In 2005, Steven Spielberg released his remake/adaptation of War of the Worlds. The filmstarred Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, an underutilized Miranda Otto, and plenty of nightmare-inducing alien war machines. It also had a script that was co-written by Josh Friedman (showrunner of the also underrated The Sarah Connor Chronicles), an understated soundtrack from John Williams, and some of the best, scariest “action” sequences in modern cinematic history.
War of the Worldswas a box office success, but, when people are asked for their favorite Spielberg or Tom Cruise films, it hardly ever makes the list, even though its rather straightforward theme of a deadbeat dad who has to prove his efficacy as a parent (spoiler: it takes the near end of the world) is an action film mainstay. On the eleventh anniversary of its release, let’s discuss why that might be…
A 9/11 parable.
Though War of the Worldsmay have been based on an H.G. Wells novel from 1897, the film is very much about a specific, confusing, terrible time in American history: the period directly following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and how we, as a country, reacted to it. The movie tries to work through this collective angst and trauma, a fact that is, somehow, even more obvious watching it more than a decade after its initial release.
The story begins in New York City, where Tom Cruise’s Ray works on the docks and lives in New Jersey. When the alien attack first begins, greater New York City is the “ground zero” we see it depicted from. Ray’s New Jersey community, filled with a sense of tight-knit camraderie and friendly neighborhood cops that feel totally different in the context of post-9/11 than they do in our current cultural context, is where this all begins for us.
From there, we get several iconic images Americans have come to associate with 9/11: from traumatized people covered in ash to hordes of weary people walking across bridges to the signs people have made to look for their missing loved ones. At one point, when Ray and his kids are driving away from NYC, Dakota Fanning’s Rachel asks if it is “the terrorists” as the city is destroyed behind them.
This movie is also really pro-military. Pretty much whenever there is a heroic moment, it is a military man leading the way. The National Guard makes recurring appearances, somehow still in operation in the midst of this batshit crazy alien attack that the Earth is wholly unprepared for. This is not only an allegory for the police and firemen whose heroism has become a central tenet of our 9/11 narrative, but of the Iraq War that began probably around the time of this film’s initial development.
In re-watching War of the Worlds,it’s hard not to compare it to Battlestar Galactica. War of the Worlds is dealing with a lot of the same themes as Battlestar Galactica, which premiered in the same year and was also a direct response to 9/11 and post-9/11 American life. As a kid in college, I remember thinking that Battlestar Galacticafelt like nothing else on TV — it was dark, complicated, and was addressing the national trauma in a way that so few other pop culture stories tried to do.
War of the Worldsfalls into this category, too, and perhaps that was why I also responded to it so strongly when it was first released. I saw it three times in theaters — partially because I liked it and partially because my local theater only had two screens and one was always playing a children’s movie. I remember thinking it was one of the scariest movies I had ever seen, and this coming from a kid who watched The X-Filesreligiously growing up.
War of the Worldsis scary because it is tightly-wound, expertly-crafted action-horror, but it is also terrifying because it is directly referencing this world-changing event. The Tripods might not be real, but 9/11 really happened. Our country likes to mention 9/11, but we don’t really like to discuss it. We don’t like to break it down and work through our trauma or try to understand why something like this happened. Almost from the get-go, we wanted to narratavize it and move on. It’s an understandable response to trauma and grief, even if it isn’t a particularly healthy one. Part of the reason why I think War of the Worldsisn’t a highly-lauded Spielberg/Cruise film is because it is so very dark and so very interested in referencing this thing we really don’t want to talk or think about — even if we should.
Ahead of pop culture’s apocalypse craze.
Though America might not be particularly good at discussing 9/11, the Iraq War, and all of the policy and cultural changes that have followed, the nation-changing event has become so very prominent in our popular culture through the rise of apolcalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories.
In re-watching War of the Worlds,it becomes apparent that it is a movie very much ahead of a trend. In premise and execution, it is reminiscent of The Walking Dead or any of the countless young adult apocalypse-themed adaptations. If this movie were made today, it would probably feature a strong female teen character, but it would keep its tight, first-person focus. It also might be a TV show (see Spielberg’s less-good, but very similar Falling Skies).
Some of the scariest moments in War of the Worldsdon’t have to do with the aliens at all, but with the hordes of people desperate to survive. People attack the Ferrier’s van, pulling Ray and Robbie from their seats as Rachel screams, terrified, from the backseat. Ray is forced to kill Tim Robbins’ Harlan Ogilvy rather than let him endanger Rachel’s life through his unpredictable antics. This collapse of the social order is one of the thematic focal points of many of the post-apocalyptic stories that have been directly influenced by 9/11 and its ripple effects, and remains the most terrifying part of War of the Worlds.
When people critique War of the Worlds,they often point at the movie’s unexpectedly happy ending as a major weakness and the element that drops the film down in their estimation. The movie ends with Ray and Rachel making it to Boston where Rachel’s mom is not only still alive and well, but Robbie is waiting for them. (The emo teen had previously been separated from them and presumed dead after he made off over the crest of a hill towards the aliens, and was then presumably blown up.) All the aliens die, taken down not by some heroic American warrior so much as a bad cold, leaving the Ferrier family to reunite in the bleary wreckage of Boston.
It is an ending that manages to be both unexpectedly optimistic and desperately unsatisfying at the same time. Many critics view this dissatisfication as a bad thing, but I think it represents a bold narrative choice. Though War of the Worldsis a relentlessly dark film for most of its runtime, Spielberg never pretends to be making a film about the downfall of America, but rather the tenacity of the American spirit. However, he was making this film at a time when mainstream society, for the first time in a long time, were starting to doubt that tenacity.
For filmgoers of 2005 — or even now — watching a film that addresses the post-9/11 anxiety of an entire nation, the confusion and uncertainty that it is to live in the world right now, but doesn’t give an answer how to “fix” that uncertainty is frustrating. It makes us relive the trauma of this tragedy, but, while it does reassure us that everything is going to be OK, it doesn’t pretend that things will ever be the same.
In 2005, America was very much a country that wanted to go back to The Way Things Were. We are still that country, in many, often destructive ways. The final, lingering shots of War of the Worldsdon’t present that as a viable option. Because of course it isn’t — either for the Ferriers of this fictional reality or for those of us who live in the real, post-9/11 world. That’s unsettling, but it doesn’t make for a bad movie. Actually, it makes for kind of an important one.