Divorced longshoreman Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), who operates a crane at the Brooklyn, New York, docks, is estranged from his children, 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin). His ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) drops them off at his house in Bayonne, New Jersey, on her way to visit her parents in Boston. A strange lightning storm causes an EMP that destroys all electronic devices. Ray is caught up in a crowd at an intersection, where a massive tripod war-machine emerges from the ground and disintegrates people, turning them to ash.
Ray picks up his children, steals a van, and drives to Mary Ann’s empty home in New Jersey to take refuge. They shelter in the basement but hear a roar and the house is destroyed. In the morning, they find that a 747 crashed in the neighborhood. A news team informs him that tripods have attacked major cities around the world. The machines have apparently been buried in the Earth for thousands of years.
Ray decides to drive the children to Boston to be with their mother, but a mob forces them to abandon their vehicle. They reach a Hudson River ferry but are surrounded by tripods. They managed to avoid being seized or killed. They witness U. S. Marines battling the tripods and Robbie joins them. Ray and Rachel escape, but the Marines are obliterated. A deranged man named Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) offers them shelter in a basement.
They hide for days, avoiding the alien probes. A red vegetation is spreading over the globe. Ogilvy breaks down after seeing the aliens fertilizing the vegetation with human blood. Ray has to kill him to shut him up. Another tripod catches Rachel, and Ray uses grenades to attract attention and get himself captured too, just to be with her. With help from other abductees, he uses the grenades to destroy the tripod and free them all.
They arrive in Boston and find the alien vegetation withering and the tripods collapsing. He sees birds feeding on the aliens’ bodies. The tripods are shot down with anti-tank missiles. A pale, sickly alien crawls out of one and dies. Ray and Rachel finally reach Mary Ann’s parents’ home and are reunited with them. Anne Robinson and Gene Barry, the stars of the 1953 War of the Worlds, play Rachel’s grandmother and grandfather.
The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, and produced by Paramount and Dreamworks. Like the 1953 version, the setting was changed from H.G. Wells’ England in the 19th Century to America at the present time, but the plot and the tripods were much closer to the original. It was shot in 73 days in five states. Reviews from critics were generally positive. It was nominated for three Oscars but lost to King Kong. It was nominated for six Saturn Awards, and Tom Cruise was nominated for a Raspberry. Spielberg had wanted to work with Tom Cruise after Minority Report. John Williams scored the movie. Much of the film was a meditation on the 9-11 attacks. Spielberg thought of it as the opposite of Close Encounters. He is a brilliant director, and the film is tense, spectacular, and powerful.The tripods were designed to be graceful, moving like terrifying dancers. The aliens inside were like jellyfish. The invaders were never referred to as Martians because it was quite clear by this time that there are no Martians. Miranda Otto turned down her role because she was pregnant, but Spielberg put the character’s pregnancy into a rewrite because he wanted to keep her. During a scene on the Connecticut River near Windsor, two mannequins floated away, and the police departments downriver were warned, in case they received reports about floating bodies. Ann Robinson appeared in the 1953 War of the Worlds, the 1988 TV series, and this version. It was Gene Barry’s final appearance in a movie. Spielberg said he would not work with Tom Cruise again after his shenanigans on the Oprah Show and comments in the press about Scientology.