War of the Worlds is one of those films that horror-fans tend to bristle against being placed in the horror genre. The line between sci-fi and horror has always been blurry, and I am not certain where one ends and the other begins. I suppose that something that is purely "science fiction" deals with advanced technologies (or the application of obsolete technologies in alternate realities) and some form of human drama with the focus being the science, not horror. Films were the characters are antagonized by terrible creatures or powers from beyond, even where advanced technologies are involved, still focus on the horror. The Thing, Alien, and The Terminator are horror films. Independence Day, despite its frightening moments, is essentially a war-film and Science Fiction. War of the Worlds, while being closer to Independence Day than The Thing, still deals with your average-joe living in terror of things he cannot fully comprehend that would like to turn him and his family into red, gooey compost.
Critics gave this film a lot of crap, which I think it did not deserve. This is not a re-make of the classic... rather it is the same scenario told from a different perspective. The two stories have some parallels and reach the same conclusion, yet they are distinct. Those who complain about this being a bastardized version of the classic have missed the point. A re-make is obviously not what Spielberg was going for.
The acting is solid throughout. I am not a fan of Tom Cruise, though I have enjoyed some of his films (Risky Business and Interview With a Vampire spring to mind). He plays a convincing inept father who just wants to find someplace safe in a world were suddenly no such place exists. Tim Robbins, though in the film only briefly, plays his role as expected... superbly. All the supporting actors are convincing, each highlighting different perspectives and increasing the sense of dread as each are extinguished or move on.
The special-effects are top-notch. Bodies instantly vaporized by the alien death-ray, massive walkers that seem to defy gravity... even the sound helps you feel the weight and presence of these alien machines. This is nothing short of what you would expect from Spielberg.
The tension that is experienced through-out the film is built from the opening moments. You get to know the family, who is far from perfect. You see weird clouds in the sky that at first the characters are themselves oblivious to. Eventually, they notice the weirdness of the weather, and are at first curious, and then terrified as the first salvos of the attack occur. Added to this, and the real thrust of the film, is the human-drama... an exploration of the lengths human beings will go to survive and the horror of just how brutal we can be to one another when pushed.
War of the Worlds is worth seeing, at least once. It is, however, one of those films that once seen, really has nothing going for it that makes the experience worth repeating. It is well produced, the acting is great, the special-effects well-crafted... but nothing truly spectacular in any way... almost mediocrity at its best.