After the runaway success of their first project together (2002’s MINORITY REPORT), director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Cruise were eager to collaborate again soon. Cruise pitched several ideas, one of which was a modern update to H.G. Wells’ seminal novel, “War Of The Worlds”. Spielberg immediately responded to the idea, as he was a fan of the property to the extent that he owned an original copy of the script that Orson Welles read from during his infamous “War Of The Worlds” broadcast in 1938. In doing a new adaptation, he saw an opportunity to tackle the alien genre in a way that he had never done before. He’d been profoundly influenced by the events of 9/11, and felt that he could infuse the subtext of the film’s story with several allegories to that fateful day as a way of making the century-old story relevant.
His first alien film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) was all about the awe of discovering that we are not alone in the universe. His second, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), was about benevolent aliens and their peaceful mission to Earth. Spielberg had yet to make an alien film that depicted them as unstoppable harbingers of mankind’s doom. Such an approach would require going back to the grim, gritty aesthetic that marked MINORITY REPORT. Working once again with his JURASSIC PARK (1993) screenwriter, David Koepp, as well as his regular producer Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg had to shoot WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) on an astonishingly fast timetable for an effects-heavy film. Shooting only began seven months prior to its release, which even today seems impossible. Despite its rushed production, WAR OF THE WORLDS was a breakout success and hailed as one of the best films of the year.
I first saw the film in theaters during its initial release. I was home from college for the summer, and I remember being completely stunned by the experience. There were so many haunting images that resonated with me, especially the shot of Cruise looking at himself in the mirror, horrified to see that he’s covered in a thick layer of human ash (a familiar sight to anyone who watched 9/11 unfold live on the news). For a long time, WAR OF THE WORLDS held a spot in my “Favorite Films Of All Time” list, and while time and experience with other films may have dropped its standing by relative comparison, re-watching the film again for The Directors Series was still as visceral and effective an experience as it was the first time.
WAR OF THE WORLDS was produced during the zeitgeist of George W. Bush’s War on Terrorism—a conventional military response against an unconventional enemy in the reeling days after 9/11. As such, the film asks several salient questions while playing on our uncertainties and sobering realizations that disaster could strike whenever, and wherever, we least expect it. It could even come from right up underneath our feet. The story begins with Morgan Freeman’s velvety narration, describing how mankind—certain of their dominance in the universe—spread throughout the earth and erected monuments to themselves. Meanwhile, an advanced alien race was watching us with envious eyes, biding their time until they invaded our planet and claimed it for their own. Presented with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline, we zero in on one man in particular—a blue collar dock worker named Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise)—who will be our guide through the destruction to come. His best days behind him, Ray is content to live in his ramshackle house in Bayonne, New Jersey and share custody of his children with his estranged wife, Mary Ann (Miranda Otto). On the fateful day we meet Ray, a freak lightning storm knocks out all the power in his town. And that’s when the ground starts shaking and buckling, and gigantic tripedal crafts explode up from underfoot, destroying everything and everyone in sight. Ray escapes the initial attack, collects his children into the only working car in town, and sets off towards Boston to find Mary Ann and keep the family together. Surprisingly WAR OF THE WORLDS is really an intimate story about the importance of family—it just happens to take place against the backdrop of terrifying alien attacks that threaten to wipe out mankind forever.
Cruise plays Ray as something of a child himself. He mouths off to his boss, squeals around town in a souped-up hotrod car, and revels in utter aimlessness. His journey to deliver his kids to safety is part of a greater arc that finds him maturing and becoming the father figure he’s called to be. It’s compelling to watch his character try so hard to keep it together for the sake of his kids, when he’s just as scared (if not more so) as them. Cruise slips effortlessly into the cocksure swagger that the role initially requires, almost as if it was his Maverick character from TOP GUN (1986) 20 years later, burnt-out and washed up. It’s an interesting take on a potentially bland protagonist, besting even his prior performance for Spielberg in MINORITY REPORT.
Much like Haley Joel Osment in 2001’s A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, Dakota Fanning was the go-to, supernaturally talented child performer of the day. She’s quite believable as Rachel Ferrier, Ray’s daughter. She more than capably projects the precociousness of the little brat, balanced with wisdom beyond her years. She’s a source of levity throughout the film, as well as a compelling stakes character for Cruise’s character arc to play out against.
Tim Robbins plays Harlan Ogilvy, a reclusive conspiracy theorist/survivor that Cruise and Fanning encounter. Ogilvy used to drive ambulances in the city, but now he’s holed up in the basement of a farmhouse—drinking peach schnapps and plotting an ill-equipped retaliation against the aliens. Robbins delivers a deliciously unhinged performance, which is crucial to sustain the audience’s interest during this section of the film. Spielberg and Koepp chose to place a substantial chunk of the second act running time in Ogilvy’s basement, which runs the risk of completely derailing the breathtaking pace Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn have established. Thus, it falls to Robbins to transfer the overt terror of aliens attacking the surface over to the creeping dread of Ogilvy’s increasingly-evident dangerousness.
Spielberg’s supporting cast is rather small, despite the humongous scale that the film plays out against. Miranda Otto was cast off the strength of her performance in Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY, and here she plays Cruise’s ex-wife, Mary Ann. Her performance effectively communicates that she and Cruise came from different worlds, and she simply outgrew him. However, she continues to harbor a begrudging love for him, an unconditional love that serves as a great source of exasperation when Ray is acting childish. Justin Chatwin experienced a career breakthrough as Robbie, Ray’s son. He’s the typical American teen: sullen, rebellious, and impulsive. He fights with his dad on every little thing, but he’s a lot like him in many ways. If they were the same age, they’d probably be best friends.
WAR OF THE WORLD’s aesthetic is a return to the dark, gritty cinematography that marked MINORITY REPORT, or to a lesser extent SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993). Regular Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski utilizes his familiar crushed blacks and blooming highlights to striking effect, while sucking a great deal of color out of the film until a pallid, bluish hue remains. This becomes all the more effective when pops of red (the blood-infused terraforming vines) sear the screen, or purple and green strobe lights flash from the alien warships like some intergalactic EDM concert. Spielberg also appropriates some of his aesthetic from 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (handheld camera work and 90 degree shutters) to complement the ground-level sense of chaos. Spielberg and Kaminski also make the conscious decision to eschew the hallmarks of the disaster genre, like the violent destruction of landmarks. Instead, the entire film takes on the point of view of Ray’s indirect confrontation with the aliens. We only see what he sees, and the carnage he witnesses is on a local, more personal level.
There are several virtuoso camera moves that sell the spectacle aspect of the story, like the impossibly continuous take of Cruise and family sorting out their confusion as they weave through dead cars on a crowded highway. Several other visual signatures of Spielberg’s make appearances: the awe/wonder shot (although this time around it reads as stupefied horror), lens flares, shafts of light, breaking the fourth wall, and low angle compositions.
Maestro John Williams creates a pulsing, ominous score to match the aliens’ malicious intent. He eschews his usual bombastic themes in favor of a percussive, driving sound. The music plays largely in the background, never fully exerting itself or taking center stage—thus allowing Spielberg’s jaw-dropping visuals to speak for themselves. In a haunting echo of the scene in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN where Edith Piaf’s voice bounces out among the ruins of a bombed town, Spielberg chooses to blare Frank Sinatra from the loudspeakers of a refugee encampment. He sees music as a mood-lifter in troubled times, as well as ironic commentary on lost innocence in the wake of incomprehensible destruction.
The tension between Ray (father) and Robbie (son) is the single-most prominent signifier of Spielberg’s authorship. As a trope that he has continuously explored throughout his filmography, his message has likewise continued to evolve. His shift is best illustrated by the bookends of Spielberg’s experience with the alien genre, starting with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and ending with WAR OF THE WORLDS. In CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, the protagonist leaves his family behind without a second thought—excited beyond all reason at the prospect of exploring the cosmos. The notion that family can be so casually shrugged aside was indicative of Spielberg’s towards his father at the time: a bitter resentment over his father’s seeming abandonment of him in the wake of his parents’ divorce.
But by WAR OF THE WORLDS, Spielberg has reached the opposite pole of that spectrum. The protagonist must risk his life to keep his family together as malevolent aliens arrive to destroy mankind. Spielberg’s estrangement with his father began to ease when he has children of his own and he could see things from his father’s point of view, and his depiction of fathers in his films has evolved accordingly.
Refugees and their encampments are common images in Spielberg’s films, especially in SCHINDLER’S LIST and EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987). These images are part of a larger exploration of the idea of people in persecution. Spielberg uses this same imagery in WAR OF THE WORLDS to make an astute observation about how a rich nation such as America would respond in the face of widespread destruction. Throughout the film, we see American refugees (a stunning notion in and of itself), walking alongside the road pushing shopping carts full of useless junk. There’s a distinct message that, in a crisis, we’d be waiting in the bread lines while our tattered Louis Vuitton overcoats shielded us from the elements.
Spielberg’s spectacle films are structured like rides, so it’s not surprising that many of his films have gone on to become just that. He uses his mastery of set-pieces to pepper the film with propulsive action that thrills us. WAR OF THE WORLDS boasts several such set-pieces—like the initial Bayonne attack, or the ferry boat ambush. Sequences like this are destined to become just as iconic and memorable as his work on JURASSIC PARK or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).
WAR OF THE WORLDS was a box office hit, and was warmly-received by audience and critics alike. Millions marveled at Spielberg’s pitch-dark vision of a seemingly-unstoppable alien invasion—even if many of those same people rolled their eyes at the deus-ex machine ending in which it’s revealed that the aliens ultimately couldn’t survive the common cold despite their advanced technology. While Spielberg’s films have a history of these “random hand of God” cop-out endings, most forgot that WAR OF THE WORLDS’ ending was actually pulled directly from H.G. Wells’ book. There might have been a bigger outcry had he not ended it in that way.
For those traumatized by the events of 9/11, WAR OF THE WORLDS is an emotional outlet, a catharsis, and a fantastical escape that allow them to process the emotions and fears of that fateful day in a safe setting. After a cuddly, gentle phase that began with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and ended with THE TERMINAL, Spielberg hits back with an unrelentingly dark vision that reminds us of his pure, visceral power as a filmmaker.
WAR OF THE WORLDS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Paramount.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
Written by: Josh Friedman, David Koepp
Director of Cinematograpy: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Rick Carter
Editor: Michael Kahn
Composer: John Williams