For years, I’ve been disgusted with the way disaster movies depict the annihilation of cities and, more importantly, human beings in the name of entertainment. Independence Day, Deep Impact, and Godzilla were all spectacle pictures, inviting awe at the sight of mass destruction. The problem lies is their refusal to acknowledge tragedy, and when they do it’s the death of a specific character we’ve grown to “like.” The rest of the victims remain faceless, so we don’t get upset when a tidal wave wipes out New York City in Deep Impact and thousands of innocents are consumed by alien flames in Independence Day. (Was there any sight in that film more revolting than the golden retriever courageously dodging the fireball while the unlucky masses perish in the background?) Spectators are expected to enjoy the visceral experience, eat popcorn like good automatons, and walk out of the theater feeling amazed at the state-of-the-art special effects. The level of desensitization these movies offered was so great that when faced with a terrorist attack, real-life traumatized interview subjects on the evening news could only say, “It was just like a movie!”
Disaster movies are often a deadening experience. They ask you to shut down your conscience for two hours. The great accomplishment of Steven Spielberg with his adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds is that this filmmaker, above all else, is devoted to upholding the values of family, children, regular everyday people, and Yankee can-do spirit. At worst, he fails to acknowledge the blistering legacy of capitalism and the stifling conformity of the status quo, but at his best he acknowledges the best and noblest traditions in American culture. He’s frequently done that through the use of fantasy, most powerfully through his friendly alien E.T. His use of supernatural creatures helps the viewer understand the importance of metaphors in our lives, so in effect it’s not just a movie. The young protagonist of E.T. tells his disbelieving friend, “This is reality, Greg!” The movies, no matter how fanciful or otherworldly, should connect to humanity, not disavow it by saying life is cheap. Disaster movies corroded our sensitivities, and in the wake of 9/11 it should be evident to even the most narrow minded spectator that they are heartless exercises in devastation—the cinematic equivalent rubbernecking.
War of the Worlds is a disaster movie that loves the human race, and keeps its point of view squarely amid a family of survivors trying to escape as the invaders blow apart the world around them. Admittedly, it gets off to a shaky start. The opening image of Tom Cruise playing a blue collar dock worker seems off, since Cruise is never convincing as anything other than a well-groomed movie star with the kind of sculpted body that comes from having a rigorous personal trainer. When this immature hotshot drives home, he’s arrived two hours late to pick up his kids for the weekend. His home is a disaster area of unwashed clothes and pizza boxes, a barren refrigerator, and thinly veiled evidence of a drinking problem. His teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) would rather sulk in his room listening to his iPod than play catch, since he knows any connection with Dad will ultimately lead to a resent-filled confrontation. Ray’s 10-year-old daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) knows to be self-sufficient, since Dad’s better at passing out than keeping good company.
Spielberg is usually a master at depicting family tensions within the home, having built his career on understanding the behavior of children and immature adults. It’s astonishing to see him draw a highly naturalistic and believable performance from Fanning, whose persona has always been the saccharine cute little blond moffet that smiles on cue. She’s never been convincing as a real child in any of her movies (I Am Sam, Uptown Girls, and The Cat in the Hat), but a Hollywood product trained to maximize her preciousness. Spielberg also taps into a darker side of Tom Cruise, whose inability to convey genuine human emotions as an actor (he’s coasted for years on Top Gun charisma) actually becomes the most compelling thing about his character: he tries to be nice to his kids but doesn’t know how.
But the dramatization of this ruptured nuclear family is rushed along. In the pre-disaster scenes, we learn more about these characters through their individual tics and their environment than through their interactions with each other. But War of the Worlds is about the family struggling to come together during a time of crisis, and Spielberg brings on the onset of his alien invasion early in the picture. The film takes off when he’s in familiar territory: horrible winds blowing and lightning striking the same places over and over again, increasingly closer to Ray’s comfortable working class neighborhood. It’s a striking image as he and his neighbors stand in their driveways or backyards observing the first signs of a global apocalypse. Fascination and fear intermingle, and the desire to watch these life-changing events conflicted with the desire to run and hide underneath the kitchen table becomes a recurring and painfully accurate motif.
When the alien tripods rise up from underneath the pavement, shattering buildings and towering above the New Jersey cityscape, Spielberg lingers on this moment of literally earth-shattering awe. (One of the cutaway shots of Ray reveals him smiling, which feels way more accurate than panic—remember in Donnie Darko when the kids are so excited about their roof being destroyed by objects falling from the sky?) Then, when all hell breaks loose and the aliens start unleashing their laser death rays into the populace, Spielberg films the scene with all the panic, hand-held disorder, and spontaneous chaos of a documentary. If we the audience are going to bear witness to the death of mankind, he’s saying we should experience that horror from the perspective of those under attack—not from the privileged standpoint of a God’s Eye View. Never once in War of the Worlds are we astonished by how spectacular the violence is—we’re more horrified by its epic levels of destruction and the toll it takes on the lives of innocent men, women, and children.
In movies, even blockbuster summer entertainments, we need to be reminded that life is precious. When Ray manages to escape this first assault, he’s shell-shocked and non-communicative with his children, who ask him 20 questions about what’s happening. He looks in the mirror and finds himself covered in dust, the remains of human beings burned to a crisp by the death ray. It’s a moment of clarity as prescient as Spielberg’s view of war as hell in Saving Private Ryan or the Holocaust in Schindler’s List. It says that mankind has to deal with horrors almost beyond our comprehension, and in its own way this War of the Worlds directly responds to America’s post-9/11 fears.
Ray and his family steal a car and go on the run, and for the rest of the film we follow them through one harrowing nightmare situation after another. Spielberg stages conflicted moral dilemmas that take the selfish survivor mentality to task: the heroes are privileged to have their automobile while so many other survivors do not, leading to a survival of the fittest confrontation with an angry mob where Tom Cruise’s character can’t be said to be in the traditional moral right. When it comes to survival, morality takes on entirely new and challenging connotations. Later they hole up in the basement of an unhinged survivalist (Tim Robbins), whose increasingly erratic behavior may put the family at risk, begging the question: should they kill him in order to silence him? To his credit, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from tough ethical dilemmas, and their sometimes decidedly amoral consequences.
Visually, War of the Worlds is as stunning as anything Spielberg has done. He’s always known how to compose a dynamic frame, with action taking place in the background that comments on the foreground (a painful, key scene during which Cruise can’t remember a lullaby to comfort his daughter is contrasted by Robbins in the background, resolutely sharpening the blunted edge of a shovel). More than that, he understands the audience’s desire to see what’s happening over that hill, or outside that locked door—using light and sound effects to suggest the worst. And when a character does open the door to reveal what’s happening, the result is almost always a profound shock: an airplane having laid waste to a row of suburban houses, or the first image of a landscape overrun with grotesque red weeds and moats of crimson, where farmhouses and fields once stood.
War of the Worlds takes one of our deepest global fears, the threat of annihilation, and gives us a catharsis when humanity reasserts itself. In this case, it’s not our ability to blow shit up (as Independence Day would have you believe) but that American individualism and family values can overcome mindless evil. That would be preposterous hokum if Spielberg hadn’t taken us through hell to get there; and in his final classic images of our small planet being able to face the very worst and come through is probably the balm we need right now. The movie wouldn’t be tragic if Spielberg didn’t care; and it ultimately wouldn’t feel empowering if he didn’t believe in Yankee values.
In this way, War of the Worlds is as much the inverse of John Carpenter’s alien invasion B movie They Live. Spielberg and Carpenter have always been bastard cousins since cuddly E.T. emerged at the same time as Carpenter’s scabrous The Thing. Aliens are only interesting inasmuch as they represent the thing we hate the most about ourselves, really. In War of the Worlds, the aliens are fighting a war they cannot win against insurgents that will never surrender. (Sound familiar?) They Live opens with the action hero saying, “I believe in America!” and concludes with an anarchic fuck you to our value system. War of the Worlds follows a diametrically opposite tact, and to its credit still manages to question our reasons for going to war—and if it’s something we could possibly hope to win.
This movie of profound visual and philosophical ideas would deserve near-classic status if not for a fatal misstep in its final scene. (Major spoilers lie herein!) Suffice to say, if the film is about intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, and they make humanity pay the price, there is an uncompromising human toll that affects one and all, including the family of Ray Ferrier. The father-son conflict at the heart of War of the Worlds is about personal responsibility: the desire to serve one’s country and fight for it.
Ray wants to protect himself and his kids, and his son wants to save as much of the human race as he can, no matter how pitiful and miniscule his efforts. This basic, bare-bones argument is given an added layer of depth when the aliens are blowing the world apart and the U.S. army is putting up its best defense. When Ray and his son wrestle each other to the ground, Ray screams, “You think you have to fight but you don’t! You don’t!” (Cruise’s dogged one-note aggressiveness takes on a layer of poignancy here.) The son reveals to the father that he has to go over the hill and see the battle. Why? Simply because he has to see it. It’s a frightening moment: that the son wants to bear witness to epic destruction, even if it means walking into the jaws of death. And he does.
In an all-engulfing firestorm, the son is destroyed off-screen. The world is paying a price, and so too must Ray and Rachel. (When they encounter the Tim Robbins character, he can only summon the strength to say he lost “everybody.”) To lose a character we’ve grown to identify with is to add him to the list of the destroyed. Ray should deserve no special privileges as the world falls apart.
That would make a powerful statement if Spielberg didn’t show his knee-jerk inability to upset an audience at the end of the movie. Ray and Rachel survive the war, and make it to the home of Rachel’s mother and Ray’s ex-wife (Miranda Otto). The family comes back together, and Spielberg earns the right to sentimentalize after all these characters (and the audience) have been through. Spielberg makes a concession that undermines his entire movie: he has the son appear in the doorway having survived the ordeal, and has father and son embrace. The son’s survival cheats us because it commits the same crime of earlier disaster movies: The lives of the characters we follow are more important, more sacred, and more precious than the lives of those unlucky extras who got fried. We’re meant to cheer that the son is still alive, but it feels hollow and wrong. It’s not a statement about man’s resourcefulness, but a safety blanket for the audience. The only reason Ray is exempt from tragic loss is because Spielberg can’t stand the thought of an audience feeling something other than a safe euphoria. For a movie that otherwise tells its devastating, gut-wrenching story with moral courageousness and insight, this final gesture kowtows to middlebrows with the false reassurance that there’s nothing shattered that cannot be fixed. That’s this master filmmaker’s greatest weakness. As Spielberg’s conformity-debunking counterpart John Carpenter presciently states in They Live, “The middle of the road is the worst place to drive.”