Close Encounters of the 9/11 Kind...


I’m not sure if I can say that I enjoyed Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I do believe that I appreciated it. The fact that I’m thinking hard about what I’ve seen is the mark of something that deserves to be seen, and perhaps seen again. It’s also a devil to review.

Since I can’t put together a comprehensive review, my review of War of the Worlds will come in four parts, discussing the elements that struck me the most.


The real star of Stephen Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is the sound editor. Indeed, I would say that Spielberg made the best use of ambient sound that I’ve ever witnessed in a film. If this movie fails to win a sound or sound editing Oscar, it would be a crime.

Think about that for a moment: what other movie or director can you name where you remember the sound most of all? M. Night Shymalan comes closest (see Signs), but Spielberg blows him out of the water.

The sound draws you into this movie in ways that others don’t, but I wonder how well this film will translate into the small screen. The signature sound of this flick is the foghorn bellow of the Martian tripods, and it resonates in your chest, setting you on edge and putting you wholly in tune with the film. Unless you have an extra special sound system in your home theatre, you may need to see this movie in the theatre at least once.

Such is the power of the sound, and Spielberg’s effective use of it, that John Williams silences his orchestra for once, allowing the ambient sound to carry the movie for long stretches. The result is a claustrophobic thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Adaptation and Storytelling

People who hate it when a movie cuts up and alters the book it’s based on will be pleased to know that Stephen Spielberg’s Martian invasion follows the plotline of H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel almost to the letter. The invasion is updated, of course, moved to the present day, but all of the key scenes are there: the arrival, the first attack, the emergence of the tripods, the fact that the Martians are here to suck our blood, the hero hiding out in a ruined basement with a survivor plotting to start a resistance, the ultimate resolution. All of it is here.

There are also touches which link to the short-lived TV series, the 1953 movie of the same name, and Orson Welles’ radio adaptation. The Martian tripods claw their way out of the ground, but in doing so, Spielberg has the asphault, sidewalks and buildings crack into a rough circle which turns, as though a canister is coming unscrewed.

So, it’s all there… and Spielberg promptly moves it to the background.

Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is remarkable in that it follows two threads: the invasion, and the main story set against the backdrop of the invasion. The arc that Spielberg chooses to pursue follows Tom Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier.


Ray Ferrier starts out the movie as a shallow deadbeat dad, charged with the care of his two children for a weekend. Content to live his life shirking his responsibilities, he is startled out of his complacency by the Martian attack, and forced to perform previously unthinkable acts in order to survive — including living selflessly for his family, for once.

As alien invasion movies go, this is a surprising departure from the genre. With most alien invasion flicks, the struggle against the alien forces is the focus of the story and the resolution. However, by sticking to the resolution as presented in H.G. Wells’ novel, Spielberg turns War of the Worlds from an alien invasion movie into a disaster movie — loaded with 9/11 touchstones. The story is not about the struggle against the invaders, but one family’s struggle to survive.

There will be some who will find this unsatisfying. Even in disaster films, some writers are unable to resist the urge of having the lead characters responsible for the disaster’s resolution (see “spackling the ozone layer with missiles” or “super-gluing the San Andreas fault with nuclear bombs”). But the story is not about how we beat back the Martians; it’s about how humans respond to disaster.

The 9/11 Touchstones; Tasteless?

A week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my good friend Cameron asked, rhetorically, how long would it be before the tragedy became acceptible fodder for television and movies? In the aftermath of the attacks, films were being pulled because of fears that jokes or action scenes would seem tasteless, but Cameron noted that it only took three years before The X-Files movie milked the imagery of the Oklahoma City bombing. Would something similar emerge for 9/11?

The answer would appear to be “yes” and, intriguingly, the waiting period after the event is again three years. Salon in particular was viscious on this score. Slate said of the movie:

I was prepared to be scared by War of the Worlds, but I never expected to be offended. I’d seen references in the reviews to 9/11 parallels in Spielberg’s rendering of the story, but I’d figured these to be provocative critical musings inspired chiefly by an imperative to say something — anything — weighty about this summer’s blockbuster movie.

I was wrong. The 9/11 references in War of the Worlds are explicit and quite obviously deliberate.

There is a harrowing scene where Tom Cruise comes home from the first Martian attack grey with the dust of burnt bodies. Plenty of infrastructure gets toppled, and everyone walks around the same shellshocked look that was commonplace on the day of the attack. Then there are multiple scenes of scraps of people’s clothing falling from the sky.

I’m not sure if these assessments I’ve linked to are entirely fair, but it illustrates the tricky ground Spielberg was walking on. This movie is going to offend some people for using imagery from 9/11 as part of its storyline, but Spielberg can argue that it is necessary to tell the story he’s after, here. Humans coping with disaster is one of the cores of fiction, and fiction has traditionally never shied away from topics simply because the wound might still be fresh.

Besides, perhaps it’s sad to say this, but Spielberg was hardly the first. Battlestar Galactica used the photograph memorial motif to good effect earlier this year, and Oliver Stone is about to release a no-holds-barred movie specifically about 9/11. You can complain about the use of the tragedy to inform the imagery, here, but you may well be trying to hold back the sea.

Acting and Production

The look and feel of this movie is about what you’d expect from a director of Spielberg’s calibre. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but I just assumed that the Martian tripods and the Martians themselves were largely computer generated, even though they looked like they were there. There are few moments of startled thrills — mostly you go through this movie in a battered daze, which I suspect is deliberate.

You wouldn’t believe any of this, however, if Spielberg hadn’t gotten his cast to act, and they do, to considerable ability. After all, several shots feature the actors looking off screen, and the horror of the moment is not conveyed in the special effects, but in the characters’ facial expressions. In all cases, I was able to believe that what they were seeing was having an impact on them and was thus real.

Tom Cruise does a good job here, even though he starts out by playing brat-boy Tom Cruise at the beginning of the movie; his transformation into a harrowed and hardened father is well paced and believable. Miranda Otto (Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings) does an excellent job as Cruise’s estranged wife, though she doesn’t have much screen time and Justin Chatwin does an adequate job as Cruise’s son Robbie. It is Dakota Fanning, however, that deserves special mention here as Cruise’s daughter, Rachel. The child actress (previously seen in the alien-abduction miniseries Taken) anchors the production with her compelling vulnerability.

Bonus Points

Spielberg’s wins several bonus points for not placing a hokey cheer at the end when the Martian invasion collapsed. That would have ruined everything. Instead, the sense of shock, and a slight disbelief that the tragedy is over, carries through to the end. The conclusion to this disaster a relief, not a victory, and Spielberg is to be commended for remembering that.

It’s hard to say that I “enjoyed” Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. The movie is compelling and disturbing, which I suspect was Spielberg’s intension. One could complain about the use of 9/11 imagery so soon after the attack, but one can justify the use given nature of the storyline. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is more than just a popcorn flick. Ultimately, I believed in it. And that makes it worth watching.

It might even make it worth watching twice.

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