Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
The September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks shattered the American identity and thrust the world into a new and dangerous millennium. Far more than lives were lost that day. A sense of confidence, security and late-90s ennui fell out from under the Western world. Pop culture rushed to adapt to the new circumstances. Films were re-edited or shelved. Many a creative attempted to make sense of things by processing it through their work, turning tragedy into artistic expression and catharsis. In War of the Worlds (2005) Steven Spielberg directly grapples with 9/11 and the scar it left on the American psyche. While not exactly a “horror” film, Spielberg’s adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel tackles the greatest and most intimate of dreads: How does one keep their family safe when they no longer feel like they have the power to do so? Spielberg focuses on an average man struggling to guide his family through a terrifying new world.
Our chief guide on this journey is Tom Cruise, turning in an electric performance as out-of-his depth everyman Ray Ferrier. Ray is a dockworker who operates a shipping container crane in Brooklyn. His boss begs him to stay on. Rare praise for an American blue-collar worker in a film which Ray brushes off as he speeds home in his vintage American muscle car for his union-mandated time off. The swagger and smarm sloughs off of Cruise when he’s confronted outside his home by his ex-wife and two children. Ray is estranged from his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and practically a stranger to his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning). Already losing track of his family before the alien invasion, Ray’s day goes from bad to horrific when his time with his estranged children is interrupted by monstrous machines erupting from the ground and the mass slaughter of innocent humans.
The film uses a curiously detached lens for its action scenes. Spielberg’s trademark “oners” lend an analytical appearance to the goings on. The action is stripped of its melodrama down to bare chaos and violence. In the film’s first big action set piece, a Church (for many the foundation of American life) is literally torn apart by earthquakes. A death-dealing machine emerges from where the steeple crashed into the ground. Later, the crowd’s march to the Hudson River is briefly interrupted by a speeding, immolated, Amtrak train which blows through town like horrific phantom. This scene occurs moments after Ray and his children are forced to relinquish the only working car to an angry mob. Throughout the film Robbie and Rachel hector and disobey their father and he constantly juggles having to protect, respect, and control his children. Pillars of American society are being systematically and violently dismantled through the film’s wordless imagery, but one of them was already seemingly irreparably damaged before the chaos ever started. The relationship between the Government and the people is neatly reflected in Ray’s failing relationship with his children.
While the alien tripods seem nigh indestructible, it’s far more earthly concerns which threaten Ray’s odyssey to safety. Rioters, bandits, shut-ins. In this world the desperate and frightened do not rally together. They flinch and cower and resort to violence to satiate the gnawing dread in their stomachs. The scenes by the ferry and inside the farmhouse are standout depictions of the horror in the struggle for survival. The distrust and fear that accompanies the collapse of a society which already held little regard for the ills of the individual.
The film is peppered, however, by quiet moments of mounting horror which demands the audience participate in the material turning the detached violence into a visceral experience after they’ve long grown exhausted from the screams and chaos. Ray realising that he’s covered in the fine powder of hundreds of his vaporised neighbours; Rachel watching and hundreds of corpses silently pour downriver; Ray awakening after a tumultuous night in his ex-wife’s basement to discover a passenger jet crashed on top of them overnight. Robbie, Ray, and Rachel hauling themselves out of the Hudson River after tripods capsized the ferry to watch disembodied pieces of clothing rain down from the night sky, tossed up by the alien death rays. Even the scene where Ray coldly murders fellow survivor Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) in a desperate attempt to protect Rachel is eerily quiet.
All the destruction galvanizes Robbie. His grief and frustration becomes channeled into a desire to go to war. Eager to fight this brand new threat, Robbie runs off to war against his father’s wishes and his tragic efforts to protect him. Meanwhile, Ray directs much of his efforts into shielding Rachel from the reality and horror of mass destruction. As the situation becomes increasingly chaotic, the greatest struggle of all becomes providing a safe world for children to grow up in despite the promises we make them. Promises which We, especially Ray, may no longer believe in.
War of the Worlds weaponises contemporary fears by providing a visceral metaphor for audiences to safely explore the emotions which still resounded 4 years after the day. Luckily for us all the film’s story remains a fabrication. Not only because it features invading Martian armies but because it’s a dark fun house mirror. In reality, much of the world came together in the immediate wake of the tragedy. Folks ran into the debris to rescue survivors. The victims of United Airlines Flight 93 rose up against their captors. The Canadian citizens of Gander, Newfoundland famously welcomed thousands of diverted passengers into their town and homes. As Morgan Freeman narrates at the closing of the film, it is the smallest among us that defeats this evil. Not through strength or power. But simply by being there and working together. One becomes many and together we overcome. While bleak and dark the film’s message is, ultimately, one of resilience.
Spielberg is certainly no stranger to allegory, though we are perhaps most familiar with his penchant for whimsy, but in War of the Worlds the master director deals almost entirely in subtext. It’s a daunting proposition for audiences still reeling from the inconceivable, and many indeed dismissed the loose (and 4th major) adaptation of the novel but critical appreciation has generally warmed over the years. The Beard’s film remains more of a time capsule than an all-timer, a living testament to a nation still processing what it’s been through. But such a tribute by one of our greatest directors is nothing to sneeze at. Thrills and chills abound in the jumpscare-less flick, though ones more contemplative, and thus ultimately more haunting, than are traditionally associated with the season. The genuinely touching happy ending doesn’t hurt either.