Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’ Turns 15

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. Released on June 29, 2005, the film earned more than $600 million at the box office but left many wondering, including myself, what happened to Spielberg? Made in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it is easily one of the famed director’s darkest films.

When one thinks of Spielberg films and aliens, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial usually comes to mind. The little alien with a glowing heart melted our hearts in 1982. Before that, Close Encounters of the Third Kind gave us the strange yet musical aliens who ultimately appeared benevolent. 

But the aliens of War of the Worlds are destroyers of worlds. They kill indiscriminately, zapping people in the streets until clouds of ash fall on those lucky enough to survive. It’s easy to see how Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) resembles images of 9/11 survivors, covered in soot and debris as they fled ground zero. His children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) even ask, “Is it the terrorists?” as they flee New Jersey. 

“The image that stands out most in my mind is everybody in Manhattan fleeing across the George Washington Bridge in the shadow of 9/11, a searing image that I’ve never been able to get out of my head,” Spielberg said in an interview with Today in 2005. 

Photo by Screen Capture

The horrors don’t stop there, though. Young Rachel encounters a literal river of bodies. Her father covers her eyes, but it’s too late. She’s seen too much, with more yet to come. Innocence lost. And didn’t we all lose our innocence on 9/11? Safe and secure in the knowledge the country hadn’t been attacked since 1941. No longer were we untouchable. 

A downed plane and Robbie’s fervent desire to join the tanks and armed soldiers are also reminiscent of that terrible day. He’s a symbol of those who ran to join the army, to fight back. This leaves Ray and his daughter to flee the aliens on their own, resulting in some of the most terrifying and chilling scenes in the film.

Cruise, as divorced father Ray Ferrier tasked with watching his kids for the weekend, thought that connecting with them would be the biggest problem. He had no idea he’d be challenged with keeping them alive. Cruise performs brilliantly, with plenty of running (as he usually does) and Spielberg close-ups of terrorized eyes. The two had worked together previously in 2002’s Minority Report. 

This film is not only a dark story, but dark too is the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, regular collaborator to Spielberg. Rachel’s pastel clothing is a stark contrast to the gray color palette, broken only by the dreadful red “vines” left by the aliens. And the film is shot in a rather grainy style that doesn’t look very good on blu-ray. I’ve yet to see the recently released 4k version.

All in all, not my favorite film by my favorite director. Even though the ending is comforting and familiar (family reuniting), the overall feel is just bleak. Hopeless. Gray. But I do think it’s quite a thriller with plenty of tension and scary moments. Top-notch performances with amazing visual effects, as well as terrifying sound effects, particularly those emitted by the tripods. Chilling.

Worth a watch or re-watch if you, like me, haven’t revisited this one in a while. Just be prepared. No Reese’s pieces in this alien movie.