Films / Horror / Science Fiction

Post 9/11 Cinema: War of the Worlds (2005)

These days, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds tends to be unfairly overlooked. Though it made a considerable amount of money upon it’s 2005 release, it was met with mixed reviews, and these days, the general public seem to have forgotten about it. War of the Worlds has never taken on the iconic status of Jaws, Jurassic Park, E.T – in fact, it’s never come close to any of big Spielberg movies, and it tends to be seen as a somewhat odd blip within the director’s epic filmography, perhaps lost amongst too much greatness. It’s a shame really, as War of the Worlds has a lot to offer – it’s in some ways, one of Spielberg’s boldest movies, and certainly one of his nastiest; at times, it reaches the level of a masterpiece, though there’s just a few slight issues holding it back. The film does however, provide a fascinating insight into the nature of American action and science-fiction cinema in a post 9/11 world, and for that reason alone, is certainly worth revisiting. war6The film is a contemporary American adaptation of HG Wells’ 1897 novel, The War of the Worlds, a story which almost everybody already knows. Not only was the novel adapted to screen in the iconic 1953 movie, it was the subject of the infamous Orson Welles hoax/scare, and also adapted into a popular musical play in the 70s. On top of that, Wells’ novel basically provided the template for all invasion literature and cinema, and so even if audiences haven’t heard of the original, they’ll have felt its influence in the likes of Independence Day. It’s a story fairly ingrained into culture. And Spielberg’s version – new setting aside – is remarkably close to the source, at least in terms of plot-pieces and tone. Here, we follow Ray (Tom Cruise) who is left to look after his two estranged children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) whilst his ex-wife and her new husband travel to Boston. A freak storm however, brings an ominous tone, and soon giant metal tripods are walking the streets, obliterating buildings and vaporising people. Ray must fight to escape the aliens and keep his family alive.war of the worlds tripodAliens in cinema are flexible – essentially, they represent ‘the other’ and so can be adapted to represent almost anything. The best alien movies use their visitors as allegory. So for example, in The Thing, you’re looking at an 80s reaction to the AIDS virus – who has it, they look the same, the blood test etc – and in The Day the Earth Stood Still, a Cold War look into the dangers of nuclear power. Spielberg’s own ET: The Extraterrestrial can be taken as a religious figure (ET representing Jesus) or as a representation of the innocence of childhood. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey use aliens as a means of progression and evolution, on a spiritual level, whilst Alien uses them to explore sexual repression and body horror. Which brings us to War of the Worlds, which certainly draws influence from the September 11th attacks, particularly in terms of imagery.Tom Cruise covered in white dust will speak to anyone who was at ground zero on that day; there are walls of missing persons posters, a crashed plane, and the film as a whole depicts the blind chaos and confusion experienced by the world – America in particular – on that infamous day. Dakota Fanning specifically asks about terrorists at one point, and the movie opens with a shot of where the Twin Towers were. It’s not that the aliens represent terrorists as such, that’s a little on the nose, but Spielberg certainly draws on the atmosphere of the post 9/11 world, a world in which America no longer felt safe. The invasion gets through the walls, like 9/11, and the film captures the sense of panic, distrust and crucially, fear experienced by the world after that event. This explains why the aliens aren’t really consistent in how they kill, or with their goals – we’re not meant to understand what’s happening or why, the idea being to capture the disorientation post terrorist attack, when you don’t know who is alive, who did it, or if it’s going to happen again. If movies represent current culture, then War of the Worlds is a perfect encapsulation of the American mood in the early 2000s. Interestingly too, the invasion comes (literally) from within American soil, and cannot be fought with conventional, established means – normal military warfare won’t help, and Cruise takes a tripod out essentially by acting as a suicide bomber. Does this align the tripods with America and raise questions about the Iraq War? Spielberg is ambiguous on this front, but the idea is there if you want it. war5The movie stands as a strong example of how cinema shifted gears after 2001. Compare War of the Worlds to similar movies of the 90s, the likes of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day – a movie which unlike War of the Worlds, is remembered fondly, despite being a considerably weaker film. 90s America had less to worry about – the economy was great, Clinton was great, the Berlin Wall had come down, the USSR had collapsed, and there was a sense of a great weight being lifted off the world. Cinema reflected this. Notice how Independence Day, despite the mass destruction, is a positive, light-hearted movie. It is spectacle watching The White House be destroyed here, it’s fun, it’s silly horror, with no sense of real threat. These kinds of movies ended after 2001, and tonally, there was a shift to darker material, as America learnt to deal with a world in which maybe, they weren’t as secure as they thought. Compare, for example, what happened to Batman between Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan; The Dark Knight features an impossible to comprehend villain who blows up buildings in the city, and the tone is dark, realistic and cold. Man of Steel‘s destruction of Metropolis is frightening, bleak and worlds away the kinds of casual, comedic ruckus of the Donner movies, and even the new Godzilla looks set to follow suit. Obviously, 9/11 had an enormous impact on the cultural psyche, and this change is reflected in grittier, crueller movies of the 00s. war7War of the Worlds was really the first movie to react to 9/11, and justifies its imagery more than say, Man of Steel. This is a movie about a world panicking, a world which doesn’t know who to trust, a world facing an uncertain future. It’s very much these days, a product of the mid-2000s, and will always remain so as we move gradually away from September 11th and the atmosphere of fear. The movie almost works as an anti-Independence Day – whereas Emmerich’s aliens were fun and over-the-top, here the threat is violent and terrifying. People run screaming as ominous, giant machines zap them to death, the dust of the bodies littering the air whilst their clothes float to the ground. People are killed gruesomely – unlike Spielberg’s earlier alien movies, there is no love here at all, no attempt at communication. Nothing but annihilation.war10On top of the threat of the aliens themselves, Spielberg puts together an interesting study of what happens to people when they’re afraid. In Independence Day, the invasion brought people together; here, it rips them apart. War of the Worlds is a nasty film looking at the lowest points of human nature, which means it can make for very uncomfortable viewing. There are some scenes here which are painful to watch; the attack on the car for example – it’s hard to think of a mainstream blockbuster this dark and unpleasant, and the tone here is much more horror than science-fiction. It’s in these moments that the film becomes a kind of grim masterpiece, with much more in common with the harsher, younger Spielberg movies – the kind of movies where little boys can get bloodily eaten by sharks. Notice the sense of selfishness throughout; Ray has to become selfish to save his daughter – going so far as to kill for her – and there’s a real every-man for himself vibe. This is bleak movie-making, and perhaps why the film isn’t remembered so fondly. It leaves a bitter taste in a way, and you leave the cinema feeling bad after watching it.war2The film deserves a great deal of praise on a technical level. The cinematography is glorious, almost hyper-realistic, helped by the use of actual, real-life sets (unlike Spielberg’s contemporary George Lucas, who by 2005 seemed to only be able to see in green screen) and the atmosphere, sense of tension and terror are throughout fantastic. The sound design is some of the best in recent memory and John Williams’ score – dark and threatening, understated to the point it seems part of the action – is a rare change of pace from the composer, and one of Williams’ most mature themes. And there’s some of Spielberg’s most impressive filmmaking here. The initial tripod reveal is up there with the T-Rex appearance in Jurassic Park, or the beach storming in Saving Private Ryan – it’s simply put, one of the best action sequences ever put to film.  It opens slowly, with a great deal of building dread, and then practical effects are used over a 5-minute period before the tripod rises and all hell breaks loose. Those five minutes of screentime don’t waste a second; this is a measured, tense and increasingly terrifying sequence and one which deserves so much more praise.war12Then there’s the single shot in and around the car afterwards, which on a technical level, is insane, in a ‘how did they do that way?’ rivalling the extended takes of say Children of Men, which thematically, perfectly summing up Ray’s stress. Then there are the tripods themselves, which are genius examples of cinematic design. Fluid, liquid-like jellyfish things, the tripods are giant, imposing and terrifying, and deserve to be so much more iconic. Their foghorn stands side by side with Williams’ Jaws theme, and the tripod sequences are easily the best in the movie. The way they appear – having been buried for thousands of years – is illogical of course and often criticised, but its at least a unique and original approach and saves the audience from invading spaceships. There’s a sense throughout of trying to avoid the cliché – hence why we never see a single famous landmark get destroyed, which does make the movie refreshing.war3With so much to love, its tempting to call War of the Worlds a masterpiece, and it’s so close to being one. But there are some issues which crop up once we hit Act 3. The problem is that the first two acts move at a blinding pace; inevitably, there’s got to be a break in the narrative, which occurs when we meet Tim Robbins in the cellar. The movie literally stops dead, and never quite recovers. Robbins is over the top and irritating, which doesn’t help, and the aliens in the cellar is self-referential steal of the far superior velociraptors in the kitchen sequence from Jurassic Park; it’s never good to borrow from yourself, and this feels lazy on Spielberg’s part. Worse, the sequence is overly movie-ish in a movie which up until this point, has been hyper realistic and grim; it’s a change of tone and one which doesn’t work. The aliens too, are blandly designed – a stark contrast to their horrific and wonderful tripods – and really, Spielberg should have known better than to show them at all. The movie then struggles to find itself again and fizzles out with an anti-climax, which in fairness, comes directly from the book, but just isn’t executed very well here. The return of Robbie – often highlighted as the film’s biggest flaw – isn’t so bad; it provides a brief moment of hope in a film which has been unrelenting in its grimness, though yes, it’s easy to see this as older Spielberg’s sentimentality creeping in at the close. And Morgan Freeman’s narration is distracting and unnecessary. War of the Worlds never becomes a bad movie as such, but it’s so perfect for the first hour or so, with such a consistent tone, that the change of pace from the cellar onwards trips the feature and it never quite gets its groove back. war11It’s the problems in the third act which keep War of the Worlds from greatness, leaving the final product feeling a little uneven, and proving how important pace is in a movie. However, the first two acts are stunning – dark, cruel, powerful and almost painful to watch, providing a real insight into altered cinematic values in a post 9/11 world. War of the Worlds is fascinating, and for numerous reasons, deserves much more praise.


8 thoughts on “Post 9/11 Cinema: War of the Worlds (2005)

  1. Very enlightening in-depth look at our society and the film itself. Definitely learned some things which know that you mention I can put all the pieces together. You marked the spot on the problems with the third act, but however in doing so made me realize that this is by no means a bad film. I’ve been debating on buying it blu ray for $10 but I had been thinking something about it left a bad taste. I can know remember how good the first two acts were and know that the third just a dip in direction. Haha guess I’m making a trip to the store soon. Brilliant review!

    • Hi Jon, thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed the review! I’ve always enjoyed WotW, it’s a little uneven towards the end which leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but the first two acts are brilliant and I think it’s really underrated. As a look into cinema after 9/11 it’s really interesting.

      I tend to think it gets lost in Spielberg’s filmography, and if another director had made it the movie would get much more praise.

      Glad I’ve inspired you to get that Blu-Ray, it’ll look great 🙂

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  4. I’ve always loved this movie, haven’t seen it since it first came out to DVD though when I was younger. I’ll have to give it a rewatch, especially with these thoughts in mind. Wonderful analysis! I never thought of it in a post-911 mind frame.

    • Thanks for the comment – I’ve always loved it too and think it’s so much better than remembered! I missed the 9/11 elements when I was a kid but they’re really blatant as an adult, and it makes the whole thing so unsettling!

  5. “So for example, in The Thing, you’re looking at an 80s reaction to the AIDS virus – who has it, they look the same, the blood test etc…”

    – belatedly: this is a really thought-provoking theory, but unlikely to be a deliberate subtext as The Thing was released in 1982 when the public had limited awareness of HIV? (& some of the blood-test bits are also present in the original 1938 story : )

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