Ray Ferrier is a working class man living in New Jersey. He's estranged from his family, his life isn't in order, and he's too caught up with himself. But the unthinkable and, ultimately, the unexpected happens to him in an extraordinary sense. His small town life is shaken violently by the arrival of destructive intruders: Aliens which have come en masse to destroy Earth. As they plow through the country in a wave of mass destruction and violence, Ray must come to the defense of his children. As the world must fend for itself by a new and very advanced enemy not of this world, it's inhabitants must save humanity from a far greater force that threatens to destroy it.
Summary from imdb.
This film has copped a great deal of abuse from Sci-Fi fans for its sloppy plot inconsistencies and its illogical and sentimental ending. Some of it is well-deserved and some of it is simply a symptom of a lack of imagination on the part of its audience.
Tom Cruise’s limitations are on display, young Dakota Fanning is frequently irritating, the plot contains several big holes and holds on to ideas from the original novel even when they sit badly with modern technology.
But it’s also full of little acts of casual artistry that don’t feel showy because they’re perfectly integrated into the drama. To cite just one. Ray (Tom Cruise) has packed the kids into a van he’s just appropriated, which is the only car still running. He’s weaving desperately around shocked on-lookers and through banks of stranded traffic on the freeway, thinking that every foot he puts between himself and the alien tripods that are horribly exterminating everyone in their path, he has a better chance of survival. Meanwhile his son is asking what the hell is going on and his daughter in the back seat is screaming like a lunatic and he’s trying to put her seatbelt on and telling her to stop screaming at the same time and the son is trying to calm her down. The camera is outside the car looking through the window while we overhear the dialogue inside. Ray swerves to miss something and the camera lurches back while they pass in front of us, and then it swerves out in front of the speeding van under its wheels and then back up to the windscreen while the dialogue continues like nothing’s happened. This only takes a second, but it’s a bravura piece of camera direction, perfectly conveying the sense of speed and panic in a directly physical way. Only Scorsese comes close to this in the intelligent use of a moving camera.
The memory of ‘Schindler’s List’, and therefore the Holocaust, throbs away in the background, giving the movie a weight it shouldn’t really possess. When the panicking crowds rush and stumble, blindly running from the aliens who unthinking incinerate anything in their path, we can’t help but think of crowds of jews before the invading Nazis. This connection is underlined for us when the shocked Ray makes it back to the house after the first attack, unable to answer the panicked kids’ questions and sees himself in the mirror for the first time. He is covered in dust. With a wave of horror, he realises it’s not dust at all but the ashes of the incinerated crowds. It’s in his hair, his clothes, his mouth.
This is the adult Spielberg talking, no longer the tyro movie geek who made Jaws and Raiders, but the man who founded the “Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation”; a man with mature connections to history and community. But the showman is still there, of course, evident in almost every blockbusting frame of this movie. What I object to is that the two men often don’t seem to be talking to each other.
What is it about Spielberg and emotionally and intellectually dishonest endings? ‘Saving Private Ryan’ anyone? I should know by now, as lord knows I’ve sat through many Speilbergs only to find that my expectations that this experienced and obviously talented man will realize (in both sense of the word) the intellectual and dramatic potential of the images he has constructed, are dashed again.
The clear subtext of the film is to do with the Cruise character’s coming to terms with his potential as an adult by reaching an understanding of his interdependency with his children. The situation calls on him to react unselfishly, which he is not sure how to do. In turn, his children show him how that’s done, as when his son Robbie breaks free from his father’s protective grip and scrambles up the ramp of a boat pulling away from the dock. People are falling into the water while others struggle to hold on. Robbie instinctively offers his hand to help those scramble to safety, a gesture his father is probably not capable of making; he is simply interested in getting out of the situation alive, by whatever means necessary.
He is consumed by the idea of getting to Boston, where the children’s mother has gone. For much of the movie’s running time, this is his sole objective. Robbie angrily accuses him of simply wanting to get to Boston so he can offload them on to their mother, an accusation that hurts him, bt which he is unable to really refute. To us the audience, this also seems like his only real object, so consistent is it with his previous behaviour.
We want him to redeem himself, just like his kids do. This is the obvious trajectory of the story. So what is Spielbeg doing when Ray eventually finds the intact house in Boston, complete with ex-wife and grandparents greeting him in the doorway, like some tableaux from the credits of a fifties sitcom? It simply confirms the son’s accusation, doesn’t it?
There is a very interesting review and discussion by readers at Larvatus Prodeo.