“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”
– War of the Worlds
This week, Tom Cruise has a new sci-fi movie coming out, Edge of Tomorrow. And early word is the film is quite good, although it’s already being met with the standard backlash that accompanies Cruise’s films these days, due to his rather wacky beliefs.
Those Tom Cruise shenanigans, or Cruisenanigans as I call them, played a part in tarnishing the Steven Spielberg adaptation of War of the Worlds in some people’s minds. War of the Worlds came out on the heels of Cruise’s much publicized relationship with Katie Holmes, couch-jumping and everything.
Despite all this, the film went on to be the fourth highest grossing film of 2005, but over the years the reputation of War of the Worlds has been tarnished, with many lumping the film in as one of Spielberg’s worst. I will freely admit the film has several flaws, which I will touch on, but I also feel the film has been unjustly maligned, and does not get the credit it deserves.
The story, for those who aren’t familiar:
“Average Joe” Ray Ferrier (Cruise) works as a longshoreman — that is, when he’s not wearing leather jackets and repairing vintage cars. His family is broken, and he is, for all intents and purposes, a failure as a father (a favorite Spielberg trope). One weekend, while Ray is in charge of watching his kids Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), an unnatural lightning storm occurs. The storm results in massive, terrifying alien machines known as Tripods coming up from the ground, and laying waste to all in their path. Ray and his kids are then on the run, moving from one location to the next, as the world descends into chaos around them.
Steven Spielberg is a legend. He has had a long career creating some of the most beloved films of our times. Young Spielberg was a director who did not seek to make films specifically for adults or for kids—he made movies for everyone. As he got older, he began tackling more serious material, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but there are many who long for him to return to the film subjects of his youth. To those people who still harbor that wish, let me school you: that will never happen. Spielberg has come so far in his career, it would be silly for him to suddenly try to make a movie like E.T. again. That’s not the filmmaker he is anymore.
Before War of the Worlds, Spielberg tackled aliens among us in two other films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the aforementioned E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. These two early Spielberg films portray human interaction with aliens as magical. These were encounters that we, the viewing audience, would be happy to experience. The aliens of War of the Worlds, however, are the polar opposite: cold and unemotional, with human annihilation as their main goal. In his youth, Spielberg had originally developed E.T. as a darker, scarier movie; his instincts got the better of him, and it became the film we all know and love. That was young Spielberg, a filmmaker of a different era. War of the Worlds , however, is a film that exists completely in the post-9/11 society we all now occupy.
The tragic events of 9/11 played a large part in how the film came about. After those all too real attacks, the movie business did what it always did: tried to reflect the times we were now living in. 9/11 would play a big part in shaping films—some directly reflecting that day, like United 93, and some heavily dramatizing them in fantastical settings, like the 2008 9/11-as-a-monster-movie film Cloverfield.
Spielberg, along with screenwriter David Koep, did not as overtly channel the September 11th attacks as other films did, but the influence was still strong. The majority of the time we see the massive alien Tripods, Spielberg always frames them from the ground looking up. This both helps imply their towering, looming nature and also directly reflects amateur footage shot on 9/11, of people pointing their cameras up into the sky to witness the horror overhead. There are other 9/11 references, from characters covered in ash to long stretches of handmade “Missing” posters of people trying to find their (most likely dead) loved ones. When the aliens attack a neighborhood, resulting in an amazing looking scene of a bridge being obliterated in the background, Fanning’s character Rachel shrieks, “Is it the terrorists?!” Not just “terrorists,” but THE terrorists, fully reflecting the post-empire era we’re all living in now. There’s even a crazy, paranoid survivalist character (played by Tim Robbins) who almost predicts the real-life nut jobs out there who call themselves Truthers and insist 9/11 was an “inside job” despite all evidence to the contrary.
War of the Worlds is a cold film. Where E.T. and Close Encounters had an abundance of emotion, War of the Worlds has moments almost void of any feeling other than terror. Cruise’s character Ray is completely unable to connect with his children. Any attempts to do so prove embarrassing. There’s a particularly revealing scene where, having escaped back to the kids’ usual (but now empty) residence, Cruise attempts to make them sandwiches. He has no idea of his daughter’s food allergies, and also, as we watch Cruise make a sandwich, it becomes apparent the man has never made a damn sandwich in his life. He slaps the bread together as if he were channeling his trickster bartender character from Cocktail. This perfectly highlights how clueless Ray is as a provider for his children.
His teen son has no respect for or faith in him at all, and, while his younger daughter is more understanding, she too knows what a complete failure Ray is. At one point, when Robbie tries to run off and join the army, Fanning’s Rachel cries out, “Who’s going to take care of me when you’re gone!?” She does this right in front of Ray, which probably stings a little.
Cruise’s real-life kookiness actually adds to the strengths of his character. The fact that in real life, Cruise is not an Average Joe longshoreman actually helps establish how aloof and distant he is with the other human beings around him. What’s more, as the film progresses, he doesn’t really grow as a character. Sure, he cares about his kids and goes to great trouble for them, but he always cared for his kids, even at the beginning of the film. He just has no idea how to show it.
In addition to the coldness, this is an incredibly tense film. The initial Tripod attack is downright horrifying, and one of the most intense things Spielberg has ever filmed. The emotionlessness with which the Tripods rise from the ground and then indiscriminately begin zapping everyone in their sites is anxiety-inducing. Cruise’s character escapes all this carnage, by doing the thing Tom Cruise does best in his movies (besides grinning)—he runs like hell ’til he’s back home. But once he’s back home, he becomes fully aware that he’s covered in dust. And this isn’t the dust of rubble from damaged buildings—the dust is actually the ashes of other human beings who have been disintegrated by the Tripod’s death rays. That’s terrifying, and Cruise plays the scene perfectly as someone in horrified shock.
This sequence is followed by more harrowing scenes. Rachel comes upon a river choked with floating corpses; a train engulfed in flames rockets by a train stop; an airplane crashed into a house (with creepily no people in it anymore). And perhaps one of the most shocking things, especially for a PG-13 movie, comes near the end when the aliens begin covering the entire landscape in human blood, using it as fertilizer. These are all fantastic scenes, perfectly staged by Spielberg, and lensed expertly by frequent Spielberg collaborate Janusz Kaminski.
However, as I stated before, the film is not without its flaws. First, let me just address something I’ve seen people comment on as a “flaw,” which I don’t agree with at all: Dakota Fanning’s portrayal as Rachel. Fanning was something of a wunderkind child actress; she seemed to possess a calmness and intelligence that was far beyond her years and appearance, and those were usually the type of characters she portrayed. In short, she portrayed kids who didn’t really act like kids. The character of Rachel, however, acts exactly like a kid. Sure, she has some of Fanning’s trademark super-smart-kid traits, but for the most part she is still clearly a child. I’ve seen people complain that the character of Rachel screams too much. Trust me, I’m the first person to get annoyed when I see little kids in public running around screaming their heads off for no reason, but I would say the character of Rachel has a pretty great reason to be screaming her head off in this movie: ALIENS ARE KILLING EVERYONE. Her mother is missing and she has no idea if she’s still alive, and she’s trapped with her dope of a father while all this is happening. I think any of us, were we her age in her position, would be shrieking ourselves silly.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the real problems of the film. As dark and cold as this film is, Spielberg still can’t help himself. He has to throw some goofy Spielberg-isms in. I’m not saying I wanted the film to be unrelentingly bleak with no happy ending, but the arc that’s constructed for the character of Robbie is a little ridiculous. After the attacks, Robbie is dead-set on joining up with the army to fight the aliens. So far, so good. After 9/11, I remember there were many people—some I even knew—who felt like they had to rush and join the army to fight terrorism. However, halfway through the film, Robbie runs away from his family, up a hill, with the army. And there’s a giant fireball. And it’s assumed Robbie is dead. But because this is a Spielberg movie at heart, it turns out he’s not dead. At the end of the film, he’s perfectly fine, and he’s also magically at the house Ray and Rachel have been traveling to the entire film. Ridiculous. Think of how much more of a big character moment this would have been for Ray, having to return to his ex-wife with only one child surviving. That’s big, and it’s emotional, and if done correctly it would be incredibly memorable. Spielberg instead opted for the easy out.
We also have Tim Robbins’ crazy character. Robbins’ character is pulled from several different characters in the H.G. Wells book that (loosely) inspired the film. But the entire sequence—where Ray and Rachel are hiding out in Robbins’ basement—grinds the film to a halt. Up until now, the film has been moving at a breakneck pace, moving from one fantastic set piece to the next (there’s an attack sequence aboard a ferry that is flat-out amazing). Now, slowing things down after a bunch of excitement can work, if done correctly. That’s not the case here. I genuinely like Robbins as an actor, but he’s terrible here. He plays the character ridiculously over the top, and throughout the entire sequence I just kept thinking, “Boy, I hope this part of the movie ends soon.” It’s almost as if Spielberg and Koep knew how annoying this character was, because they eventually have Cruise’s character strangle him to death. But let’s talk about that. That itself could be a big moment for Cruise’s character: because of the dire circumstances, he’s changed from some normal guy to a murderer. However, the film doesn’t really seem to care. Cruise strangles Robbins, and the film moves on. It’s never addressed again, and there’s no hint that the character of Ray has any feelings or thoughts about this.
Then we have the way the aliens are finally defeated. I can’t fault the film too much for this, because it’s more or less pulled directly from the Wells novel. It seems the aliens just aren’t cut out for our atmosphere, and they eventually just get sick and die. It worked in the book, and I’m sure there’s a way you can make it work in a movie. War of the Worlds just doesn’t know how to do it.
And maybe that is why the film has such a poor reputation. There’s a great scene in Adaptation. where Nicolas Cage, playing screenwriter Charlie Kaufmann, meets with screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox). When the subject of an ending comes up, McKee explains:
“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.”
Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is the complete inverse of this. All of the truly great scenes in this film are in the first two acts. And “the aliens get sick and die from the germs in our atmosphere” really does play out like the ultimate dues ex machina. So maybe this just leaves a bad taste in the mouths of viewers. I understand. But War of the Worlds is a movie that deserves a second chance. It’s a a fine example of a film that reflects the post-9/11 world in which we all found ourselves in the early 2000s, and its assured direction mixing real-life horrors with science fiction tropes expertly demonstrates Spielberg’s continuing talents.