrific nightmares with War of the Worlds, an unrelenting disaster pic that brings the genre to a bruised, post-9/11 world. With imagery taken straight from history's darkest days, the master storyteller goes against his crowd-pleasing genes and delivers a harrowing tale of survival as only he could. Spielberg and America's favorite crazy man, Tom Cruise, follow up the inspired but bloated Minority Report with a surprisingly efficient picture that's as succinct in its running time as it is in its scares. Made under the gun with less than a year of production behind it, there's an energy to the 128-million-dollar film that hasn't been found in the famed director's work for quite some time. He once again shows his magical skills directing young actors with Dakota Fanning, whose traumatic performance sells every bit of the frightening action, while relative newcomer Justin Chatwin impresses as the older brother filled with blind retribution. Most surprising is actually Cruise himself, who's cast against the typical heroic mold in favor of a conflicted self-centered father forced to accept his responsibilities in the face of imminent death, which even then is questionable considering his plan of action. With superb effects and nerve-rattling sound design, War is filled with its share of jaw-on-the-floor awe moments, but they simply wouldn't work as well if not presented through the narrowly focused perspective of Cruise's character. The somewhat maligned third act with Tim Robbins is a perfect example of this, with Spielberg closing in the action to a single basement, where the fear comes not from what you see, but what you don't. In another person's hands, this could have been a soulless exercise -- as it is now, War of the Worlds stands as a strong allegory for its time, taking its place in a summer full of movies with more on their minds than simple popcorn entertainment.