LOS ANGELES — The wonder of outer space became entwined with the notion of fatherhood for Steven Spielberg more than a half-century ago, on an August night in New Jersey full of falling stars.

"I first became aware of the sky when my father pointed out the Perseid meteor shower to me when I was about 6 years old, living in Haddon Heights, N.J.," the director says nearly 52 years later. "My father really held the key to the universe, which unlocked my imagination."

That fascination with the stars — and a relationship with his dad that was not always so ideal, particularly after his parents divorced in his teens — inspired two of Spielberg's most definitive movies: 1977's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and 1982's "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

Now the most successful director in movie history looks to the stars and beyond again for "War of the Worlds," his $128 million take on the H.G. Wells classic. And though the film, which opened Wednesday, is expected to be one of summer's biggest movies, once again it is a personal tale, the role of a father in a child's life, that inspired Spielberg.

Tom Cruise stars as a divorced father trying to safeguard his estranged children during an alien invasion. It's not so much a war against humanity, one character says, as it is an extermination.

Spielberg says his films about alien visitors (or, this time, invaders) are fueled by his evolving points of view on family. "They're all landmarks as we get older about how we're changing and how we see the world," Spielberg says. "War of the Worlds" reflects his own uncertainty after the devastation of the terror attacks of 9/11.

"We live under a veil of fear that we didn't live under before 9/11. There has been a conscious emotional shift in this country," he says.

Still, the director says, he didn't want to reflect that in a fantasy about generals, scientists and politicians. "I wanted this to be a very personal story about a family fleeing for its life. And a father trying to protect his two kids — a father who isn't much of a father but has to catch up along the way."

Though they have long since reconciled, the relationship between Spielberg and his dad, Arnold, an electrical engineer whose job changes meant the family frequently moved across the country, was strained at times, especially in his early adulthood.

"I'm closer with my mom and dad now than I even was when I was living under their roof, which is a nice thing that happens," says Spielberg, 58.

Arnold Spielberg's interests often became his son's, too, influencing everything from "Saving Private Ryan" to "Jurassic Park."

Arnold is a World War II veteran who loves sci-fi stories, astronomy and technology, and it was his family camera that Spielberg, as a boy, used for making homemade action films.

Still, the pain that young Spielberg felt over his family's breakup and a desire to be more attentive to his own children have resonated in his movies, often under the guise of fantasy.

"I've found different ways of looking at my experiences, in my life, and in my family," the director says. "From very early on in my career, everybody said I didn't ever make personal movies, that I only made these big concept films. I always felt all of my films were personal because I've never made a film where some part of the story didn't come from some experience I shared with my family."

Indiana Jones, for example, was estranged from his Holy Grail-chasing father in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Cruise's futuristic investigator in "Minority Report" is haunted by his failure to protect a dead son. The robot boy in "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" was searching for a connection with his creator "father," and a fussy, grown-up Peter Pan in "Hook" neglected his children until they were snatched away to Never Land, where he rediscovers his better nature.

"It's a nagging theme in my work a family divided, a family united," Spielberg acknowledges. "It's a theme that also works into films that aren't as fantastic, like 'Empire of the Sun,' 'The Color Purple' and 'Catch Me if You Can.' "

But his films about alien life could be considered a trilogy about family relationships.

"That's why we all relate to his movies. On one hand it's the story of his family, and on the other hand it's the story of the American family," says film scholar Douglas Brode, a professor at Syracuse University and author of "The Films of Steven Spielberg."

In "Close Encounters," a suburban dad (played by Richard Dreyfuss) abandons his life on Earth, including his wife and children, to explore the heavens aboard a spacecraft. And in 1982's "E.T.," a little boy (played by Henry Thomas) from a broken home and a gentle alien marooned on Earth help each other deal with abandonment.

In "War of the Worlds," it's conceivable that Cruise's reluctant father might be happy to ditch his kids to take a galaxy ride with some friendly aliens. But the invading monsters in "War" are anything but Reese's Pieces-nibbling cuties.

"He sees his kids very infrequently," Spielberg says of the Cruise character. "He's able to see them every other weekend, but he chooses to see them only every six or seven weeks. That has created a lot of pain, and one weekend when he takes the kids this cataclysmic event occurs, and he suddenly has to grow up fast."

Spielberg calls it "a polar opposite" to "Close Encounters."

"I've grown up a lot. I wasn't a dad when I was 27, 28 years old and made that movie. I'm a father now. It's very easy to have somebody leave his family to get on a mother ship when you're not a father yourself.

"I would never have made that film after having children."

"War of the Worlds" explores a father's fear of failing his children, whether in ordinary life or in a life-or-death situation such as 9/11. Spielberg counts seven kids of his own — one with ex-wife Amy Irving, five with wife Kate Capshaw (whom he met when she co-starred in 1984's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"), and a stepdaughter, actress Jessica Capshaw.

After Spielberg's divorce, his films became much more sympathetic toward fathers, Brode says. Indiana Jones and his aging dad reconcile in 1989's "The Last Crusade."

Though Spielberg has been criticized by some for his devotion to happy endings, Cruise says that's just a reflection of the director's quixotic wish-fulfillment: that good things will happen to good people, and bad times can still turn out OK.

In "War of the Worlds," the father goes from deadbeat to hero in under two hours. Not necessarily realistic, but Cruise says that doesn't mean it isn't a noble fantasy.

"I remember as a kid when I was going through (difficult) things, I'd just go to movies because I wanted to hope. I wanted to dream," says Cruise, who was estranged from his late father as a child after his parents' divorce. "If you dream about it, and you can put it there (on the screen), it's an opportunity for those people to see they can turn their lives around. If you don't say that you can turn around, that you can make things go right, then there's no hope in the world."

Spielberg is a rare director who is able to make personal stories out of bombastic productions, film scholar Brode says.

"He gives the public what they want while slipping in what he wants," Brode says. "He's having it both ways. He makes movies that seem like great big superficial crowd-pleasers, but you have to make the special effort to dig in and see how personal they get."

Brode says that's what accounts for his phenomenal success. Spielberg's films have earned $3.2 billion at the box office. That's more than any other director. (Robert Zemeckis, whose "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Back to the Future" movies were produced by Spielberg, is a distant second with $1.7 billion.)

Even the rare Spielberg movie regarded as an underperformer, such as last year's "The Terminal" or 2001's "A.I.," earns about $80 million.

"War of the Worlds" is perhaps the darkest of Spielberg's fantasy stories, with giant mechanized walkers that turn fleeing humans into dust while their clothes collapse to the ground, then grind apart survivors as fertilizer for fields of tentacle-like alien crops.

In the alien movies Spielberg loved as a boy, he savored "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and producer George Pal's explosive 1953 take on "The War of the Worlds." But he was most inspired by the likes of 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still," in which the aliens come to lecture humans on warmongering.

"They were here to suck our brains out or to invade our bodies. But as I grew up, I got more interested in the idea of them coming in peace," he says. "They are journeymen who are explorers and curious about us and reach out to us to learn from us, and us from them. That's why I made 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind.' "

"Inside myself, I've always been envious of movies where the bad guys were the aliens. It might be old hat for most of Hollywood, but I'd like to wear it, if only once."

Spielberg is returning to realism for his next film, an untitled project about the aftermath of the terrorist murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

That film, the details of which he won't discuss yet, combines the fear of terrorism with another personal issue for him: his Jewish faith.

His religion and a passion for its history have been reflected in work both on and off the screen, from the Oscar-winning "Schindler's List" to his Shoah Foundation project, which records the recollections of real Holocaust survivors, to thrill rides such as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which critic Roger Ebert once said "contains the daydreams of a young Jewish kid who imagines blowing up Nazis real good."

At his Amblin Entertainment production company on the Universal Studios lot, in a second-floor meeting room adjacent to Spielberg's office, hangs one of the most valuable pieces of movie memorabilia in history: the Rosebud sled from Orson Welles' 1941 classic "Citizen Kane," which is regarded by many critics as Hollywood's greatest drama.

In that film, the sled — which was the only one of three made that wasn't burned in the final scene — represented the innocence of youth that the character Charles Foster Kane longed for despite his lifetime of wealth and success.

The starry night skies of Spielberg's youth could be considered his Rosebud.

"I also grew up in Phoenix," Spielberg says, "where you walk out into your back yard and there is no light contamination.

"You look straight up, and it looks like the heart of the universe hanging over you."

But this time, he wanted something he could sink his "Jaws" into.

"This is a departure for me, 'War of the Worlds.' I could not make a really, really scary movie out of this if all that came down were flowers," he says.

Despite the sinister tone of "War of the Worlds," Spielberg remains hopeful about the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe: "My heart will always look up into the sky and feel optimistic about what's out there."