Clouds fill the sky. Dark clouds. Full clouds. Angry clouds. Lightning hits. And hits. And hits. It seems like it’ll never stop until… it stops. A beat. The ground starts to shake, quake, break… BOOM! Something springs out of the earth, a huge machine, some kind of… tripod. And then come the death rays, the tentacles, the red grass, the fire, the rivers of corpses and the raining blood.

Many questions beg to be asked, one more than the others: what the hell got into Spielberg? Over the years, he’s made us fear a diesel truck, Bruce the shark and dinosaurs, but this is something else. It’s the end of the world, the extermination of mankind. It’s pure hell, from less than ten minutes into the film until almost the very end. It’s that terrifying nightmare where you keep running but they keep chasing you, you try to hide but they always find you.

Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” is an odd but effective cross between 1950s sci-fi movies and today’s big budget, SFX-heavy disaster flicks. The space invaders stuff is rather retro and out there, but it’s rooted in a realistic, all too actual environment. You really feel like this could happen, like this IS happening, right here, right now. The visual effects and the sound editing are top notch, completely engulfing you into all the crazy mayhem, thrilling you into willing submission.

You’ll notice that I’ve only been discussing the film as a visceral experience, because that’s basically what it is. There’s not much plot, depth or character development, but it more than makes up for it in relentless intensity and consistency of vision. The movie is a non-stop succession of apocalyptic tableaux, and they’re not only the doing of the extra-terrestrial monsters. Some of the most disturbing scenes deal solely with the worst side of human nature, with man killing man in foolish attempts to survive.

All of this is seen through the point of view of an asshole dockworker (Tom Cruise), his cute little girl (Dakota Fanning) and his rebellious son (Justin Chatwin). These are good actors and they make the best of the simplistic family dynamics that are sketched in between near-death experiences, but I doubt this is what audiences will remember most from the picture. If you want to see an alien invasion movie that’s truly, brilliantly character-driven, you’re better off watching Signs. I know Spielberg has probably influenced Shyamalan more than the other way around, but maybe the disciple has surpassed the master (gee, I’m starting to sound like Jean Carlo!).

Between Revenge of the Sith, Batman Begins and this, Hollywood is truly delivering the goods this summer, and the movies are surprisingly dark, too. I’m loving it, how about you?