Scenes from an Apocalypse: ‘War of the Worlds’

Wednesday, April 1, 2020 - 2:54pm

NOSELL

Paramount Pictures

Movies are projections. Yes, literally, in the sense of filmstock and screens and projectors and bulbs. But movies can also be projections of ourselves — a momentary snapshot of the internal, the introspective, the metaphysical. And given the circumstances, we as the film beat are seeing less literal projections in movie theaters and doing more projecting ourselves. So what are we thinking about? Among them are Tik Toks, Tiger King and — of course — the apocalypse. This series will traverse the cinematic doomsday in its eclectic iterations. After all, why grapple with an uncomfortable reality when you can watch movies that hyperbolize it completely? 

— Anish Tamhaney, Daily Film Editor

2005 was a fantastic year for movies. In just 12 months, “Batman Begins,” “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire,” “King Kong” and “Brokeback Mountain” all hit the screens. What do these have in common? They’re all produced by major studios like Universal and Warner Brothers, and are absolutely wonderful. Be it undercutting the superhero myth, pulling Harry into a race war, simultaneously honoring and critiquing a classic film or depicting a gay relationship with honesty and depth, each one of these blockbusters did something brave and worthwhile. 

Today, most tentpole movies are part of a convoluted cinematic universe, critically panned or instantly forgettable. It almost seems antiquated to imagine a major studio release that’s finely crafted. Yet 2005 was full of films like “Rent,” “Munich” and “A History of Violence,” big budget movies good enough to be revered even fifteen years later. There’s a dark horse in this lineup, though, which usually doesn’t turn up in 2005’s “Best of” lists. Yet it’s perhaps the most relevant of any movie released that year. 

Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” is not considered a classic like “ET” or “Close Encounters of The Third Kind,” the director’s two other alien movies. It should be. 

In 2005, the U.S. was just four years out from 9/11 and in the midst of Bush’s War on Terror. On top of the death tolls in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans contended with the Patriot Act, a ramping up of surveillance across the nation. Bush’s approval rating was the lowest of any president ever while prejudice like Islamophobia and anti-Semitism skyrocketed throughout the world. Once those towers fell, it was harder than ever for people to put trust in their government, their neighbors and their own safety. 

“ET” just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. 

“War of The Worlds” begins like many of Spielberg’s movies do, with a slice of Americana as perfect as Grandma’s apple pie. After finishing a shift as a dockworker in New Jersey, Ray, played by Tom Cruise (“Mission: Impossible - Fallout”), goes home to his kids, Robbie and Rachel. It’s his weekend to have them after his ex-wife and the first thing he wants to do is play a game of catch with his son. 

Both of Ray’s kids are stereotypical 2000s kids. Robbie, played by Justin Chatwin (“Another Life”), is a sullen, earphones-wearing teenager with slick black hair who complains about everything. Rachel, played by Dakota Fanning (“I Am Sam”), dresses in a colorful sweater with a pink fur hood, carries around horse toys and watches Spongebob Squarepants. If one didn’t know the title, they’d probably guess the movie would be about Ray connecting with his dissatisfied kids and maybe even his ex-wife, played by the great Miranda Otto (“Lord of The Rings”). 

There are some hints of the darkness to come, though. Robbie’s homework, which he refuses to start, is about the French occupation of Algeria, a notoriously violent, imperialistic campaign. In between Spongebob episodes, Rachel sees news reports about lightning storms from around the world. She changes the channel.  

That evening, a storm brews above their block, a black spiral in the middle of the sky. Lightning strikes again and again, right outside their house. The power goes out. When Ray goes outside to investigate, his neighbors are gathered around the impact zone. The earth trembles and everyone starts to run, but it’s too late. A gigantic alien machine rises above the buildings and gives a great, unearthly screech. Then it starts torching people. 

The imagery in this scene is ripped from 9/11 news footage. Everything is shot on street level, giving the carnage a massive scale of importance. As buildings topple and spew debris in the air and people turn to dust, it’s all right in the viewer’s face. The clothes of burn victims fly into the air with the force of the heat ray but drift down slowly, evoking imagery like that of The Falling Man

“We need to leave this house in sixty seconds,” Ray tells his awe-stricken kids when he makes it home. He goes to the mirror and realizes his skin is caked in the dust of incinerated human beings. Panicking, he washes it off. The bloodshot terror in his eyes remains. 

“Is it the terrorists?” Rachel asks. 

All it takes is one minute to bring the modern U.S. to the brink of apocalypse, to forever destroy its sense of peace and security. While the aliens are fictional, this scene played out a thousand times over on Sept. 11, 2001. Americans watched in horror as carnage rained down from above. Afterward, they had to face their kids and try to explain that their country wasn’t safe anymore. 

As the alien attack continues, Spielberg destroys countless American motifs. A looming highway is blown apart, sending cars crashing into a row of townhouses. Rachel stands next to a sparkling river in upstate New York, like something out of "Walden," and dozens of bodies float by, clogging the water. An Amtrak train rattles past through the dark, in flames. A statue of a Minuteman is wrapped in alien red weed. Refugees clog the main street of a small town as Sinatra plays in the background. “If I ruled the world…” 

Rachel herself is a breathing American symbol, the typical blonde-haired daughter in her purple coat, clutching her horse toys. She shrieks throughout the movie like a canary in a coal mine, American innocence thrown into violent chaos. In the end, when she faces the most horrific thing imaginable, she’s silent, dead-eyed. Like most of us, she’s so used to the terror that it has become everyday. 

Spielberg portrays a U.S. that is no longer safe and drained of its opportunity and communal spirit. Instead of banding together, refugees draw guns on one another. Rumors and lies about the situation spread through the crowds, who walk together well enough, but when the tripods show up people are callously thrown to the side and trampled. 

Worst of all, most of the men in the movie are turned into revenge-crazed psychopaths. Robbie screams at his father, telling him “We need to get back at them!” He runs toward an army convoy that’s heading toward the aliens in a desperate attempt to join up.

To anyone watching who knows about post-9/11 America, this hysteria is familiar. After the devastating attack, most Americans wanted revenge, by any means necessary. Seizing on this fervor, Bush and his administration swooped in to take military action. “War of The Worlds” reflects this violent spirit, but takes great pains not to romanticize it. 

The tripods in “War of The Worlds” have force shields. Tanks, helicopters, jets, grenades and machine guns do nothing against them. No matter how much firepower America pumps at this enemy, things go nowhere. The threat survives. “We’ll take them by surprise the way they took us,” a basement-dwelling, gun-toting man straight out of Infowars yells in one scene. “They can’t occupy this country! Occupations always fail!” To an audience whose nation had just invaded two Middle Eastern countries, the parallel here is clear. The War on Terror was driven by hysteria and would be unsuccessful. 

In one scene, a plane crashes into a suburban cul-de-sac. Ray wakes up with a blackened airplane engine in the living room, still spinning. 9/11’s ghost is here to stay. All we can do is try and survive.

People criticize the movie’s ending (which is also the book’s), calling it unrealistic. Since the movie came out fifteen years ago, and the book is over a century old, I think I’m allowed to release it here. The aliens are killed by a virus, as they, unlike us terrestrials, have no built up immunity. That doesn’t sound so unrealistic in 2020, does it?

Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” is a modern classic. It’s still rare to have a big-budget sci-fi film focus on everyday people instead of governments or action heroes, and even rarer for said film to criticize American society.

In these tumultuous times, it serves as a reminder that Americans will make it through even the darkest of times as long as they stick together, no matter their differences, and choose rationality over hysteria. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a virus be the good guy for a change.