As you read this sentence, intelligences greater than our own, intellects cool and unsympathetic – could be drawing their plans against us. With this idea H.G. Wells began his iconic science fiction novel The War of The Worlds. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. This week we’re looking at 2005’s War of the Worlds: arriving over a century into a world rife with material inspired by this classic work, it’s not one Steven’s most original, but it represents him at the height of blockbuster filmmaking.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
First serialized in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897, H.G. Wells’ renowned novel The War of The Worlds is one of the most influential works of literature of all time, as it singularly deserves the most credit in laying the groundwork for the genre of science fiction as it exists today, followed by Jules Verne and Wells’ other works. Inspired by the topic of imperialism, the book was the first work of fiction to posit the concept of intelligent life from another planet visiting earth and waging warfare against us. The book has been adapted to a wide variety of media over the years.
One of the most famous adaptations is the 1938 radio drama by Orson Welles, prior to his transition to film. This one-hour broadcast was fashioned as a pseudo-newscast as a Halloween prank, and famously caused mass hysteria among listeners, although the scale of the panic has been disputed. Then in 1953 the first film adaption was released, starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, and directed by Byron Haskin. The movie was highly influential on ensuing sci-fi, and reflected the Cold War fears of the day. Then in 2005, Steven Spielberg released his update.
Spielberg’s film focuses on Ray Ferrier, a new character played by Tom Cruise. Ray is a dock worker and a divorced dad who comes home one day and is surprised to find his ex-wife wants him to take care of his two kids for the weekend: his angsty teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and his younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). But then chaos erupts. Following a lightning storm, mammoth tripod machines come out of the ground and start causing destruction. Ray then takes his kids and flees, attempting to reunite with their mother and keep them all alive.
War of the Worlds represents for Spielberg a return to fare that be built his career on, action-driven spectacle and science fiction. This one, however, is notable as it represents a turn back to the original Wells-forged concept of aliens as warmongering terrors, when Spielberg’s work represented the latter-20th century optimistic view of aliens and the cosmos as sources to look to for hope and progress. This perspective, driven by a period of American success and the space race, was contributed to by Spielberg’s own films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.
Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of Wells’ classic work, however, is an exercise in and a tribute to the other side of the coin. Just as Haskin’s film represented an era of anxiety driven by the nuclear age, Spielberg’s film exemplifies the American sense of damaged security followed by the September 11 attacks and the Iraq War. Just as Americans went about their daily affairs with infinite complacency and were studied by terrorists in other countries, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds takes this a step further and hypothesizes the added danger of threats from other worlds.
It’s for this reason that Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should not be simply dismissed as yet another blockbuster disaster movie. We’d had plenty of these by now: Independence Day, Armageddon, and so forth. But beyond this, Spielberg gives a master class in what a disaster movie should be. The film’s staggering presentation of special effects powerfully demonstrates the perils a Martian attack would bring. The early scene when the first tripod comes out of the ground is jaw-dropping and terrifying, and represents absolute pure-form action filmmaking.
The Martian war machines here are much more faithful to Wells’ original vision. Haskin’s 1953 version was limited by special effects of the day, and re-imagined the tripods as ray-like flying machines. Spielberg brings the tripod concept back here, though this time with the haunting wrinkle of them being long-since buried in the ground. The crew designed them after aquatic life, and combined computer-generated effects with models to honor Spielberg’s long-time commitment to realism in visuals. The result is a host of massive and horrifying alien attackers.
But it’s not just the tripods in Spielberg’s version that are faithful to Wells’ novel. Authoritative orator Morgan Freeman delivers some of Wells’ original narration, and the results are chilling. The characters aren’t the same, but the major beats are, making use of prominent elements including mass exodus, basement hideouts, a boat, the red weed, and of course, the Martians’ eventual defeat. A tense scene underground in which we see a tentacle probe and the aliens up close pays homage to both the book, as well as to Haskin’s film (and it reminds of Jurassic Park).
While the novelty of the invasion premise in Wells’ original work rendered character development less necessary, you can’t really say the same for a movie in 2005. Fitting for a Spielberg film, writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp focus on a dysfunctional family. The character of Ray was developed to give Cruise a blue-collar character and a father to portray, a less common type of role for the actor at this point in his career. Cruise, as usual, delivers. It’s also a career highlight for Dakota Fanning, here at the height of her rise to childhood stardom.
Once again, Spielberg’s pet topic of broken families re-emerges, as Ray is an uninvolved, divorced dad who is forced to step up to his role in a major way when the world falls apart. In addition to this and the theme of post-9/11 fears, the film explores the idea of whether humans can cooperate in the face of a larger threat. It also makes nice use of metaphor in the form of Rachel’s splinter to manifest the theme of the natural world balancing itself out, foreshadowing the Martians’ eventual defeat by bacteria in Wells’ fitting and poetic conclusion to his story.
Unfortunately though, poetic endings aren’t exactly what we’re used to in blockbuster fare, and it lands as sort of anticlimactic as the film closes, but Steven makes about as good use of it as he can while remaining faithful to Wells. He also pays his respects to the 1953 film, with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson making cameos in the final scene. As this adaptation arrived in a film landscape already replete with aliens and disaster scenarios, it wasn’t exactly anything new. But with Steven at the helm, it gave Wells’ pivotal work the jaw-dropping treatment it deserved.
Next week, we’ll be looking at the third Spielberg film that explored post-9/11 themes, the 2005 historical thriller Munich. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray; you can also stream it through Cinemax or rent it from various digital retailers. Give it a watch, and I’ll see you next week.