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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Scene Sound Off: Jaws

Though there are countless memorable scenes in Steven Speilberg’s summer blockbuster Jaws one of the most famous is Chief Brody witnessing the shark attack of the little boy Alex.

The scene begins with a shot moving left following an overweight woman going into the water.. This shot is a red herring, for she is what the audience would assume the most appealing victim to the shark. Next to her is a young man playing fetch with his dog.

jaws 2A young boy enters the frame wearing red shorts (not so subtle color choice there, once we realize the outcome) and the camera follows him to the right. We learn his name is Alex Kintner. We have a set up for the scene where he asks his mother if he can go out into the water for a little while longer. The camera follows the little boy until we see and focus on Chief Brody, who is watching the beach intensely. From his POV, we see the next few shots of our established three main potential victims – a dog, an overweight woman, and a little boy. We see shots of Alex diving into the water on his yellow raft, the young man playing fetch with the dog, and the overweight woman floating on her back.

This leaves the audience questioning just who is our potential victim? Would Spielberg really go as far to kill the child? One of the reasons this scene ends up being so terrifying is for the fact that the shark takes a young and innocent life.

The camera zooms increasingly closer and closer to Chief Brody following wipes of extras walking past the camera. These shots give you a sense of just how crowded it is on the beach. The more crowded it is, the more potential danger there could be. The shots heighten the suspense and give you a sense of Brody’s heightened anxiety and fear of impending doom.

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There are several little scares from Brody’s POV- a shape moving closer to the overweight woman, a girl screaming. All little things that prove to be nothing but beachgoers having fun. However, the audience continues to get a sense of Brody’s anxiety which is at an all time high. He can see the potential danger in everyone and everywhere, and the audience does as well. Is it going to be that girl? Or will it be the overweight woman after all? Chief Brody and the audience are simultaneously guessing and on the edge of their seat.

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Brody deals with several distractions. We have an effective and wonderfully used over the shoulder and split screen shot as beachgoers try to break Brody’s concentration by making small talk with him. Brody’s focus is always on the beach.

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jaws 1The next shot we’ve seen several times before in this scene- with various beachgoers changing in the background. Brody’s wife talks to him as we see children getting up in the background ready to go into the water. Brody is unable to control his environment.

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Shots follow of kids splashing and playing– the audience can sense that the scene is now building to a head. The frantic cuts and excitement is gives a sense of bubbling up and overflowing to the final moments. The next shot is a sure sign of trouble- the young man established from the beginning calls after his dog. There’s a shot of the fetch stick floating in the water. Trouble is here.

One of the most infamous shark POV shots follow, the shark moves closer and closer to the boy’s kicking legs as the infamous theme song builds and builds.

jaws 7We see the attack from afar- the POV Chief Brody.

Jaws 8The famous dolly/zoom combination shot follows, and is indeed an effective one. All of Chief Brody’s anxiousness has not been for naught. He was fearful that something would happen. The zoom shot represents Cheif Brody being thrusted into reality- all that he feared did come true. He sees clear as day what he has been waiting for, what he has imagined happening in every situation he saw that day. At that moment, Brody knows he should have listened to his gut instinct in order to close the beaches.

jaws 9The frantic and frightened beach goers rush out of the water, leaving Alex’s mom to helplessly call after him. In an eerie shot, his ripped yellow life raft floats ashore.

jaws 10This is why this is one of the most terrifying and emotionally effective sequences in film history. Every shot engages the viewer, we experience the same emotions as Chief Brody. We are as helpless as he his- everything happens before our eyes and there ends up being nothing we can do about it. It was too late.

The tactics used in each shot not only illustrates the suspense that Chief Brody is feeling, but heightens the suspense for the audience as well. We fearfully wonder who the victim (or victims) will be? We wait in terror as we know this tranquil summer day will be destroyed by one of the most fearsome animals in nature. One of the many taglines of Jaws was “You’ll never go in the water again!” After seeing this scene, it’s easy to see why many audiences felt that way the summer of 1975.

Watch the scene at the link below!

 

Top 10: Favorite Movies

It’s really hard to narrow down my exact favorite movies, there are so many I love that it’s hard to choose from. Sometimes these picks change throughout the years, but most of these have remained constant.

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1. The Lord of the Rings

I was in 4th grade when the trilogy began, but I wanted nothing to do with them. I wasn’t a fan of Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy…) so I didn’t think anything fantasy would be up my alley. But one day I borrowed them from a neighbor’s house, and now nearly ten years later they still remain my absolute favorite films of all time. (I count them as one, because after all, that’s what Tolkien intended with the books!) As a whole, I really am not a big fan of the fantasy genre. But something about this good vs. evil story absolutely captivates me. I can’t put into words how much Frodo’s journey means to me.

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2. King Kong

A lot of people don’t like Peter Jackson’s remake of the classic monster movie. Perhaps I am a bit biased, with him being one of my favorite directors, but I absolutely love what he does with the story. Jackson creates a deeper relationship between Kong and Ann.The classic monster movie is turned into a beautiful love story. The CGI technology is absolutely breathtaking, Andy Serkis’ incredible motion capture work as Kong allows for an infinite range of emotions for the character. I can’t help but cry at the ending every single time.

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3. Amadeus

I first saw parts of this in high school, on a whim during a vocal class. When I rented it at home I was floored by the story of Salieri’s jealousy and Mozart’s incredible music. I had never really explored his music before, and it is quite a marvel to hear it in this film, along with Milos Forman’s exceptional directing.

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4. Raging Bull 

Something about Raging Bull really captivates me. Not only is the directing so artistic, nearly operatic at times , but Robert De Niro’s performance is nothing short of stunning. I’ve written about it before here, but that scene where Jake LaMotta is in jail touched me for so many reasons. Robert De Niro does an incredible job of portraying the lonely boxer that spirals into his own self-destruction.

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5. When Harry Met Sally

It’s one of the most charming and funniest romantic comedies of all-time, what’s not to love? And Billy Crystal is absolutely adorable as Harry Burns. I think everyone wants a relationship like theirs.

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6. Big Fish

I think this is one of Tim Burton’s best work, perhaps because it is so un-Tim Burton-y. I saw it when I was younger, but loved it upon rewatch. The scene where Billy Crudup tells a story to his dying father, after hating his dad’s stories for so long, will always touch me. Big Fish is fantastical fun but also an emotional story of family mortality.

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7. Jaws 

As I wrote in my childhood movies post, Jaws was one of the first movies that really got me into the movies. The perfect summer movie, I watch it every 4th of July. This classic never fails to thrill, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.

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8. Paper Moon

Paper Moon is a mix of an old-fashioned caper, funny road-trip movie, and a heartwarming family drama. It is the perfect mix of all those different genres. Ryan O’Neal is a charming thief, and has such sweet chemistry with it’s daughter. It’s actually quite heartbreaking to watch if you know their real life relationship.

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9. The Godfather

I had put off watching The Godfather for a really long time, and I don’t know why. I obviously knew about it from the hundreds of pop culture references in other films or television shows. I knew it was highly regarded, (It was #1 on the IMDb Top 250 for years, has 100% on rottentomatoes.) But I just never got around to seeing it until I  was in college. I quickly grew a great appreciation for Al Pacino’s work and the film itself. With incredible filmmaking, and a powerful story on a captivating Mafia family, it’s a cinema classic for a reason.

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10. An American Werewolf in London 

For as many of the scary moments this film has, it has an equal amount of hilarious moments. Making this not just a horror film but a black comedy was a perfect choice, because the film does both so well. You can also appreciate Rick Baker’s incredible makeup work and practical effects. That ending nails the perfect genre mix – a tragic death cut to The Marcel’s bopping “Blue Moon”.

Top 10: Child Performances

Can children, with little life experience as adults, reach the same heights of incredible performances as their older peers? Does their optimism and lack of self- consciousness leave them open for expressing themselves without fear? (Something that adult actors need to achieve to succeed.) These child performances prove that some children are just as capable as delivering incredible performances as adults.

1. Henry Thomas (Age 11) – E.T.

To make E.T. work, you needed a young actor who could form a connection with the animatronic puppet, to make the world believe E.T. was a living thing. Steven Spielberg is known for his ability to get great performances out of children (Drew Barrymore of course, also for E.T. and others in this list) Henry Thomas is able to create Elliot’s loneliness that transforms when he establishes such a heartfelt and passionate bond with his friend. Look at his incredible audition tape (auditions are not easy, even for adults. The reader usually doesn’t give you much emotion to feedback on. You have to muster the relationship/reactions yourself.)

2. River Phoenix (Age 15) – Stand By Me

River Phoenix was an actor taken from us far too soon. The depth shown in his early performances shows what he would have accomplished as an adult actor. He seemed wise beyond his years in his role as Chris Chambers, the boy unable to escape his label as a rebel. He portrayed insecurities and complexities with an adult-like wisdom, something very rare in a child actor.

3. Christian Bale  (Age 13) – Empire of the Sun 

Again proving his penchant for finding and working with child actors, Steven Spielberg discovered Christian Bale, one of the finest actors of our generation. Young Christian Bale carries this near three-hour movie, often having to act alone. Jamie goes from a young enthusiastic (but spoiled) boy, to a shell-shocked young man scarred by war. In his childhood performance, we can see the seeds of what an incredible actor he’d become as an adult.

4. Jode Foster (Age 12) – Taxi Driver

Jodie Foster, even at her young age, already had over 30 credits behind her, far more than even some of her adult contemporaries. It’s quite hard to believe she’s only 12 years old in this film. But she is indeed a young girl, a girl who is filled with both an adult-like world-weary cynicism and youthful vitality.While Taxi Driver has some hardcore material for a young kid, (she is, after all, playing a prostitute) Jodie Foster displays an almost uncomfortable acute understanding of her character Iris. Jodie Foster certainly more than holds her own with Robert De Niro.

5. Jamie Bell (Age 14) – Billy Elliot

For the title role of Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell brought his exceptional acting skills as well as dance skills for the confused and sensitive character. He truly captures the tough boy with a gift, the simmering anger of someone who just wants to break free.

6. Haley Joel Osment (Age 12) – A.I. Artificial Intelligence 

As with other Steven Spielberg films, the job of the young actor is to carry the film. But not only does Haley Joel Osment (also known for his fantastic performance in The Sixth Sense) have to be the lead, but he also has a complex role in the film. He has to pretend to be a robot, a young boy playing a machine who comes grapples with human feelings, wanting to be something he is not. To understand and portray those abstract thoughts shows his talent at such a young age.

7. Saoirse Ronan (Age 12) – Atonement

Briony quickly becomes a character you love to hate, but Saoirse Ronan brings a powerful strength to Briony. Though she seems dreamy with wide-eyed innocence, Saorise gives Briony a fierce, calculating, and intimidating essence. Saoirse brings to life a dedicated but fanciful young girl who perseveres without knowing the consequences of her actions.

8. Natalie Portman (Age 11) – Leon: The Professional 

Like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Natalie Portman takes on a mature role with equally mature material. (there’s even a bit of pedophiliac sexual tension between Leon and her character…seen in the cut scene below) Left an orphan after her parents are killed, she is raging, she is wild, she is dark. This is a role with material that is far beyond most children’s understanding, but somehow at her young age Natalie Portman is able to create a fully realized young girl with a lot of demons inside.

9. Tatum O’Neal (Age 9)  – Paper Moon

Tatum O’Neal plays a tough cookie in the Depression-era film, winning an Oscar for this role. She was nominated for Best Supporting, but really she is the lead actress. With her searing glares but inner broken spirit, and fantastic banter and chemistry with her real-life dad (Ryan O’Neal), she is deserving. (But yes, so was Linda Blair who was also nominated against her that year…) It breaks my heart to know what Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s relationship was really like.

10. Hailee Steinfeld (Age 14) – True Grit

Haliee Steinfeld managed to bring strength and feistiness that Mattie Ross deserves with a rich undercurrent of vulnerability. A child trying so hard to grow up and be an adult for the sake of avenging her father. What is most impressive is that she completely holds her own against her famous co-stars, just look at this scene below with Jeff Bridges as an example. She doesn’t fade into the background, she stands out loud and proud.