In clear contrast to the contemplative wonder of his seminal classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” Steven Spielberg’s message in his new supernatural spectacle, War of the Worlds, rings loud and clear:

Aliens are bastards.

Not much else of the plot is as comprehensible as this mantra, which, Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin live by during the film. Indeed, plot details and minimal character development are thrust into the backseat early on during Spielberg’s frequently breathtaking, frequently nonsensical film.

Why are the aliens here? Why did they wait so long to launch their attack? Why is Dakota Fanning almost as tall as Tom Cruise?

The answers to these and other questions are nowhere to be found in a plot as riddled with holes as a kitchen brillo pad. Reasonably, what story IS there is loosely based upon H.G. Well’s original concept of aliens raining terror and destruction upon an unsuspecting and technologically inferior earth.

That’s about it.

Spielberg fills 117 minutes with an adventure so visceral, so harrowing, that one forgets to breathe. From the aliens’ first attack on an ultimately doomed Bayonne, New Jersey, the vaporization of entire towns, to the harvesting of human bodies, it’s a journey as visually arresting as it is disturbing.

Cruise is notable purely for choosing a character who is as much a jerk as he is — eventually — a loving father; Tim Robbins as a neurotic survivor wielding an axe provides a briefly humorous cameo; Dakota Fanning is simply brilliant.

While the nonstop action is welcome, the film’s PG-13 is questionable. There are several scenes easily begging for the dreaded R-rating: the vaporization and harvesting of people, the sheer destruction and violence. When Cruise realizes what the aliens are spraying the planet’s landscape with, you may gag. In a sense, it’s a welcome surprise from Spielberg, whose track record up-to-date shies away from any sort of graphic violence as Lindsay Lohan would a hamburger.

Sure, the quirks can’t be ignored: some weak CGI here and there, lack of plot exposition and an ending so lacking, viewers not already familiar with Wells’ literary backdrop will surely drop their soda to scratch their heads in confusion.

Just take War of the Worlds for what it is: a film as entertaining and supericial as cotton candy, a textbook case in how a summer popcorn flick ought to be done.

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