Tom Cruise has done a lot of running for his life in the movies. He's running again in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, and he's never had such good reason to do so. Spielberg's vision of H.G. Wells's otherworldly invaders is terrifying indeed.

Unleashing some of the most convincing special effects and some of the most upsetting displays of destruction and urban chaos ever filmed, War of the Worlds excels in its technical execution. ILM serves up visual wonders that make Revenge of the Sith look dated already, raising the bar so high for scenes of devastation that it's unlikely to be surpassed—even when Peter Jackson's King Kong wreaks havoc in New York later this year.

It's one of Tom Cruise's best performances as an irresponsible father and divorcé e who annoys his rebellious teenage son (newcomer Justin Chatwin) and his unusually mature young daughter (Dakota Fanning) on days when they're in his care. Fanning's performance is so strong that she deserves an Oscar nomination. Spielberg proves he's still the greatest American director of children.

The most surprising thing is that Spielberg goes deep into horror territory; the violence is as troubling as anything in Aliens. The camera doesn't flinch when fleeing citizens are incinerated by alien death rays; and wait until you see what they do to the people they don't incinerate. This film will give nightmares to grownups, and it could be deeply distressing for children. War of the Worlds is 117 minutes of unrelenting bloodshed, terror, destruction, and chaos, at times as fierce as Saving Private Ryan.

Spielberg avoids many of his common mistakes—there are no goofy sidekicks or sermonizing asides. And it's refreshing to see a film that admits human endeavor is not enough to save the world. So it's truly astonishing when, against all odds, Spielberg once again blows the ending, with a lot of help from screenwriter David Koepp, settling for an abrupt, predictable, sentimental, thoroughly unsatisfying conclusion.

Even more distressing is the film's throwaway suggestion that we place our hopes in the possibility of a happy accident, instead of in the design of a benevolent creator. When it comes to offering comfort and perspective on violence, M. Night Shyamalan (Signs) is the superior storyteller.

My full review is at Looking Closer.

Christian film critics who survived the invasion have varying reports.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says, "However warm Spielberg may feel toward individual persons, War of the Worlds just may represent the bleakest view of humanity as a whole that has ever come through in one of his films. Like disasters in real life, the film hits you in the gut with a vision of catastrophe, and leaves you to sort out what it all means. It's a daring approach for a would-be summer blockbuster—so daring it's almost admirable—but some viewers might want a little more guidance."

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Christopher Lyon (Plugged In) says it's "classic Spielberg, but it's a much darker, scarier Spielberg. The brilliantly paced action sequences, hair-raising effects and detailed set pieces bring to mind his Jurassic Park, Minority Report or other classic adventures. But the tone of the film comes closer to the gritty, near-hopeless feelings deep inside Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Our heroes slowly give in to despair. Don't expect the congenial diplomacy of Close Encounters or the good times and chest-thumping found in alien invasion flicks like Independence Day."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The images of violence and (somehow even more disturbingly) the aftermath of violence are graphic and most powerfully felt. … I would think that, depending upon one's personal experience during one of America's darkest days, elements of this film might stir up highly emotional and unpleasant memories."

Jeffrey Huston (Crosswalk) is enthusiastic. "War of the Worlds wraps with a surprising affirmation of man's God-ordained role as the ruling species on the planet (essentially saying as much), and its theme that men neither live nor die in vain is a stirring evocation of the firemen, policemen, and soldiers who defend us at our most harrowing hours. Spielberg is back at the top of his populist powers. … Destined to be his biggest box office smash since Jurassic Park, it's also equal to the artistic heights reached in Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T."

Maurice Broaddus (Hollywood Jesus) is dissatisfied. "There is no sense of … awe like we had with a Jurassic Park. There's not the substance of a Minority Report. … There are more than a few Independence Day level implausibilities. The [resolution of the war] smacks of Deus ex Machina, not to mention the rest of the way too contrived ending."

But Frederica Matthewes-Green (a Christian critic writing for The National Review) says, "I didn't think it was possible to make movies like this any more. War of the Worlds is an almost perfectly realized movie of the classic aliens-attack type: satisfying, believable, and very, very scary."

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Mainstream critics are quite pleased with the outcome of this War.

Bewitched Befuddles Witch-wary Christian Moviegoers

Writer/director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) deserves kudos for her smart game plan in this big screen tribute to Bewitched. She avoids the flaws of many big screen adaptations made from small screen material. She might have re-contextualized characters like Samantha the witch, her bumbling husband Darrin, and her imperious mother Endora, in contemporary surroundings (The Honeymooners). Or, she could have "spiced up" the old mix with today's too-dirty-for-prime-time humor (Starsky and Hutch). Instead, she conjures a premise that captures the spirit of the original while developing a new and engaging scenario.

Isabel the witch (Kidman) has the capability of reliving situations and correcting her mistakes, and she can manipulate her circumstances with godlike powers—even scrambling the speech of her love interest, Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) when he doesn't cooperate—until she learns that that human limitations might be a good thing after all. Unfortunately, Isabel's search for true love ends up looking like another rash Beverly Hills romance, and the movie becomes as frivolous and disposable as, well, an episode of Bewitched.

My full review is posted at Christianity Today Movies.

Other Christian film critics, often critical of films that deal with magic, had good things to say.

"Ephron's comedy … is more pleasantly amusing than outright hilarious," says Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service), "but unlike The Honeymooners, this one pays homage to its small-screen precursor in just the right way. The script could have been sharper, but there are positive messages about honesty and friendship."

It has "an inspired premise that puts other TV-to-film retreads to shame," says Jeffrey Huston (Crosswalk). But he arrives at a very different interpretation of the film. "Isabel's eventual 'coming out' plays similar to that of homosexuals. From Jack's over-reacting hysterics about what he may have 'contracted' to Isabel's declaration that she can't help it (she was 'born this way'), the third act of this Bewitched also plays as subtle pro-gay parable."

Frederica Matthewes-Green (National Review) says, "There's something magical about a really enjoyable and satisfying movie, but Bewitched is left holding the broom."

Tom Neven (Plugged In) writes, "Bewitched has the same light-hearted feel as You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. … It has the same inevitability, too. … The witchcraft in this movie, with two notable exceptions, has nothing to do with witchcraft and Wicca as practiced today."

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Isabel's spells fail to work on most mainstream critics.

Gore and Dread in Land of the Dead

George Romero, legendary director of blood-soaked zombie movies, is back with what's being hailed as his most impressive production ever—a remake of his own Land of the Dead. Critics have often found a fair bit of social commentary in Romero's films, and this is no exception. This time around, the living dead are trying to break into a walled city, where the rich rule from the safety of their high towers, and the citizens are left to fend for themselves against both the rising zombie threat and increasing anarchy in the streets.

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) finds it both meaningful and miserable. "What distinguishes Romero's cycle from other decom-poseurs, is his clever use of allegory to tap into the current political climate. … [It's] a smor-gores-bord of stomach-churning mayhem. Let's hope this franchise—unlike its reanimated corpses—will stay dead."

Many mainstream critics are surprised and delighted by Romero's return to form.

More recent reviews

Herbie: Fully Loaded: Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Lindsay Lohan … does wonderful work here in what will most probably be her last 'adolescent' role, but it is the bug itself that makes the film so much fun for old and young alike. Herbie: Fully Loaded is a true family film in that all ages will find something to appreciate."

Tom Price (Hollywood Jesus) says, "It's good, wholesome and light-hearted entertainment for families—the kind that makes for a good summer afternoon outing."

Batman Begins: Andrew Coffin (World) writes, "The film cleverly succeeds in explaining the practical aspects of the bat-man, gamely, as did the recent Spider-Man films, showing the hero sometimes unsuccessfully growing into his new role. Batman Begins is somewhat less successful in explaining the psychology of Wayne/Batman."

Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) raves, "It is not just good; it is great. There is nothing wrong with this film. It treats the source with love and care, which is good news for those who've spent years collecting the comics and learning the smallest facts about a character. Batman Begins delivers in every way."

NEXT WEEK: Film Forum takes a holiday for the Fourth of July. See you in two weeks!