War of the Worlds comes to us to tell us the story of one man with his two annoying and uncooperative kids trying to survive an alien invasion. The basic premise is delivered to us via voiceover narration from Morgan Freeman, which isn’t ever a bad way to begin a movie. He explains that intelligent life has been watching us for millions of years, planning an assault when the time seems right.

That time is now, or at least, a few minutes after we begin. First, we have to see how incompetent Ray (Tom Cruise) is at raising children. His ex-wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), drops off the children, telling ray that she’ll be in Boston to visit her parents. Once inside the house, we see just how unequipped this man is to be a father. The kids have to share a room (despite being 10 and 16 years of age, and of different genders), there isn’t any food in the fridge, and the older one, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), doesn’t even respect him enough to call him “dad.” The younger, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), has pleasant conversations with him and initially shows herself as the more mature child.

Soon enough, something appears in the sky. It looks like a really weird cloud, and is causing a massive storm in the area. Strangely, the cloud is pulling things toward it, instead of having the wind blow away from it like you might expect. And then, lighting starts striking the Earth. 27 times in one spot, we’re told, although it also hits Ray’s back yard and scares both him and Rachel (Robbie had already stolen Ray’s car and go into town at this point). It’s here when we get a harbinger of things to come. Not with the aliens, but with the character of Rachel. She will scream, loudly and excessively, whenever something marginally frightening occurs.

Oh, yes, there are also some aliens. When Ray goes into town to retrieve his son, we see one of their machines. The film calls them “Tripods,” presumably because they have three legs. They kind of look like jellyfish, and before anyone knows what’s going on, they’re vaporizing humans left and right. Panic ensues, Ray manages to steal the only working car in the city, and he and the kids are off to find their mother. I’m not sure why. It’s either because they think it’s a genuinely good idea, because that’s the only “safe” direction anyway, or because they think that Rachel’s mother will finally shut her up. I prayed that the final of those would come true, whether that was their intention or not.

I don’t understand this characterization. She has shown herself to be mature enough to look past her father’s incompetency and treat him like a human being, but once anything goes wrong (including one lightning strike), she freaks right out. This is a movie, and we’re allowed to include non-hysterical children! It might make more sense if she was, say, 6 years of age, but War of the Worlds makes sure to tell us her exact age. Those screams are deafening, and by the fifth time we got one, I wanted her character to be abducted.

Robbie isn’t much better. Once the aliens start attacking, he decides to act as stupidly as possible, despite not screaming or showing any emotion. I liked him more than Rachel, but neither one is particularly likable. I’ll give you an example of his idiocy: In one scene, there are soldiers driving toward the aliens, spouting lines like “We’ve done our job if we manage to hold them back for a few minutes.” Robbie decides to follow the soldiers (who, as I mentioned last sentence, are driving directly at the aliens). All three characters could easily get to safety, but, no, we have to get a long, drawn-out, scene where we have to try to convince this character not to get himself killed.

There isn’t any tension to scenes where the aliens might get our lead characters if I don’t want to see them survive. Thousands of more likable people are slaughtered in the background, and they haven’t done anything to send me into a fit of rage. Humanity seems doomed anyway. At one point, the characters hide out in a basement, and we get a few scenes of alien machines trying to find them. To director Steven Spielberg’s credit, he tries to make the scene tense. Unfortunately, when you have characters that I wanted to see get caught, I was rooting for the alien, which is a reaction completely contrary to what the filmmakers wanted

War of the Worlds does look good, and I suppose if all you want is a special-effects-driven science fiction film, you’ll be perfectly content after this one ends. Well, maybe not “perfectly content,” as the ending comes as a little slap in the face, but content enough to not want to write an angry letter to someone due to the failure that this movie ultimately is. Not only doesn’t the ending really make sense, but even if that’s the ending they wanted to use (because they’re making an accurate adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel), it happens too quickly and the entire film gets to its resolution far too fast to be completely satisfying.

War of the Worlds lives and dies by its characters. You’re not going to get a poorly made movie from someone like Spielberg at this point in his career, but the screenplay didn’t give him a lot to work with in terms of the people we’re supposed to care about. It’s a valiant attempt, but this is a film that just doesn’t work. When you want to see a ten-year-old girl get abducted by the aliens everyone’s working hard to run away from, you haven’t done a good job.