Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto and David Alan Basche.

23 years after 'ET', Steven Spielberg has created the antithesis, aliens from the dark side who have been planning the extermination of humankind since before our time. 'War of the Worlds' is his contemporary retelling of the HG Wells classic alien invasion. The hype surrounding this summer blockbuster matches the $130m budget and the special effects reflect the money.

Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a divorced dockworker, is a poor father to his two children Robbie (Chatwin) and Rachel (Fanning). Just hours after Ray's ex-wife Mary Ann (Otto) drops off the two children for a rare weekend with their father, a weird lightning storm blows up outside. It cuts all power, freezes car engines and stops watches. But where is the thunder? This is not a normal storm.

In trying to suss out the situation, Ray joins a crowd of people gaping into a hole at a road junction. From beneath the ground, right under their feet, a Tripod emerges; the first of the alien attacks is underway. Ray and his children escape from a city under siege in the only working car and head for the countryside. Doing everything in his power to keep his family safe during this extraterrestrial battle, Ray's duty is to be a father, not a hero, and this is the basic line of the film.

'War of the Worlds' focuses on the simple story within the bigger picture – one father's fight to protect his family amidst what could be the end of humankind. After a quick but solid introduction to the three main characters, the action begins and is sustained throughout. Many different episodes force them to keep running, and running, and running. But in sticking to the Ferrier family like cling film from beginning to end, the film makes you want to ask: "Where is everyone else?"

In trying to make this a family movie, Spielberg choses between producing a potential disaster movie as opposed to an absolute catastrophic one. If he was really trying to portray the aliens as nefarious beings, then he failed. They are nothing we haven't seen before. Even the Tripods containing the aliens, while fantastic and meant to terrify, do not. What is more eerie and disturbing is actually the portrayal of desperate humans who will jeopardise anyone else's chance of survival in their own battle to live. This is best seen when the mood changes to something much more sinister and closer to home, in the encounter between Ray and Ogilvy (Robbins). Robbins plays a perfectly believable psycho, a broken man, who is determined to fight back and not run.

Cruise and Fanning give superb performances. It's the frequent shrill screams from the young Fanning that really adds the human terror. But Spielberg also uses the very presence of the young Rachel as a way to insinuate butchery instead of really showing it. Cover your eyes and block your ears – it's what you don't see that is the scariest, or at least intentionally so.

Technically, 'War of the Worlds' is fantastic. The lightning storm at the beginning is a wonder and looks as though it is going to break through the screen. The Tripods, though something from outer space, look half-believable in a human-inhabited world.

In trying to stray from the traditional recipe for disaster films, Spielberg omits one essential ingredient, emotion, from the mix. Despite the spectacle, you'll come out thinking something is lacking.

It's big and loud but 'War of the Worlds' seems too grand a title for a film that really only focuses on the plight of one family. Sometimes anticipation of the film is the best part.

Patricia O' Callaghan

Caution: Contains violence, menace and peril that may disturb younger viewers.