It’s no longer novel to regurgitate the national tragedy and iconography of 9/11 back at us in genre films. In fact, it’s become a cliche, which is why it doesn’t happen quite as often anymore. Show us the walls of pictures commemorating the dead and missing after the Battle of New York in The Avengers. Send Bruce Wayne running into dust clouds made from collapsing buildings in Batman v Superman. Make the Joker a terrorist in The Dark Knight, and have the villains in Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Winter Soldier toss spacecraft at giant buildings like they’re the Twin Towers.
We get it, Hollywood – you really love to ground your storylines in a relatable fear by trading in 9/11 imagery, or at least you did for a good long while there.
But, like so many other things in the last half-century of Hollywood history, Spielberg did it first. In 2005, he took H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and turned it into a blatant 9/11 parable. Because it’s Spielberg, he also made it about the dissolution and regrouping of a family (with Tom Cruise playing against type as a deadbeat dad to Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) and just couldn’t resist an illogical, but heartwarming ending. Still, the 9/11 is strong in this one:
The aliens staging the invasion have been here longer than we realized (just like the terrorists), their initial attack turns scattering pedestrians into dust and is partially filmed through one of the victims’ hand-held cameras (as a direct reference to the rise of eyewitness footage), and their later harvesting of the world includes scenes of people being tossed into the air (evoking the World Trade Center residents who memorably jumped to their death). Moreover, the attack brings about the worst in humanity, and not once but twice scared kids mistake the oncoming aliens for terrorists.
When viewed today, War of the Worlds can, at times, feel a bit overly familiar, as if the “Ohhhh, I get it – this is all about 9/11!” moment of discovery has long passed and been replaced with “Well, duh. Everyone’s done that now.” We have to remember, though, that back in 2005 no one wanted to touch 9/11 on film. In fact, the studios were loathe to peddle any realistic violence whatsoever.
As Vox explained: “The two-year period immediately following 9/11 was an era in which the media was defined both by its jingoism and patriotism and also by its aversion to images of violence and destruction. The images of gleeful destruction the ’90s had reveled in (think Independence Day and Armageddon) disappeared almost overnight, and the few stragglers that crept by (like 2003’s The Core, which destroys both Rome and San Francisco) were quietly buried.”
Spielberg, however, responded to the real world crisis of 9/11 and the ensuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan by turning to history for guidance. He’s since done that repeatedly and far more literally. Lincoln, a film about the challenging, but ultimately successful passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (the one that banned slavery), is Spielberg politely telling the 112th U.S. Congress to get their shit together (not surprisingly, they didn’t get the message). The Post, a film about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, is a giant middle finger to Trump.
Those are examples of him using American history to make a point. War of the Worlds was more born out of his love for film history. 1953’s War of the Worlds, a film Spielberg loved as a kid (because of course he did), is no more about an alien invasion than Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about an alien visitation. That’s simply the surface level plot hiding a larger message, and in War of the Worlds’ case, the message is explicitly linked to the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. So, if H.G. Wells’ text could be used to speak to 1950s concerns why couldn’t it be updated to reflect 9/11?
But Spielberg doesn’t just use the 9/11 imagery and call it good. Sure, he executes all the spectacle you’d expect from him, and the first two acts really lay it on us, providing meat-and-potato thrills. In fact, the entire film is a case of one damn thing happening after another, sending our scared family running for the hills only to find those hills have been bathed in the blood of untold numbers of human. It’s not hard, then, to see why the film was such a huge hit in its day. It is quite conventionally entertaining, a thrill ride from beginning to end with some imagery – such as a flame-bathed runaway train netting no real response from the shell-shocked masses – which could only come from the mind of a cinematic master.
It’s also surprisingly concerned with the darker sides of humanity. As Spielberg told Richard Schickel in Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective: “A lot of War of the Worlds is about our response to terrorism. It’s really about the mob mentality-that kind of collective fear is a dangerous animal. What will we do as a society that becomes a mob fleeing for our collective lives, possibly at the expense of the lives of others? How do we deal with the idea of terrorism, which is still pretty alien to the American psyche, because we’ve been living in the kind of bassinet of relative safety and comfort?”
Humans turn on each other. A ferry pulls a lifeboats-in-Titanic act and takes off well before it has actually reached max capacity. And, in one of the darker sequences in any Spielberg blockbuster ever, a blindfolded young girl sings a lullaby to drown out the noise of her father murdering a man who was probably going to get all of them killed.
Damn, Spielberg! Who hurt you?
Melissa Mathison once stepped in to talk Spielberg out of making E.T. as an alien invasion film, but that impulse had to be scratched eventually. It just took several decades, a run of darker-edged films like A.I. and Minority Report, and a world-changing event like 9/11 to push Spielberg into the dystopic vision that is his War of the Worlds. It pioneered the 9/11 parable and contains several sequences which still astound.
Yet, at the same time, there are parts that don’t quite work. There’s little internal logic to Cruise’s son becoming so obsessed with fleeing them to head into battle with the aliens. The family hiding in the cellar is powerfully tense, but it’s also a tad too reminiscent of the velociraptors in the Jurassic Park kitchen scene. The thrill ride of it all somewhat overrides the supposed maturation of Cruise’s character.
In the end, it’s disaster cinema that doesn’t quite transcend its genre, but it doesn’t really have to. It just needs to entertain. War of the Worlds has got that covered along with a whole lot of 9/11 commentary.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Credit to Chris Stuckmann for pointing this out: The “overblown whites” in this movie are out of control. This is something which has become synonymous with Spielberg’s films ever since he hooked up with DP Janusz Kaminski, and I wish they would cut back on it.
- In the Blu-Ray special features, screenwriter David Koepp describes his conception of Cruise’s character as being like a grown-up version of some of the actor’s famous 80s characters who might have peaked in high school or college and turned into the sad man we see in War of the Worlds. Spot-on, really.
- War of the Worlds was a colossal hit to the tune of $591m worldwide. Cruise and Spielberg, both legendary negotiators, netted $70m in gross participation. That left Fox and DreamWorks with just $40m to be divided evenly between them.
- Over on Letterboxd, I ranked War of the Worlds 13th out of the 26 Spielberg movies I’ve seen.