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 the events of 9/11. But in 2005, two 9/11 parables were released by the same filmmaker: Steven Spielberg.
The first was War of the Worlds, a metaphoric reimagining of what the horrific terror attacks of 2001 were like. Rather than dramatizing the actual events of September 11, Spielberg fictionalized them under the guise of a summer blockbuster, one that modernized the experience of the attacks through the lens of one the most famous sci-fi allegories of all time.
(His second 2005 film, Munich, would be a meditation on our response to those attacks.)
So did Spielberg pull it off? Yes! And no.
Paralleling the 9/11 terror attacks with a surprising alien invasion was brilliant. The family drama, however, not so much.
For a guy who prided himself on early sci-fi efforts that believed intelligent life from other planets would come to Earth in peace, not war (i.e. Close Encounters and E.T.) , Spielberg finally relishes the opportunity to go old school here, elevating the quintessential B-movie sci-fi archetype into a big budget spectacle.
Okay, so “relish” might not quite be the right word, despite how astonishingly it’s rendered. This isn’t Independence Day style thrills, after all. This is a 9/11 parable; by design and intentional inference, the attack carries a lot of weight.
It’s rare to see an action spectacle this sober and unsettling, but that’s exactly what Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds is (and appropriately so). If anything, the spectacle makes it all-the-more horrifying, and credible.
The ingenuity of the metaphor and its real-world relevance comes in how the aliens attack: not from space, but from underground.
Spielberg draws a direct corollary to the Al Qaeda sleeper cells that existed right in our own neighborhoods, hiding among us in secret. The alien spacecraft tripods emerge from beneath and without warning in a coordinated assault that catches everyone by surprise.
Also pointed: the aliens enter the tripods “illegally” through lighting strikes from the sky, meaning they were “radicalized” elsewhere before coming here. Once here, they emerge from our very own communities in these “cells” that have laid dormant for years. All were strategically placed, each having patiently waited for just the right moment to strike, when the maximum destructive effect could be wrought.
The attack that ensues is an eerie replication of the news footage from September 11th, 2001. Buildings crack, split, and crumble. Whole swaths of communities are laid waste. People run and scream in terror, but not with the vicarious silliness of typical genre alien and monster flicks; rather, the terror is all-too-real and self-evident. The fear is the fear we saw on the faces of fellow Americans as we watched the news on our very own TVs.
Here, people run from the laser blasts of alien tripods, ones that tower directly above. As they flee, these citizens are covered in the ashes of those who weren’t able to run fast enough. That visual is yet another direct, disturbing, and painfully iconic image drawn from an event forever seared in our minds.
Our entry into these events through a broken family. We experience it all through them.
Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a mostly-absentee father who is taking the rare occasion to look after his kids while his ex-wife and her new husband go on a trip to Boston. His son Robbie is a teenager (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is in that transitional tween phase.
Ray’s relationship with both is tense (with his son especially), and it’s clear by the complete disregard for a clean house and lack of basic food items that Ray does not have his act together. That lack of basic responsibility is the root of the tension.
Ray is not a bad guy, but he is a bad parent. His initial awkward attempts at reconnecting are quickly rebuffed; forced pleasantries descend into anger and resentment, and escalate into profane confrontation.
Then, all hell breaks loose.
Dad needs a shot at redemption, and Steven Spielberg serves one up for him on a silver-screen platter.
He gets it (eventually) after a feature-length gauntlet. Through it, Ray protects his kids as they flee and evade the advancing aliens.
Unfortunately, screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp (who adapted Jurassic Park) must’ve used up all of their creativity on the comparisons to terrorism. The family issues, on the other hand, couldn’t be more rote. The put-upon indifference of teen angst gets old really fast, as does all of the requisite yelling.
It’s the kind of typical family conflict and strain that we see all the time, as if it were copied-and-pasted from some Hollywood blueprint that gets passed around and tweaked countless times over.
When it all finally starts to get really obnoxious, Spielberg stages a literal “You need to let me go, Dad” cliché moment between father and son. Talk about an eye-rolling groaner. (When the son said that line, I may have reflexively whispered “Seriously?” under my breath.)
Credit Cruise, though, for once again elevating material with surprising range and nuance. Ray’s internal emotional conflict is honestly felt. The family drama may be pat but Cruise infuses it with sincerity.
Thankfully, the overcooked melodrama is ultimately just filler used to pace out the action scenes.
As Ray and his kids flee to the suburbs (along with the rest of New York City) and then the countrysides, the aliens relentlessly pursue. These subsequent, fierce set pieces are just as impressively staged as the opening one, with the same grim gravitas, complete with the brass bombast of John Williams‘ throwback music cues.
The suburbs are initially safe but they, too, end up looking like a war zone after the aliens are through with them, including the sight of Ray walking past a huge propeller engine from a crashed jetliner. That is yet another specific, blunt callback to the 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. He begins to minimize the overt 9/11 visual cues, thus lifting that heavy burden off of the movie’s shoulders. That allows the second half to play more as a straight-up summer action thriller (even if still a dark one).
An extended sequence that best exemplifies this tonal gear takes place in the basement. It’s in the home of a Doomsday Prepper named Harlan, who’s played with a bit too much crazy by Tim Robbins. Free of 9/11 parallels, Spielberg has a lot of Hitchcockian fun in this confined set piece playground.
As Ray and the others try to stay quiet and hidden, alien tentacles attempt to track them down, serpentining throughout the makeshift bunker. This requires Ray, his daughter, and Harlan to constantly reposition where they’re hiding, but they must do it quietly. It’s one of the most tense scenes of the entire movie, one that also plays to the same unique strengths of the more recent A Quiet Place.
Between that sequence and one last climactic assault above-ground (which includes some gruesome killings), the movie peaks to a thrilling and satisfying conclusion…if also a simple one
War Of The Worlds is a sci-fi tale for the post-9/11 age, cleverly conceived and vividly realized. It doesn’t have much to say, but it doesn’t need to. Its symbolic recreation is resonant enough (even if the boilerplate family dysfunction isn’t).
- Various elements and designs in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds took direct inspiration from H.G. Wells’ original novel. For example, the tripod design for the alien machines is how they are described by Wells. Also in the novel, the tripod heat rays come from the ends of their tentacles. The “red weed” that is 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 that were needed, 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, which was also considered a fast shoot).
- Before David Koepp was brought onboard to help write the screenplay, Spielberg first wanted to hire J.J. Abrams. Abrams, however, 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 that War Of The Worlds opened in theaters.
- Spielberg was originally supposed to join Tom Cruise on Oprah Winfrey’s show to promote the movie, but he had to back out due to extended post-production oversight. Without Spielberg there, Oprah’s solo interview with Cruise turned into the infamous “couch jumping” episode.
- More impressive Spielberg Oners:
- In the initial attack on New York, a single-take “Oner” 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, then it widens to reveal the destruction of an entire suburban neighborhood as Cruise walks through it and surveys.
- There’s also a nifty, shorter Oner that runs about forty seconds. It’s the moment when Cruise’s van gets stolen at gunpoint. Within that 40 seconds, the framing and camera position move and reframe five different times.