War of the Worlds touches down in theaters tomorrow, and we find ourselves wondering: Could Tom Cruise actually be an alien? Because it would explain a lot.
Take Friday's Today show tirade, when the leading man lectured Matt Lauer on the dangers of Ritalin. The segment would not have been weirder if the finger Cruise shook was webbed, or dribbling slime. And if extraterrestrials hit this planet as vigorously as the actor attacked Oprah Winfrey's couch last month, the human race should immediately surrender.
Katie Holmes certainly did. In mid-June the cheerful, chubby-cheeked 26-year-old agreed to marry the 42-year-old actor after only a couple months of colonization ... er, um, courtship. Some reports say she vanished for a week before they started dating -- whisked off to his planet, perhaps? And of course Cruise popped the question atop the Eiffel Tower! Before giving the Earthling news conference, he needed to transmit the happy news to "his people."
Then there's the obsession with Scientology, and that maniacal laugh of his. The British guy who squirted Cruise in the face with the water gun microphone at War of the World's London premiere was probably just trying to save the Earth, betting that the actor's flesh-colored makeup would rinse away to reveal mottled green skin, or a third eye perhaps.
But naturally, it didn't; Cruise called the prankster a jerk, had him arrested, and moved on -- which sounds like a pretty standard Hollywood prima donna response. In fact, a lot of fans and talking head types are questioning whether Cruise's spaced-out routine is just a publicity stunt. After decidedly earthbound performances, and box-office receipts, in Collateral and The Last Samurai, the actor and his career may need a media jumpstart, even if it is from a spacecraft. Falling madly in love might just be part of the show: Gossip columnists have reported rumors that Cruise auditioned other starlets for the role of his soulmate, before settling on Holmes, and The Daily News' Ben Widdicombe even suggested that Cruise is paying Holmes $5 million to play his girlfriend-turned-fiancee.
Granted, this grand publicity gamble -- if that's what it is -- is being conducted without the help of Cruise's longtime publicist, Pat Kingsley, who he reportedly fired a year ago. And though it seems to be working, in a sense -- Cruise's kooky appearances (some would say performances) have been covered by the tabloids, The New York Times and everything in between, it's also unclear whether his close encounters on the talk show circuit have improved his job prospects. Some celebrity news Web sites have reported that his behavior jeopardized his starring role in the coming Mission Impossible III, and his engagement to Holmes seems to have made him more a laughingstock than a sex symbol.
At the very least he's left himself open to interpretation, and misinterpretation. In doing so, Cruise is playing to the real cultural legacy of War of the Worlds -- which is not based in film but in radio, in Orson Welles' famous 1938 news-style broadcast about aliens landing in the American countryside. The result was mass hysteria, because listeners thought the story was true. Now, Cruise's hysteria is decidedly singular, but his audience has that same muddled feeling.
We wonder: Where does the script end and the real story begin? Only Cruise can say.
1. May 23: Declares love for Katie Holmes, complete with couch-jumping on Oprah.
2. May 26: Disses Brooke Shields for taking drugs for post-partum depression.
3. June 8: More sofa-surfing, this time on Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
4. June 12: Katie says she'll convert to Scientology.
5. June 17: Gets engaged to the new convert; immediately calls a news conference.
6. June 19: Gets water-gunned by prankster; gets revenge by calling him a jerk.
7. June 24: Debates Matt Lauer on who knows more about psychiatry and Ritalin; decides he does.