War Of The Worlds (2005)
(for frightening sequences of sci-fi violence and disturbing images, and language)
Released: June 29, 2005
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto
It took awhile for Hollywood to start telling stories inspired by 9/11, but in 2005 Steven Spielberg offered up not one but two. The first – a metaphoric reimagining of that horrific terror attack (the second film, Munich, would be a meditation on our response to it) – was under the guise of a summer blockbuster that modernized one of the most famous sci-fi allegories of all time. Spielberg’s use of the alien invasion construct to parallel how the United States was attacked is brilliant. The family drama…not so much.
For a guy who prided himself on early sci-fi efforts (Close Encounters and E.T.) that believed intelligent life from other planets would come to Earth in peace, not war, Spielberg sure relishes the opportunity to go old school as he elevates the quintessential B-movie sci-fi archetype to a big budget spectacle. Although “relish” wouldn’t be the right word, despite how astonishingly it’s rendered. This is a 9/11 parable, after all, and so this attack (seen first in NYC boroughs, even as it’s occurring globally) carries a lot of weight with it, by design. This isn’t Independence Day style thrills. Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds is as sober and unsettling an action spectacle as you’re likely to see, and appropriately so.
The ingenuity – and real-world relevance – comes in how the aliens attack: not in the traditional intergalactic aerial raid, but from underground. Spielberg draws a direct corollary to the Al Qaeda sleeper cells that existed right in our own neighborhoods, hiding in secret among us. These spacecraft tripods emerge from beneath, without warning, in a coordinated assault that catches everyone by surprise. The aliens may have been “radicalized” elsewhere (they enter the tripods “illegally” through lighting strikes), but they emerge from our very own communities, having laid dormant for years, strategically placed, and patiently waiting for just the right moment to strike for maximum destructive effect.
The attack that ensues is an eerie replication of the news footage from September 11th, 2001. Buildings cracking, splitting, and crumbling. Whole swaths of communities are laid waste. People run and scream in terror, not with the vicarious silliness of typical genre alien and monster flicks but rather the all-too-real self-evident fear we saw fellow Americans suffer on our TVs. And as these people run from the laser blasts of alien tripods towering directly above, they’re covered in the ashes of others around them who weren’t able to run fast enough – marking yet another very direct, disturbing, and painfully iconic image from an event forever seared in our minds.
We experience these events through a broken family. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a mostly absentee father who’s looking after his kids – teen son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and tween girl Rachel (Dakota Fanning) – while his ex-wife and her new husband go on a trip to Boston. Ray’s relationship with both is tense (his son especially), and it’s clear by the complete disregard for a cleanly house or lack of basic food items that Ray does not have his act together, and is the root cause of the tension. He’s not a bad guy, but he is a bad parent. His initial awkward attempts at reconnecting are quickly rebuffed as forced pleasantries descend into anger, resentment, and profane confrontation.
Then all hell breaks loose. Dad needs a shot at redemption, and Steven Spielberg serves one up on a silver-screen platter.
He gets it, eventually, after a feature-length gauntlet of protecting his kids while fleeing and evading the advancing aliens, but screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp (he adapted Jurassic Park) must’ve used up all their inspiration on the terrorism comparisons because the family issues couldn’t be more rote. The teen angst and put-upon indifference gets old really fast, as does all of the requisite yelling.
It’s the kind of pat family conflict and strain we see all the time, as if it was copied-and-pasted from some Hollywood blueprint that gets passed around and tweaked countless times over. And when it finally starts to get really obnoxious, Spielberg actually stages a literal “You need to let me go, Dad” moment between father and son. Talk about an eye rolling groaner. (I may have reflexively whispered “Seriously?” under my breath.) Credit Cruise, though, for once again elevating material with (what shouldn’t be by now) surprising range, nuance, and sincerely felt internal emotional conflict.
Thankfully, the overcooked melodrama is ultimately just filler to pace out the action scenes. As Ray and his kids (along with the rest of New York City) flee to the suburbs and then the countrysides, the aliens relentlessly pursue (and the subsequent set pieces are just as fiercely staged and wrought as the opening one, complete with the brass bombast of John Williams‘ throwback music cues).
The suburbs, though initially safe, end up looking like a war zone after the aliens are through with them, which includes the sight of Ray walking past a huge propeller engine from a crashed jetliner (yet another specific, blunt callback to the still-haunting reality of that fateful day in our nation’s history).
As the mass hysteria shifts to the countryside in the second hour, Spielberg smartly – and imperceptibly, to his credit – shifts the tone of the piece, lifting the heavy burden of parabolic symmetry and overt visual cues off of the movie’s shoulders, allowing it to play more as a straight up summer action thriller (even if still a dark one) down the stretch.
An extended sequence in the basement of a Doomsday Prepper type (played with nearly too much crazy by Tim Robbins) best exemplifies this tonal gear shift. Spielberg has a lot of fun within this confined playground. Spying alien tentacles serpentine through the makeshift bunker as Ray and company try to stay quiet and keep hidden, needing to constantly and quietly reposition. It’s one of the most tense scenes of the entire movie, and classic in its spirit.
Between that, and one last above-ground climactic assault (which includes somewhat gruesome killings), the movie peaks to a thrilling and satisfying – if simple – conclusion.
War Of The Worlds is a cleverly conceived and vividly realized sci-fi tale for the post-9/11 age. It doesn’t particularly have much to say, but it doesn’t need to; its symbolic recreation is resonant enough (even if its cliché family dysfunction isn’t).
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- Various elements and designs in the film’s look take direct inspiration from H.G. Wells’ original novel. The tripod design for the alien machines is how it’s described by Wells, including the heat rays at the ends of their tentacles. The “red weed” seen in the latter half of the film is also from the book.
- The film didn’t begin shooting until a mere 7 months prior to its release. To accommodate the 500+ number of visual effects needed to be produced, Spielberg shot all of the action sequences first. He also completed the shoot in 72 days, a brisk pace for a film of its size (and the same amount of time it took to shoot Raiders Of The Lost Ark).
- Before David Koepp was brought onboard to help with the screenplay, Spielberg first tried to hire J. Abrams. Abrams had to decline; he was too busy prepping to direct the pilot episode of Lost.
- Munich, which would be released later in 2005, began its first day of filming the same day War Of The Worlds opened in theaters.
- Spielberg was originally supposed to join Tom Cruise on Oprah Winfrey’s show to promote the movie. He had to back out due to extended post-production oversight. Oprah’s solo interview with Cruise turned into the infamous “couch jumping” episode.
- More impressive Spielberg Oners here. In the initial attack on New York, one take involves the destruction of two cars, one by a third car and the other by an alien tripod. Another minute-long Oner begins in close-up on Tom Cruise before revealing the destruction of an entire suburban neighborhood as Cruise walks through it and surveys. There’s also a nifty shorter Oner, about :40, when Cruise’s van gets stolen at gunpoint. Within the 40 seconds, the framing and camera position reframe five different times.