War of the Worlds: Spielberg’s Post 9/11 Cinema

(TW: some pictures from 9/11 are shown below) 

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells classic, has largely been overlooked in the director’s oeuvre. The film was greeted with mixed reviews, praised for the first hour but generally agreed to fall apart after Tim Robbin’s sequence in the middle. (In one scene, Spielberg rips off his own raptor kitchen sequence from Jurassic Park) It never gets back to the beginning’s strength,  but there is no denying that there are some incredibly strong sequences that show incredible feats of filmmaking. War of the Worlds also happens to provide a fascinating insight into post 9/11 American cinema.  The Chronicle observed that “scenes of urban destruction – chaos in the streets, collapse in communications – intentionally call to mind everyone’s worst terrorism nightmares.”

The 9/11 allegories throughout the film are no accident. In the DVD special features, actor Justin Chatwin (who plays Tom Cruise’s son) notes that he researched books of 9/11 photography. Director Steven Spielberg concedes that he researched those photographs as well. Spielberg does not necessarily make the aliens stand-ins for terrorists, but he does draws on the atmosphere of a post 9/11 world, when America no longer felt safe. The film captures the overwhelming sense of panic and distrust when the world was suddenly blinded with uncertainty and fear. Spielberg draws on this atmosphere in many ways throughout the film.

The reveal of the tripods- odd, jellyfish-like machines that weave their way through the city- is one of the best action sequences ever put to film. A sequence that deserves more praise than it is given. It opens slowly, a sense of dread building and building. The tripods are buried underground, the crowd standing around waiting in tensely measured moment. What follows after the tripods break free is absolutely terrifying. The humans look up as the giant tripods stand tall. In the special features, Spielberg revealed that he shot from the people’s perspective looking up at the tripods to evoke the home videos that NYC street goers made as they looked up at the destruction of the twin towers.

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The tripods zap humans as they run, instantly leaving nothing but their clothes and dust.  Cruise breaks away, running from them as fast as he can. When he returns home, he is covered in white ash and dust. This clearly speaks to those at ground zero, and evokes the photographs Spielberg and Chatwick studied.

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There are shots of missing persons posters, another image we know so well from the 9/11 coverage. After Cruise returns home from the tripod scene and attempts to leave the chaotic city, Dakota Fanning’s character specifically asks “Is it the terrorists?” Cruise’s character is a blue-collar worker from New Jersey, his job site overlooking where the Twin Towers once stood.

The aliens in those tripods always remain elusive—there’s no tangible explanation as to why they are here, what they want. Cruise, his children, and the thousands of other people shown effected by the invasion do not understand what is happening or why. Who did it? Why did they do it? Is it going to happen again? Where? Are we next? Spielberg captures the feeling of the dreaded and weighty unknown that follows after a terrorist attack.

Spielberg does not always capture the bond of humanity after tragedy- instead, he portrays a much darker aspect of human nature and humanity at its very lowest. The alien invasion somehow makes cars unable to work but Cruise’s character is able to get his hands on a working car. When he finds himself in the middle of a giant crowd, the people savagely climb on top of the car for a spot inside. They beat on the windows, try to overturn the car, one man even tearing the glass apart with his bare hands. Cruise eventually resorts to bringing out a gun, but is usurped when another man has a gun of his own. Spielberg’s portrait shows that in the end, faced with turmoil, everyone will only look out for themselves. The car scene is one of the most harrowing scenes in not only War of the Worlds, but in film itself.

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War of the Worlds is filled with a sense of horror and dread that is unlike most mainstream action films before 9/11. Look at the 90s alien invasion hit Independence Day, where the alien antics were viewed as fun and silly. We watch the White House blow up with a sense of glee. Bombs descending on great American landmarks is met with a playful voyeurism. In War of the Worlds, an American invasion is terrifying. Ordinary people run screaming as giant, ominous machines zap them to death. People are killed gruesomely and unmercifully. The difference between these films? 9/11 made those Independence Day disasters reality for us. Grittier, crueler films then greeted the multiplex. Superhero films became darker, such as Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Man of Steel. This is a darker world and our superheroes need to reflect that. There is a higher stakes to our saving now.

War of the Worlds is not a perfect film, there are reasons why it has not reached classic pop culture status like Spielberg’s other works. The film stops dead in its tracks during Tim Robbin’s scenes and never regains the same momentum. The aliens are horribly CGI’d. Spielberg, the master of fearing the unseen, should have known better and kept the aliens in shadow or not seen at all.  However, the first two acts are stunning and works of exemplary filmmaking. Cruel and dark, Spielberg provides insight into how cinema altered its values and iconography post 9/11.  The film depicts the blind chaos and confusion experienced by Americans on that tragic day. Confusion that left a world unable to trust, facing a dark uncertain future. War of the Worlds has stunning sequences that make the film, on the whole, deserves much more praise and attention than it is given.

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