Remember what happened the last time an alien landed in one of Steven Spielberg's movies? That little guy helped E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial gross $435 million domestically, making it the fourth-highest box office earner in history. Big surprise, then, that expectations for this latest close encounter are over the moon, particularly since this time the aliens will be sharing the screen with Earth's biggest star. But don't expect the space invaders in Paramount's $135 million sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds to be of the take-home-and-feed-Reese's-Pieces variety; this is a much darker, scarier alien movie than Spielberg fans are used to. It's based, of course, on H.G. Wells' classic 1898 novel about a Martian invasion, with Koepp updating the story to the present day and adding a divorced dad (Tom Cruise, who last teamed with Spielberg in 2002's Minority Report) and a couple of kids (Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning). ''There are elements of Wells' novel in the movie,'' Spielberg explains. ''We have the tripods. We have the red weed growing all over. But I never thought of doing it as a period piece at the turn of the century. It just wasn't an interesting way to go. I just can't stand the styles of that time.''
Cruise, on the other hand, probably would have worn a tutu and Mouseketeer ears to make this picture happen. ''The minute I read the script, I knew I had to do it,'' he says. ''It's not just a movie about aliens. It's a story...about a dad and his kids and their struggle to survive. It's really a very small, emotional movie.'' Uh-huh. Sounds like someone needs a break from the red weed.