E.T., phone home. Steven Spielberg has had enough of gentle alien visitors, and he's now giving us extraterrestrial creatures with really bad attitude. War of the Worlds, the latest incarnation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, recreates the same merciless onslaught that panicked listeners to Orson Welles' famed 1938 radio faux-newscast and spooked movie fans of the 1953 George Pal production. Boasting top-of-the-line visual effects, this is an unsettling War of the Worlds for the post-9/11 era, combined with a parental-redemption plotline that's 100-percent Spielberg and zero-percent Wells.

Taking liberties (just as previous versions have) with Wells' original high-toned British setting, the new War of the Worlds begins in a working-class New Jersey neighborhood, where divorced dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is taking his two children, young Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and resentful teen Robbie (Justin Chatwin), for the weekend. In an unusual stretch for the megawatt Cruise, Ray is a fairly inept dad who keeps a slovenly house and has trouble making a connection with his kids. Suddenly, priorities change when a freakish storm hits the region and multiple lightning strikes create a mysterious hole a few blocks away. What emerges from that cavity is beyond anyone's worst nightmares: a giant, many-tentacled, marauding metallic tripod that instantly disintegrates any human being in its path. Ray flees with his kids in one of the few vehicles still functioning after the savage storm, but any shelter they find (including his ex-wife's suburban house) is only temporary in the face of a worldwide alien invasion. All seems lost, except to those who know the novel and the 1953 movie-and Wells' scientifically logical enemy vulnerability.

The real antecedent for the new Spielberg isn't E.T. or Close Encounters, but the Jurassic Park films (co-written by David Koepp, who adapted War of the Worlds with Josh Friedman). This is the director in his scary-monster mode, an idiom he handles very well indeed. The attack sequences, in which buildings crumble, crowds panic, and people die indiscriminately, quicken the pulse as they spread the dread. There's even a set-piece in a farmhouse cellar, as Ray and his daughter try to elude the prying, slithering mechanical eye of the snake-like tripod, that visually references the classic raptors-in-the-kitchen scene in Jurassic Park.

That basement scene also features one of the movie's missteps-a seeming ally named Ogilvy, who has become unhinged and reckless in the aftermath of the attacks. Inspired by the jittery Curate in the original novel, Ogilvy is played by a manic, bug-eyed Tim Robbins in a performance of unintended comic relief. If the aliens had a taste for ham, a few bites of Robbins might have sated them.

With its unrelenting suspense and virtuosic direction, War of the Worlds reconfirms Spielberg as a master of action, here seamlessly integrating spectacular visual magic into the most mundane and familiar settings. But because the humans in this story are essentially helpless against the alien threat-at least until nature takes its course-a certain queasiness accompanies this mass entertainment, with its echoes of today's nihilistic terrorist violence. All our emotional investment here comes from watching hapless dad Ray rise to the occasion of protecting his estranged kids-a catharsis especially meaningful to Hollywood types wrestling with the competing demands of career and family.

In his first significant paternal role, superstar Cruise shows a few colors we haven't seen before. (Can it really be 22 years since his confused teen in Risky Business?) But acting honors go to 11-year-old prodigy Dakota Fanning, who alternately shows uncanny gravity and then the screaming terror of any normal little girl in a living nightmare. She's already held her own opposite Sean Penn, Robert De Niro and Denzel Washington. Aliens and Tom Cruise are a piece of cake.
-Kevin Lally