As our Features Editor rightly observed when War Of The Worlds came out theatrically, it's quality. How could it not be? Arguably the finest director of modern times unleashing his potent imagination on one of sci-fi horror's most thrilling allegorical tales. It stars the biggest name in Hollywood, plus one of the most eerily talented child actors ever. And its theme of urban devastation at the hands of a hidden enemy plays out in the shadow of a terrorist attack on America that is still having repercussions around the world.
It's a sterile, scientifically competent production that's somehow less than the sum of its impressive parts. Which is also a fair summary of this two-disc set, stacked with enough goodies to swipe three solid stars but with too few sparks and surprises to really get carried away.
Opening doc Revisiting The Invasion is typical. Everyone of note pops up to contribute - Spielberg, Cruise, screenwriter David Koepp - but none of them says anything particularly fresh or frank. "When Steven and I discussed the possibility of War Of The Worlds, our eyes lit up," twinkles Cruise. "After 9/11 it felt like the story had a special significance," nods Spielberg. "We wanted it to be different to the '50s version," confides Koepp. "It's profound," intones exec producer Paula Wagner, incorrectly.
Things continue on a similarly so-so line with Steven Spielberg And The Original War Of The Worlds, jammed with footage of George Pal's 1953 version and some amiable, if tame, anecdotes from the original stars with cameos in the new version, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson ("I was thrilled to be asked").
The Legacy Of HG Wells, featuring Wells' family reminiscing about the great man, is a little better, simply because his life story is so fascinating. But we're soon back to familiar territory with Characters: The Family Unit, where Tom admits he thinks Steve is ace and - guess what? - Steve says he thinks Tom is ace, too.
Previsualisation offers some involving technical details on the animated storyboards George Lucas encouraged Spielberg to start using, while the design and scoring docs are pretty much what you'd expect. Best of this average bunch is the collection of four access-all-areas production diaries.
Rounding things off is a cursory segment linking Close Encounters, ET and Worlds (We Are Not Alone) that acknowledges how The Beard 'does' aliens well and contains Spielberg's most revealing moment on the entire disc ("My dad showed me a meteor shower. He made me my first telescope. He gave me the greatest gift after the gift of life: an opportunity to apply my imagination to the things that he first introduced me to. Like the sky and the stars and the certainty that we are not alone.")
This sentiment is presumably intended to be explicit in the film itself (see the sweet/ saccharine scene between Cruise and Fanning when the "lightning" strikes). But elsewhere, the script rarely rises to the occasion. Everything is signposted rather than coloured in. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) is a Springsteen character in search of a song, a blue-collar worker who married too early and never grew up. We know this because he wears jeans and a leather jacket. There is conflict between him and his son. We know this because they wear baseball caps for different teams. Ray probably married above his station. We know this because Miranda Otto is, well, a bit posher than him.
Compare such shallow signifiers with the rich, complex characters on the boat in Jaws. Where's the human touch? Shooting everything at eye level just doesn't cut it emotionally. Neither do the lumbering simplicities of a '50s movie sensibility transposed to the present day (ugh, that Morgan Freeman nonsense-voiceover). Are we really supposed to conclude that - hey - millions have died and the Earth is half destroyed but at least the family that flees together stays together? (And don't get us started on the daftness of the ending...)
All of which is a dirty shame because there are scenes of such towering power, you almost forgive everything else. The initial invasion is explosive and terrifying. The angry mob, the ferry boarding, the 360-degree prowl around the car... When it comes to broadly and brightly painting out our dreams and nightmares, Spielberg is still in a class of his own. All the effects are masterful and the cast are pitch perfect, despite the watery material. But, ultimately, what you're left with is a series of magnificently directed scenes trapped in a mediocre movie. And Spielberg has set his bar too high for that to be enough. Quality? Yes. Magic? Not this time.