War of the Worlds: Spielberg’s film is actually a meditation on 9/11

War of the Worlds film 9 11

Yes, you read the title right. The guy on ‘that site’ who said Scooby-Doo: The Movie was a masterpiece and how The Shining was about the death of the Native American people is now telling you that the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle War of the Worlds is actually an examination of post-9/11 anxiety and dealing with that trauma.

Let’s wind things right the way back. For context, War of the Worlds was released in 2005 after being shot through 2004 by Steven Spielberg, and sees him teaming up with his usual cohorts — producers Kathleen Kennedy (by then thirteen films together) and Colin Wilson (by then four films), screenwriter David Koepp (by then two films), composer John Williams (their 21st collaboration, every film save for The Colour Purple), director of photography Janusz Kaminski (eight collaborations) and editor Michael Kahn (eighteen collaborations) to tackle H.G. Wells famous story.

Naturally, there was a feeling that this was easy ground for Spielberg, having already made two successful alien-centric films in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The race of aggressive aliens in the War of the Worlds story marks a clear contrast to his two previous works, but, that being said, Spielberg had for a long time considered doing a film about nasty aliens.

He had considered a film called Watch the Skies, then later Night Skies, which would have been a cross between Straw Dogs and E.T., however this project fell apart and E.T. got made instead. Spielberg kept the aggressive alien idea for later. 

Later, Tom Cruise approached Spielberg, when they were on the set of Catch Me If You Can. The two had worked together on the 2002 sci-fi thriller Minority Report, which had been a big success for the actor and the director. Cruise offered Spielberg three projects that could be their next collaboration together, one of which was an adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Both Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can were developed and made before the events of 9/11 — Minority Report’s release was postponed due to the attacks. Unlike the films of the younger Spielberg who had yet to make a “proper” film, a film of substance, War of the Worlds came after a slew of not only big box office success films (Jurassic Park, all three Indiana Jones films), but serious drama films (The Colour Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan).

Spielberg had made reference to the original adaptation from 1953 directed by George Pal starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, a scene in which an alien places a hand on Robinson’s shoulder to her shock and fear is referenced when E.T. does the same thing to Elliot, in his seminal fable. Much like the ’53 vintage, the action of the ’05 version is taken from Victorian-era Britain to present-day America. Both Barry and Robinson cameo at the end of the film as Cruise’s in-laws, another nod to the original film.

When Koepp began revising Josh Friedman’s screenplay, he went back to the book and decided to turn it into a single perspective film. He also decided to do away with many of the cliches of science fiction movies — most notably in Independence Day which was still considered a huge success even ten years on. There would be no scenes of New York in Koepp’s words “getting the shit kicked out of it” and no scenes of “army guys stood around a table”.

It being a Spielberg film, there is naturally a divorced deadbeat dad figure, this time in the form of crane operator Ray Farrier. Spielberg takes time in the film to set up who Ray is, his relationship with his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning).

In the film’s visuals, the director pulls straight from the iconography of 9/11. The impending attack from the Tripods begins with people stand in awe, unable to look away as the looming machines look down on them. When the attack begins, Spielberg uses that visual language to call to mind what the world remembers only too well — this is only four years on from the attack on the World Trade Center. Moreover, a scene in which a vaporised man drops a camera that is filming the events is directly taken from the “just keep filming” mindset that many people had at the time.

As buildings begin burning down and things explode, Cruise is seen running, not heroically but in sheer shock-faced panic, and the ash over him is clearly taken from those scene where people were confused, stumbling around covered in the debris of the Towers. Not only did Spielberg use the visuals of 9/11 to incite fear but instead of making a straight 9/11 film – which would be considered “too soon” he called on the heritage of monster movies. Spielberg is a self-professed movie buff and in the same way Japan made Godzilla as a way to exercise their trauma and fear from the atomic bomb without directly talking about, Spielberg is talking about his fears through an alien action film.

The idea that the Tripods were buried long ago, before mankind had begun colonising the planet and building cities speaks to another fear that many Americans had thought dead: infiltrators. Reds under the bed were gone, but the idea that the Taliban had been trained by the US years before and used that training and knowledge to use it against them comes through clear. “Why are they here?” is asked many times in the film without answers.

Tim Robbins Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds

Tim Robbins Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds.

Perhaps the most harrowing sequence in the film follows Ray, Robbie and Rachel having one of the few useable cars and making a bid for Boston to reunite with Ray’s ex-wife, there is a carjacking sequence. Without aliens, or giant machines, Spielberg stages his most intense sequence since the water cup shook from a dinosaur stomp. Rachel, a child with Anxiety issues, is trapped in the car as panicked people begin trying to pile into the car looking for safety. Ray, fearful pulls a gun on them and takes Rachel from the car, leaving with his son as a man with a larger gun threatens him and steals the car. As the three walk away another gunshot is heard, the carjacker has been killed.

What this says of people, that when scared they turn on each other doesn’t entirely speak to the unity that was seen at the time, but the post-attack fear that people felt. People turning on one another through uncertainty and fear is something we can see in common with the current Covid-19 outbreak, and the mass stockpiling of ‘essential items’ from supermarkets.

The missing people posters that Cruise confusingly looks at in horror, pointedly call to mind the missing people posters that followed the events, people frantic to find other people without knowing what is going on. One of the most obvious examples of the imagery being put to the front is the sight of a downed plane in a suburban neighbourhood, an on-the-nose metaphor for “right at your door” domestic terrorism and a chilling reminder of how planes had been used to end so many lives.

Another hard going sequence finds the three of them trying to board a ferry across the Hudson River at night, the huddled masses of scared people moving slowly forward as the army tries to maintain order calls to mind the large evacuations that took place following the attacks, with people desperate to evacuate Manhattan Island. When Tripods attack again we see Ray desperate to try and save a woman he knows as well as protect his family as people become trapped in the water, the message from Spielberg and co clear – it could happen to you, and it could happen to your neighbours.

More pointed moments include a moment where Robbie, angered by the aliens, tries to join the marines in the fight despite his father’s protests. Following 9/11 the amount of people joining the army or marines to fight for their country went up more and more, people wanted revenge and decided it was their duty to fight this evil. Robbie, as a young man, is the exact demographic that were in the middle of the wave of new cadets sent to fight the Taliban. Much like Dave Karns, the Veteran memorably played in true-life drama World Trade Centre by Michael Shannon who delivers the line “someone has to pay”.

Tom Cruise War of the Worlds

Moreover, when Ray leaves Robbie it’s not because he agrees but to take Rachel from an upsetting sight of rivers filled with dead bodies, suddenly it becomes clear that this is about annihilation of humanity. Rache’s terror at seeing dead body after dead body mirrors those who helped clean up and found nothing but rubble and dead bodies. No matter what Trump says of his own efforts to help (he didn’t, he’s a liar), those who did go to Ground Zero and did try to help people were faced with the task of dragging corpse after corpse from the wreckage to be taken away and identified if possible. They cease to be people and become a mass.

When taking refuge with Tim Robbins’ Harlan Ogilvy we get some respite, perhaps the sense that people can come together and lift one another up. Hiding in the basement, we see the toll this is taking on the common man, the decision to focus on a father and daughter with the third person being a stranger adds menace but as we learn Ogilvy wants to help. It’s only after seeing an alien in his basement and discovering they are here to kill every human does Ogilvy suffer a mental break. Ogilvy’s choice that he must kill them before they kill him at any cost is the same as many true-life tales of vigilantes going out looking for any brown man they could find to kill. It’s a smaller scale example of the hysteria and blood lust many Americans felt following the attacks Ogilvy becomes the same type of person that Mark Anthony Storman became, a man who following 9/11 began “hunting Arabs.” His case was horrific in that he killed two and blinded a young man, all immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. His plan to massacre people he believed were Muslim was stopped when he was arrested and his reformation and relationship with the man whom he partially blinded – Rais Bhuiyan – forgave him believing Islam advocated for mercy. The story was depicted in the documentary film An Eye for an Eye.

As he loses his sanity Ogilvy begins talking about theories, that they eat humans, that the red vines are to duplicate their homeward – to make our home more like theirs. You could see the invaders as coming to spread their culture where ours is – if you subscribe to such beliefs of immigrants. Ray being left no choice but to murder Ogilvy as he tells Rachel to cover her eyes and ears shows the level of dedication the common man has to protecting their family.

The score by John Williams is also atypical for the usual work by him, Williams big lush scores that have both heart and whimsy, here it’s gone. In contrast to his french horn heavy Close Encounters score or the magical energy of E.T. the score for War of the Worlds is much heavier, the trumpets and brass coming in strong and heavy like the Tripods crushing buildings. The music also compliments the Tripod sounds, making it seems as if the whole score is one long alien call, that they could be anywhere at any time.

By the time we reach the end, famously the same as the one in the novel, we have been put through the ringer. That we still don’t have a clear idea as to what the motives of the invaders are we too are brought into that fear, why is this happening is an often used question on that fateful day. After all it was a morning like no other and then it took a turn and changed the course of history forever, it’s impact on the small people in the world changing the planet.

It being a Spielberg film there is a happy ending, Cruise’s efforts to be a good father in this situation is rewarded and both he and Rachel make it to Boston and to his ex-wife Mary Ann’s parents – that cameo by the original actors – as Rachel and Ray make it to the front steps we are shown that family, and family love triumph over all things. Look at those who reconnected with their families following 9/11 and the message becomes clear, Spielberg wants a return of the family unit.

As the film ends, and the aliens succumb to the bacteria that we humans have simply overcome by years of evolution the narration by Morgan Freeman offers this proclamation “From the moment the invaders arrived, breathed our air, ate and drank, they were doomed. They were undone, destroyed, after all of man’s weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures that God in his wisdom put upon this earth. By the toll of a billion deaths, man had earned his immunity, his right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms. And that right is ours against all challenges. For neither do men live, nor die, in vain.”

Look at those last three lines: His right to survive among this planet’s infinite organisms. His right to sruvive, so clearly illustrating the belief that innocent people shouldn’t be killed for political gain, this idea that we are not just fodder for canons but actually divine proof that we should be here.

“And that right is ours against all challenges” the right to live triumphs the right to express ones beliefs, that coexistence cannot come at the expense of others, that when it comes between people living and people having fundamentalist ideals we must strive for letting people live.

“For neither do men live, nor die, in vain” a clear reminder that even though those events took many many lives, it shook us out of apathy, and changed the world, people became much less complacent. We as a western society have come to understand the importance of life and of keeping our loved ones close.

What Spielberg and his crew did with War of the Worlds was to make a mainstream popular film (it was a huge box office success) that addressed something deeply personal. Not only was it a Spielberg film for dealing with the absent father theme he has returned to time and time again but because it addresses what he was afraid of.

So, if no man lives or dies in vain then we ourselves do not create art in vain, because it expresses something about us and our insecurities. Deep down, a film about aggressive aliens trying to turn Tom Cruise into dust may well be all about the defining moment of the twenty-first century.

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Paul Klein

Paul is Film & Media Editor @ No Majesty. Paul is a Film Studies Graduate from London, and former writer at The Metropolist.