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Forget what Tom Cruise does outside his movies: What he does inside his movies is more than enough to wreck them. He hides booby traps of self-absorption within a bundle of energy. Michael Mann brilliantly abstracted his go-getting persona into an affectless contract killer in Cruise's best star vehicle, Collateral. And at the start of War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp prod Cruise into using his goony effusiveness to portray a first-class - make that first-grade - idiot. But eventually, the actor's relentless drive to be taken seriously pushes this escapist apocalypse past its tipping point, into irredeemable weightiness.

Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced Jersey dockworker with a chip on his shoulder the size of Newark - he married "above" himself to Miranda Otto's upper-crust New Englander. The actor creates a character who vents frustration by driving like a maniac and adopting a go-to-hell attitude toward his boss and his family obligations. He's a jerk - not even a cool jerk - and his macho boasts spark derisive laughter.

The comedy really explodes when his teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), ignores him and his 11-year-old daughter, Rachel (the always-remarkable Dakota Fanning), reprimands him, after his ex-wife drops them off for the weekend. This rough working-class domestic farce fuels your hope for the rest of War of the Worlds. But a picture that begins as a cheeky, brisk and scary movie, with a welcome audacity at mixing sci-fi fantasy and real-life catastrophes like 9/11, becomes a bludgeoning trip toward redemption.

Positioned as the dark side of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the merger of Saving Private Ryan and Alien, the film is actually more like Jaws. As in H.G. Wells' 1898 novel, invaders from outer space target earthlings for annihilation, without explanation or evidence of a rationale. In their frightening Tripod war vessels - mechanical monsters, with a body-and-head piece shaped like a cyclist's racing helmet atop three towering legs - they're simply killing machines, like the Great White Shark. Instead of lethal jaws they use heat rays to pulverize humanity without destroying nonbiological matter. Instead of teeth the aliens use the Tripods' anacondalike extensions to encircle men, women and children so they can suck human blood.

As the seat-of-the-pants tyro making Jaws (1975), Spielberg was a merry prankster - he caught us up in the defeat of a primal enemy while poking fun at men who exulted in mortal contests. A healthy dose of that humor enters the first 40 minutes of War of the Worlds. Ray treats lightning-streaked cloudscapes out of the Book of Revelation as a weather-and-light show, then jokes with his pals at a five-way intersection about God taking vengeance on their 'hood.

Yet once the invasion kicks into gear and Ray races his kids back to their mother in Boston, the director leaves all-American rowdiness behind. The movie becomes a dour tale of - hold your breath - a negligent dad's spiritual salvation as he gives his all for his kids.

Spielberg has said that he loves the ideas Cruise brought to this film, but they're lousy in essence or in execution. When the petrified Rachel asks Ray to sing her a lullaby, Ray, not knowing one, croons her to sleep with "Little Deuce Coupe." The moment might have had some giddy charge if Cruise betrayed a sense of his character's foolishness. But he milks the bit for pathos and heartbreak; playing a heel of a father he still ends up pleading for sympathy.

Koepp's smart adaptation of Wells' novel proves more faithful than Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast or the 1953 George Pal movie partly because Koepp sticks to the hero's perspective and offers only a partial view of Armageddon. But by giving their protagonist two kids to protect and a host of domestic issues to thrash out (Wells' unnamed narrator has no children, and his wife leaves the story early on), Spielberg and Koepp risk overloading the melodrama.

They might have gotten away with it if they'd echoed Jaws and threaded their horrific action with absurdist satire. But Spielberg the industry giant no longer toys with his material. The movie springs to life every time there's a laugh - when Ray asks Rachel how long she's been allergic to peanut butter, the girl answers, "From birth." But Cruise grows increasingly monochromatic as the film goes on. When he and Fanning stumble into a basement hideout with Tim Robbins - a man who lost everything and has become a haywire survivalist - what might have been a sardonic confrontation becomes a duel of over-actors.

War of the Worlds isn't an empty husk like Mr. & Mrs. Smith or a cinderblock piece of mythmaking like Batman Begins. No one can set a stage for calamity with more zest and chutzpah than Spielberg. The initial vision of a Tripod emerging from a small dented circle in the New Jersey asphalt echoes and matches the flying saucer's emergence from the frozen waste in Howard Hawks' production of The Thing (1951). Once all hell breaks loose, there is a rush of terrorizing energy; as in Jaws, you do get the sense of action careening around the corners of the frame. Spielberg still has the film instinct to bring scenes of mass hysteria a turbulent spontaneity.

Yet elsewhere his desire to apply a verite style to a special-effects extravaganza reveals signs of haste. Spielberg reaches his directorial nadir when Ray follows Rachel into a wire cage on a Tripod's torso - there's a cage on each side, like mock breasts. With a couple of grenades in hand, Ray gets sucked into a mechanical nipple that the Tripod uses as a self-feeder. He aims to blow up the Tripod real good, but Spielberg neglects to drive home the point that the other prisoners know what he's doing. When they come to Ray's rescue, it's as if they'd just recognized Tom Cruise.

The flat and rounded diamond shape of the slimy aliens mirrors the triangular motif of their Tripods; there's pulp elegance to those designs. And Spielberg scatters inventive bits throughout, especially one involving a Tripod tentacle and a mirror. Still, the main virtue of this production is its closeness to Wells. It allows you to consider the profundities he embedded into the material over a century ago. The crux of War of the Worlds is that "survival of the fittest" is a more subtle concept than superior brains; it means survival of those most fit, or "suitable," to dominate a certain environment.

Despite the wearying spectacle, there may be enough going on in War of the Worlds to make it a survivor in this summer's depressed movie landscape.

War of the Worlds

Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Time 118 minutes

SUN SCORE * * 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

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