War of the Worlds (2005)recommended viewing

Relive the terror of 9/11 again and again!
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2005
Director: 
Steven Spielberg
Starring: 
Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins
The Setup: 
Aliens come to our planet and pretty much destroy it. The end.
Discussion: 

I think this movie is ABOUT September 11th. It isn’t just drawing on the imagery or providing a parallel to the political situation [as you might find in Star Wars Episode III or Batman Begins], I think this movie is a full-on processing of 9/11, in the only way you can currently make a movie about 9/11: using metaphor and indirection.

Certain elements are directly parallel: from visuals of buildings collapsing, airplanes fallen from the sky, walls lined with “missing” posters, and especially the snowfall of ash and clothes that occurs during several scenes, to thematic elements, such as the question of whether it is preferable to seek revenge although it would mean more deaths, or simply to attempt to survive in the aftermath. There is talk about how an “occupation never works,” and Tom’s son is doing a paper on the French occupation of Algeria. Later in the film, Tom has to try to convince his son not to join the Army, as it would be throwing his life away in a pointless war. Yep, you got 9/11, and it’s right there on your movie screen.

I happened to be on vacation the week of 9/11, returning five days after the attack, while the rubble was still burning. I didn’t see the attack in person, but I saw the walls of “missing” posters, precisely as depicted in this film. You could literally feel the psychic tension increase the closer you came to downtown. Me and several of my friends reported suddenly bouts of crying happening at least once an hour. I worked in a building nearby that summer, and saw the pile of rubble from the towers that looked just like a big dump—until I saw a tiny person at the base of that pile, and realized that that pile of rubble was at least 10 stories high. I watched the attacks on television as they happened. The amazing thing was that they looked SO MUCH like special effects. I had no idea that the special effects I had been watching were so realistic! I had to turn off the TV after a very short time, because the more I watched it, the less real it became. One of the few moments that seemed real was when the second tower was collapsing, but the news commentator, possibly because of some technological delay, wasn’t commenting on it yet.

As I watched War of the Worlds, I kept thinking “Why would someone, especially anyone who was in New York around 9/11, want to watch this?” I think the answer comes in the form of one of Hitchcock’s cardinal rules for creating suspense: that the audience should identify with the main characters—but not too much. He believed that it is crucial that the audience remain aware, on some level, that they are sitting safely in an auditorium watching a movie. The incredibly intense experience of watching imagery so familiar from the 9/11 while safely eating popcorn in an air-conditioned movie theater is powerfully cathartic. It allows us New Yorkers a way to process the terror and confusion we felt—from a safe distance.

When I was a video clerk at a Borders Books and Music store, I remember looking at a video that included the famous footage of the Kennedy assassination. The copy on the back of the box said something to the effect of: “Relive the horror of that terrible tragedy again and again!”

I thought this movie was incredible. The sheer precision of the direction was amazing. As I was watching it, it occurred to me that Spielberg truly is heir to Hitchcock in terms of his skill at telling a story by purely visual means, the economy and efficiency of his shots and editing, and how he is able to make a story exciting almost entirely through technique. That this story involves the inclusion of several very complex effects only makes his technical achievement that much greater.

Spielberg very cannily keeps his special effects—and these are the very best special effects money can buy—in the periphery of most shots, which very effectively ups their realism and the sense of their integration with the characters. For example, one shot shows Cruise looking up, while we see the approaching alien ship reflected in the windshield of the car next to him. Contrast this to something like The Day After Tomorrow, in which you have the special effects shots and the character reaction shots, which are usually two very separate things.

Many reviewers have picked out the mysterious fact that the one car Tom picks out magically works, when all of the others don’t. Upon seeing this movie again, I see that there is an explanation for this. That is the car that Tom suggested a way to fix to the mechanic, and presumably the mechanic fixed it while the first tripod was appearing. This also explains why Tom knew to go right to that particular car. It’s almost charming that Spielberg thinks that most people will be paying attention to this, particularly when distracted by mass scale destruction! Nevertheless, this doesn’t explain the miraculous way the car survives without a scratch when a jet airliner crashes and destroys and entire neighborhood.

One of the sequences I have seen derided as being lugubrious or somewhat pointless is the scenes in which Tom and Dakota hole up in the basement with Tim Robbins. Sure, Tim may be getting a little comfortable in his nutso basement dweller routine, but I think that this section contains THE most critical content of the movie, and that is its critique of the way politics have played out in the post-9/11 world. Outraged that the aliens should DARE to attack humans [it’s just not right!], Tim, with his single shotgun, is under the delusion that the humans can rise up and show these aliens a thing or two. He has no plan except for the righteousness of his desire to stand up. Tom has to stop him, as he knows that if Tim makes a sound, he [and Tom and his daughter] will be instantly killed. Not to mention that it wouldn’t accomplish anything. I think this creates a fairly compelling parallel with the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq war… How many of us, if we could go back, wish we could choose not to pursue a course of senseless retaliation that has done nothing but destroy a country and kill more than 1,500 of our troops? At least the Tim character, in the movie, wants to retaliate against someone who actually attacked him.

Many of my favorite critics have lauded the technique of this film, but ultimately decided that it is minor Spielberg. I disagree. I think this is major Spielberg in virtually every sense. If you buy into my 9/11 interpretation, it is an important film. It is certainly an emotionally powerful film and a technically masterful film. It has been quite a while since I have been so completely overwhelmed by a movie. In allowing viewers to reprocess the terror and confusion of 9/11 from the safety of their seats, and placing it within a context that can be thought about without the crazed emotional outbursts that prevent the real issues that arise from the attacks from being discussed, it’s almost as though he has delivered us a nationwide therapy session.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely. Regardless of what you think it means or doesn't mean, this is a major film and quite a moviegoing experience.