15 years ago, Steven Spielberg brought audiences a darker vision of a close encounter. Here was a Spielberg that felt far and away from the guy who gave us the cuddly E.T. and the curious beings that came to whisk away Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The 2005 extraterrestrials that Spielberg set upon the Earth were here to terrorise, to colonise, and to destroy. With his adaptation of HG Well’s classic novel, Spielberg not only provided an antithetical alien encounter to his previous work, but he also joined a long tradition of using Wells’ novel to express a growing paranoia within a nation reconciling with its own role as an invading force in its own history. It is much more than the ‘fun-filled Summer ride’ that it was billed as upon release.
Spielberg’s take on the tale is the second feature film to adapt Wells’ novel, originally published all the way back in 1898. In the years since then it has been adapted in many other forms, from multiple TV series (two as recently as last year), a groundbreaking radio play and a Jeff Wayne rock opera musical. It is a story that has proved to be fertile ground over its long history, standing as one of the most iconic alien invasion stories ever written.
The novel itself offers many details that remain consistent across its various adaptations, from terrifying alien machines with a seemingly unstoppable means of destruction, to the imagery of a sinister red weed spreading across the globe. The novel has often been read as a comment on the sense of guilt surrounding British Imperialism, with its characters on British soil having to face an experience in which they are the ones being violently driven from their homes by a more advanced and aggressive force. It has a palpable sense of anxiety and paranoia around the idea that the history of British Imperialism will bring with it an inevitable sense of karma; the scales of power shift and you will have to pay the price for your crimes.
It is that sense of paranoia that stretches across all adaptations of the material. Orson Welles’ famous radio play in 1938 was so convincing that many people believed it was a genuine news broadcast. Bryon Haskin’s 1953 film adaptation, of which Spielberg’s remake has many nods to, uses its apocalyptic paranoia to comment on anxiety surrounding the Atomic Age and the Cold War, maintaining the novel’s chilling sense of helplessness against unspeakable power albeit with the much different setting of California, USA.
The 2005 War of the Worlds belongs to a long tradition of re-adapting the material to best reflect the current climate, and with the events of September 11th 2001 burning images of devastation into the minds of people across the globe, new, very raw feelings of anxiety and paranoia arose. A fresh take on the story was inevitable, but many may not have guessed that the filmmaker behind E.T. would be the one to deliver this new vision of terror from outer space, but taking a closer look at Spielberg’s filmography leading up to him delivering the film in 2005, it makes a great deal of sense.
Much of Spielberg’s late 90’s output is characterised by darker, more mature material that is quite a far cry from his family-friendly offerings of the 80’s. From the astoundingly graphic battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan, to even the more blockbuster friendly movies like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Spielberg demonstrated a desire to explore murkier, more violent and more uncomfortable material than ever before. Going into the 21st century, even the cosier likes of The Terminal have an undercurrent of real-world fears coursing through them, more than demonstrating a maturity to Spielberg’s filmmaking that many of his critics earlier in his career believe he lacked.
War of the Worlds feels like the final film in Spielberg’s unofficial 21st-century sci-fi trilogy, a set of films that also includes 2001’s Artificial Intelligence and 2002’s Minority Report. All three films are Spielberg working within a more ominous, often brutal territory, and funnily enough also come to stand as some of his best work of the last 20 years. War of the Worlds is where he brings his interest in darker fantasies back down to ground level, stepping back from the future to deliver as grounded a contemporary take as he can on one of the classic sci-fi stories of all time. With his Minority Report leading man in tow, Spielberg delivered a film that more than stands up to the storied history of adaptations of Wells’ novel, it has finely matured over the course of its 15-year history to stand as one of Hollywood’s most searing and affective reactions to the fears that began to intensify across America in the wake of 9/11.
The 2005 War of the Worlds maintains the singular perspective approach of Wells’ novel by following Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, a divorced Brooklyn dock worker who is looking after his estranged kids for the weekend, teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). That weekend also just so happens to be the time mysterious aliens emerge from deep within the Earth, piloting seemingly indestructible Tripods, destroying all in sight as they set about conquering the Earth. The inclusion of a broken family thrown into an extraordinary experience is very much a running theme for Spielberg, and it is in using this familiar trope of his career that he manages to create an adaptation that feels both his and is respectful of the material’s history and capability to mirror the sense of paranoia pertaining to the climate in which it was made.
The film is certainly not subtle about its evocation of the imagery of 9/11, nor does it let you forget that it is still set in a world where the towers of the World Trade Centre fell, with many characters initially assuming that the invasion is a terrorist attack. The first emergence of the tripods remains a startling sequence, close in spirit to the D-Day landing of Saving Private Ryan when it comes to the sheer level of chaotic destruction that provide shocking images of horror. The ashen remains of those vaporised by the tripod’s heatwave leaves a covering of dust that unmistakably resembles the ashen faces of those at Ground Zero. It is where the film is at its most effective as both a close-adaptation of details from the novel and as an updated re-telling of a story filled with terrifying images both fantastical and intensely grounded, designed to evoke memories of trauma and hoor in the minds of its audience.
Other details demonstrate Spielberg and his screenwriters David Koepp and Josh Friedman’s desire to find ways to mirror what has come before in the novel and other adaptations, all the while making the 100+-year-old story relevant to contemporary audiences. The lightning strikes that bring the aliens to Earth are a more primal depiction of invasion than the rockets that are sent from Mars, with the new notion that the alien vessels have been on Earth for centuries proving to be a suitably unnerving idea for this new telling of the story. It is a notion that is in spirit with the novel’s sense of inevitability of destruction and downfall, with Spielberg’s film positioning that such a level of destruction was only ever a matter of time and that we had it coming all along, with the threat coming from right beneath our feet.
Much of that fear of inevitability is expressed by Tim Robbins’ character of Ogilvy, whom Ray and Rachel take shelter with moving into the final act of the film. The encounter with Ogilvy is where the film is more clumsy with its expression of ideas But it is a part of the film’s greater depiction of the kind of desperation that so many people display in the wake of the alien invasion. The scenes with Ogilvy do feel more of a cliched portrayal of a man driven mad in the face of a hopeless situation, but throughout the film there are a number of startling moments that express that same desperation in more unexpected and visceral ways. From the floating river of corpses that Rachel unwittingly stumbles upon, to scenes of a mob attempting to steal Ray’s van by tearing away at the broken windscreen with their bare bloody hands, to Ray having to face a dark reality when it comes to Ogilvy; there are many genuinely haunting moments within what is still essentially a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster. Moments like these, with Janusz Kamiński’s washed out, tactile cinematography, allow this to enduringly stand as one of Spielberg’s most bleak and downright terrifying summer blockbusters.
Since its release, much has been made of the ending of War of the Worlds and how it exhibits Spielberg’s tendencies to add a treacly topping to his movies, even if the tone established doesn’t really call for it. While that is true to an extent, the family reunion at the end is more of an echo of the novel than it is arguably given credit for. The novel too, ends with its main character being reunited with a loved one they assumed had perished amidst the chaos. So, while it does feel like a Spielberg touch, it is arguably more a byproduct of its act of adaptation that reflects details of the novel through a grounded contemporary setting.
War of the Worlds was released in the same year as Spielberg’s Munich, and the two films contestably mark the last time that the legendary filmmaker really got his hands dirty. In the case of War of the Worlds, it stands as one of his most frightening movies. He feels liberated in the notion of making an anti-ET that also offers the chance for him to leave his mark on a classic story ripe for reimagining. It offers uncomfortable moments that force those watching to consider the fact that a lot of the actions people take in the wake of such disasters are not always the right ones, and that such reactions can often prove to be as ugly as the events that inspired them. That fits in very well with the thematic nature of the original novel and of its long tradition of adaptation and re-imaginings, which in turn allows this to be one of the best tellings of it.
The 15 years have been kind to Spielberg’s last truly dark blockbuster. Beyond being an inspired re-telling of a well-known story, it remains one of Hollywood’s most striking attempts to reconcile with the images and emotions that came out in the initial period of post-9/11 American filmmaking.
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Scr: David Koepp, Josh Friedman, based on the novel by HG Wells
Cast: Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwick, Mirando Otto, Tim Robbins
Prd: Kathleen Kennedy, Colin Wilson
DOP: Janusz Kamiński
Music: John Williams
Country: United States
Run time: 116 minutes
War of the Worlds is available to purchase on DVD, Blu-Ray, 4K Blu-Ray and on demand now.