How Steven Spielberg Turned War of the Worlds Into a 9/11 Parable

The Big Picture

  • Spielberg’s early sci-fi films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. embrace the hopeful and exciting elements of the genre, while his later work grew darker and explored social and political themes.
  • War of the Worlds is not just a cheesy sci-fi story, but a chilling exploration of a society crippled by a Martian attack, reflecting the trauma and devastation felt after 9/11.
  • Spielberg channels the American people’s trauma through a broken family in War of the Worlds, examining the realistic aftermath of a global crisis and the harsh decisions that have to be made.

Steven Spielberg’s early developments within science fiction created many of the hallmarks of the genre. There’s a reason that the “Spielbergian adventure” is a term that is so often thrown around. Exciting classic films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park emphasize how hopeful and exciting sci-fi can be. The impact of Spielberg’s work within the genre is evident today, thanks to the near-constant 1980s nostalgia in projects like Stranger Things.

While “Spielbergian sci-fi” is often associated with fun, colorful stories, his output in the 21st century grew much darker. Spielberg transformed A.I. Artificial Intelligence into a heartbreaking twist on the Pinocchio story, analyzed the police state in Minority Report, and even used the nostalgia-centric Ready Player One to satirize the consumer culture and the dominance of corporations. While the announcement that Spielberg was making a version of the War of the Worlds story would have promised a summer spectacle in his early career, his 2005 adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel was a chilling parallel to urban terrorism.

War of the Worlds is not a cheesy science fiction story like it’s made out to be; it’s easy to forget how terrifying the book was when it was first released. The history of War of the Worlds is tied to horror due to the infamous Orson Welles radio adaptation that inspired real panic. While the original 1953 film was closer in tone to the B-movies of the era, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds explored the consequences of a society whose infrastructure has crippled. In the wake of 9/11, it felt like an eerie reminder of widespread devastation.

What Is ‘War of the Worlds’ About?

Image via Amblin Entertainment

Spielberg channeled the trauma of the American people by telling the War of the Worlds story through a broken family. Spielberg’s films often deal with complex familial relationships, and War of the Worlds centers on the divorced father Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) as he attempts to connect with his children. Ray isn’t an action hero like Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible films; he’s a blue collar construction worker who is just trying to make ends meet. Ray emphasizes Spielberg’s affection for the working class. It’s only during a moment of sheer panic that Ray is able to show his true colors.

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Cruise gives an impressively understated performance for someone who is definitely not a perfect father. Ray is estranged from his ex-wife, Mary Ann (Mirando Otto), and uses his children as pawns in their civil conflicts. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) have grown up knowing that they can’t count on their father for anything. Ray even goads Robbie into an uncomfortable game of catch when they first reunite. It’s impressive that someone as inherently charismatic as Cruise was able to play such an unlikeable character.

The strife within the family perfectly sets the stage for the initial Martian attack. Spielberg has always had ties to the horror genre, and he knows better than anyone that there is nothing more terrifying than a faceless attacker. The Martian tripods are mostly seen from the shadows, and confusion sweeps Ray’s community during the initial wave of attacks. It’s chilling to think of the panic that swept the nation only a few years prior; these citizens have no idea why they’re being targeted, or where they can find safety.

‘War of the Worlds’ Is a Disaster Movie

Image via Paramount Pictures

Spielberg uses this global crisis to examine the realistic aftermath of the situation. It’s not an inspiring call to arms like Independence Day; an extraterrestrial threat doesn’t suddenly erase all the political and social issues on the planet. In the aftermath of a Boeing 747 crash, Ray tries to drive his children to their mother, despite their protests. It’s not a particularly heroic action; Ray wants to dump his children off on someone else, because he’s not sure how to protect them. He’s both unfit to be a father and absolutely horrified by the thought of losing them. Spielberg generally gets solid child performances out of his younger co-stars, and Fanning’s eerie cries are difficult to erase from your mind.

There’s a pessimism within the later scenes of War of the Worlds that feels like it came from a completely different person than the man who made E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Instead of rising to the challenge, the remaining segments of humans scurry into the shadows, desperate to cling to whatever minimal resources they have left. Ray and his family have their car surrounded by an angry mob, which inspires Robbie to join the U.S. Marines. There’s a moment where it’s suggested that Robbie is killed; humans are just as responsible for his death as the Martians.

Chatwin is often criticized for his performance, but Robbie is never meant to be a particularly level-headed character. He’s a moody, rebellious teenager who is still holding on to his childish animosities; like many Spielbergian characters, he’s the child of a broken home who has no father-figure to look up to. While Robbie’s decision to serve his country is admirable, it feels like just another act of defiance. Robbie is trying to prove that he isn’t a coward to both his father and himself.

A martian tripod stands over the city in 'War of the Worlds'

The inclusion of the ambulance worker Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) was a brilliant way for Spielberg to examine the hard decisions that have to be made in the wake of a crisis like this. Harlan is clearly pushing himself past his limits; he’s struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ray is forced to turn to him for help when he has no other options. Harlan’s mental breakdown when he sees the harvesting of human corpses is a grotesque bit of body horror. When Ray is ultimately forced to kill him, it’s an action taken out of both desperation and mercy.

It’s interesting to note that War of the Worlds was released just a few months prior to Spielberg’s second 2005 film, the political thriller Munich. Based on a true story, Munich follows a group of Israeli spies that investigate the perpetrators of the Munich massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics within the Palestinian Liberation Organization. It’s one of the most politically relevant films within Spielberg’s filmography, and has a similarly pessimistic view on the senselessness of violence. Both War of the Worlds and Munich feel like they’re begging for an elusive peace.

Spielberg’s classic films will be held up for generations as pinnacles of the genre because they looked to the future. His 21st century output scaled things back, allowing Spielberg to examine the world as he saw it through the guise of sci-fi metaphors. As one of the most quintessentially “American” filmmakers of all-time, Spielberg understood the trauma that his country was feeling, and channeled it into a boldly inventive reworking of a classic sci-fi text.

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