NEW YORK - Every generation has its fears, and director Steven Spielberg does not shy away from the source of anxiety that his new science fiction epic, "War of the Worlds," plays on -- the September 11, 2001 attacks.
"It's certainly about Americans fleeing for their lives, being attacked for no reason, having no idea why they are being attacked and who is attacking them," says Spielberg.
Spielberg's version of the H.G. Wells classic 1898 novel about an alien invasion from Mars, which has inspired other famed treatments over the years, stars Tom Cruise and opens in US theatres on Wednesday.
This summer escape fare is no "E.T." or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Spielberg's earlier sci-fi tales about feel-good aliens. These space creatures are up to no good.
"E.T. would be pissed, I think," Tim Robbins, who plays a creepy character bent on revenge against the aliens, told a news conference promoting the picture.
Orson Welles caused panic in the streets with his 1938 radio version of "War of the Worlds" which conveyed a Martian invasion as if it were actual news at a time when the nation was jittery over the threat of fascism and Nazi Germany.
A popular 1953 film version traded on US Cold War worries over the spread of communism in the nuclear age.
The modern-day touchstones of fear are clear in Spielberg's film that bristles with vivid special effects and a pervasively percussive soundtrack sure to rattle your popcorn.
Alien war machines buried underground like sleeper cells are awakened in a storm of lightning. They tear up streets, crumble buildings and send cars flying.
Cruise's character shuffles back home covered in chalky dust, the detritus of destruction, just like the dazed survivors lucky enough to walk away from the real-life collapse of the World Trade Center towers.
"The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I've never been able to get out of my head," said Spielberg.
The director said he did not aim to turn the movie into a political polemic.
"There are politics underneath some of the scares, and some of the adventure and some of the fear," he admitted, "but I really wanted to make it suggestive enough so everybody could have their own opinion."
STORY OF A FAMILY
Fear, however, is just the backdrop for a character study about survival, values and the coming of age -- for both an irresponsible father and his rebellious, adolescent son.
Rather than depict generals in drawing rooms and high-tech battles against the alien force, Spielberg tells an intimate story about love and family set against the chaos and desperation of a world under siege.
"I love how Steven Spielberg deals with families in his movies," said Cruise. "I find them to be very real, unique. When we started talking about the story, about a father and a family, I couldn't wait to play this character."
Cruise, who plays a self-indulgent misfit divorced from his wife and disengaged from his two children, is thrust into the role of protector on a weekend where he is left with the kids. He rises to the occasion, down to a touching lullaby to his young daughter, played by precocious Dakota Fanning, using a Beach Boys ode to drag racing.
There are preposterous moments, cartoonish escapes and heaps of hokey charm, but also a dark edge to the film and a serious treatment of violence that does not descend to gore.
Spielberg said the movie also represents his own coming of age, contrasting the choices of the lead character in "Close Encounters," played by Richard Dreyfus, who left his family to join the aliens, with Cruise's mission.
The Oscar-winning director of "Saving Private Ryan" (1999) and "Schindler's List" (1994) noted that "Close Encounters" was made in 1977, before he had children of his own.
"Today I would never have a guy leave his family to go on the mother ship. I would have him do everything to protect his family. In a sense 'War of The Worlds' reflects my own maturity in my own life, growing up and now having seven children."
Spielberg, whose three other best-directing Oscar nominations included "E.T." and "Close Encounters," said he loves to swing between sci-fi projects and historical movies, which bring constraints of realism and accuracy.
"Science fiction for me is a vacation, a vacation away from all the rules of narrative logic, a vacation away from physics and physical science.
"It just let's you leave all the rules behind and just kind of fly."