After The Terminal, there was a sense that Spielberg wanted to address 9/11 but didn't know how to (The Terminal is a film that is about September 11 without actually being about it). And with War of the Worlds he took it head on. This though may be building to his next film, Munich or Revenge, or whatever it will eventually be called. And after A.I. (a career changing film if there ever was one), Spielberg seems on a more introspective path, as A.I. seems more important to Spielberg's "Adult" career than the myriad of films that proceeded it (with Empire of the Sun left out of this equation as I haven't seen it since it hit video... When I was 12).
Ultimately the crisis in War of the Worlds is that it is balls to bone a summer picture, and as such the final twenty minute allow for some as reductively done as possible heroics that make Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier character at least something of a good guy. I don't know if this is a problem of the film, per se, so much as the nature of the beast. Spielberg is ultimately smuggling, and that's okay. It just weakens the tenor of the picture and keeps it from being a masterpiece. But it's a pretty remarkable "Incoherent text"
The biggest flaw of the film is Ray's son Robbie, who feels more a plot device than character. As has been discussed elsewhere, he must be an ass to Ray the entire time. At first this works. Any person interested in the craft of filmmaking would do well to study the sequence in which Ray and Robbie play baseball. From Robbie donning the hat, to their conversation, and aggressions, Spielberg rightfully can call himself a master. Alas, Robbie runs off to join the Army at one point, and then returns for the end. This is the inherent compromise of making a nine figure picture, as Robbie is shown going into a situation that looks to be apocalyptic and offers no hope, which gave me the sense that the last 20 some minutes (on first viewing) could be read as a fever dream of relief. Alas, that interpretation doesn't hold water under the numerous repeat viewings I've given the film.
This also ties into some of the elements that become more glaring after first viewing. Ray tries to keep his daughter Rachel oblivious to the death and destruction around them as often as possible (in a way that recalled for me a film Spielberg supposedly HATED, Life is Beautiful), and as the film is told subjectively through Ray, we're not sure what Robbie's seeing that would make him run off to war, to think that there was something he could do. His character is meant to represent a mindset, but over the course of the film, with the aliens kicking mucho anus, it's hard to see why he'd feel the way he does. I guess though that has more to do with me. But even so, the biggest problem with the film is that characters keep complaining once they've seen the shit. Rachel complains about sleeping in the basement, and the films already hit a point where Rachel should have seen enough to know that maybe listening to Dad in this situation might have merit. So certain sequences have greater power than others, like the car ride (a remarkable CGI'd one shot, again, Spielberg is an absolute master), but characters keep yelling to cover up the fact if they sat down and listened then they might stop yelling. I guess that's fine, but when the world looks to be going to the shitters, you know, you think there might be a moment of taking stock. Again, fever dream.
Another thing is that there is a lot of inconsistency to the vision. There's a great crashed jet plane that landed on Ray's ex-wife's house, and a crew of reports are ransacking the plane for food. We see a reporter chug water like she hasn't had any in a day or so. And yet this neighborhood seems unaffected, and their piracy seems more a point of having a set piece (and allowing for some exposition) then it behaving organically. And opening the question of food and water (which Ray's kids refused all but ten minutes earlier) points out that we're in movie land. This sort of "Huh" also hits in the ferry scene as people are in cars (cars with their lights on) when not but two scenes earlier people were dragging Ray's fam out of their working car because they wanted transportation. That sequence, the car theft scene, is impeccable, but between it and the ferry sequence (where people are sitting in working cars) it again points out that much of the film is done more for effect than coherence. I guess though one could argue the whole piece is meant to be a fever dream.
And this sense of "okay" becomes even more problematic in the third act, when Tim Robbins character Harlan Ogilivy switches at least two and possibly three gears, as he goes from war battled Ambulance driver, vigilante, to scared paranoid (the final transition allows for the film's bleakest sequence) but Harlan having been an ambulance driver... It just feels off. And what sets Harlan off is the Alien's use for humans, which, again, doesn't feel in tandem with what we've seen previous.
I say these things, but what I'm left with is that Spielberg made so much right, so many sequence of merit, and honestly commenting on the times, that I'm left weighing it's problems against the sum of its parts, which are all quite great. Spielberg knows how to put sequences together, and its an impressive feat, it just doesn't congeal.