The 2005 War of the Worlds film features some of the biggest names in the movie industry – A soundtrack by John Williams, Tom Cruise in the leading role – but what makes this film one of my favourites is a decision by the film’s director, Steven Spielberg. The themes of terror he chose to base the film around, along with some clever use of the 1897 source material come together to create a movie that’s still relevant a decade later.
The film opens to a slightly reworked version of the lines from the start of the novel:
“No one would have believed that in the early years of the twenty-first century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; That as men busied themselves about their various concerns, They observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinise the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet, across the gulf of space, intellects vast, and cool, and unsympathetic, regarded our planet with envious eyes; and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”
Back in 1897, this opening applied to ideas of colonisation, of the spread of empires – different nations of humans spread across the globe would take over others, advantaged by far superior technology. H.G. Wells created a scenario in which a force with even more power, a force we believed impossible arrives, and is met with little to no resistance, inspiring fear and panic.
Spielberg took this idea, one of invading forces far in advance of what we could imagine, and applied it to a fear far more recent: Terrorism.
During the production of War of the Worlds, the shadow of 9/11 was still a very large part of public consciousness, and as such seemed to influence the film quite a bit. This becomes abundantly clear in one of the film’s earliest scenes, when one of the alien Tripods awakens, and ‘burrows’ out from under the ground. As it does so, it tears a church in half, creating a metaphor for religious tensions felt in the wake of real-life attacks.
Once the vast machine lifts itself out of the crater, it towers above the citizens of the surrounding town, who watch on in what starts more as curiosity than fear.
News footage from September 11th shows a similar attitude from onlookers after the first plane collided with one of the Twin Towers. There was a lot of speculation that this was some sort of accident, and many news anchors were discussing what could have happened. It was only when the second plane hit, broadcast live on air, that the true nature of the event became clear.
In the same fashion, when the Tripod is finished standing ominously and opens fire, everyone’s worst fears are confirmed – this is an attack.
The victims of the alien ‘Heat ray’ are turned to dust, and killed without any gore, a request from Spielberg in order to keep this film as what he called ‘a horror movie for kids’. But this method of death also adds to the constant references to 9/11 – our protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, also named Ray (although perhaps not as hot) runs through the vaporised remains of the victims, covering himself in what looks incredibly similar to the ash that coated survivors, bystanders and members of the emergency services after the collapse of the World Trade Centre buildings.
From here, the movie continues to reinforce this allegory, occasionally with even more blunt references to 9/11 – at one point, whilst fleeing the town under attack, Ray’s children repeatedly ask ‘Is it the terrorists?’, and later on find themselves travelling through the carcass of a crashed plane, torn out of the sky by a Tripod’s weaponry.
Most of the time, the movie is far more subtle. The metaphor to the September 11th attacks seeps even into the way this film is shot. The majority of scenes and shots with the tripods as the main focus are shot from eye level, angled dramatically up to the ‘heads’ of the machines. Many of these shots are also handheld, or at least shaky, as if they really are at the centre of a barrage of explosions. This is reminiscent of the amateur footage of 9/11, and when the first Tripod wakes up and begins tearing through the crowd, we see a bystander’s video camera drop to the floor, still capturing the chaos.
Even shots that aren’t looking at the tripods include them, in reflections of car or shop windows, or in the sound of their stomping as they march across America. Much like fear in the wake of 9/11, they permeate every moment of life for our characters.
Through all of this, the opening lines are changed from representing ideas about the spread of technologically advanced empires into a microcosmic representation of America. Before 9/11, there had never been an attack of that size on the current inhabitants of mainland U.S.A – ‘With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world’. This attack changed America’s perception of how safe they really were. It was unexpected and unpredictable, and highlighted flaws in American, and the rest of the world’s society.
This is represented by the film’s most chilling scene. It’s not chilling due to insurmountable alien force – in fact, the Tripods are not present at all. I think this scene is the film’s most scary because it’s something you could imagine happening in a disaster scenario.
Ray has one of the last working civilian cars for miles around. Whilst driving slowly through a crowd of hundreds of others fleeing on foot, it becomes clear that everyone wants the car. Everyone views it as their own chance to escape, to survive. People tear at the windscreen, smashing it, pulling back shards of glass with bloodied fingers, culminating in a standoff between Ray and another man. Ray lets him take the car, and sits in a nearby diner with his kids as it drives off. In the distance, gunshots are heard, as ownership of the car changes once again.
This scene may be the most relevant. It not only represents the fears within society at the time, but also how they have continued to ripple, and led to this film still being relevant to society 12 years after release.
Whilst perhaps not the greatest critical success, War of the Worlds perfectly demonstrates how issues within society are used to create a more effective movie by playing on societal fears of the time.