War of the Worlds: Spielberg’s Aliens

Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is an apt companion piece to his first sci-fi feature, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” made in 1977.
Back then, barely 30, Spielberg was a young, evolving director, very much in awe of the movies he had loved as a childhood, and determined to recreate the wondrous experience for a new generation of moviegoers.

Over the past three decades, a lot has happened to Spielberg the man and the filmmaker, Hollywood and American cinema, and the political world we live in. In this essay, I wish to compare the 1977 and 2005 movies, which I suggest are like two sides of the same coin. Both “Close Encounters” and “War of the Worlds” are big, noisy, meticulously crafted adventures, but they are vastly different in many significant respects. My aim is to illuminate each film by placing it in the personal, ideological, and political contexts in which it was made.

Lead Character:

It may or may not be a coincidence, but the protagonists of both films share a similar name: Roy Nearer in “Close Encounters” and Ray Ferrier in “War of the Worlds.” Roy and Ray sound the same, whereas Nearer may signal the hero’s closer position and attraction to the aliens, in a way that Ferrier suggests that he would like to be farther and further from them.

Roy is played by Richard Dreyfuss, one of the hottest actors of the 1970s (winning an Oscar for “The Goodbye Girl,” which was released the same year as “Close Encounters”), and functioning at the time as both Spielberg’s and George Lucas’ alter-ego, having appeared in “Jaws” (1975) for the former and in “American Graffiti” (1973) for the latter.

Ray is played by Tom Cruise, the biggest box-office star in the world, who had previously collaborated with Spielberg on the underestimated sci-fi, “Minority Report” (2002). Each star brings to his film his distinctive screen image, established in various movies and easily recognizable by the critics and the public at large.

Both heroes are white, young-to-middle age males, who belong to the working class. Roy is a low-level employee at a power system, which, literally and symbolically, breaks down. The first scene of “War” depicts Ray finishing a day’s work as a dockworker.

Roy is presumably happily married to (Teri Garr) and father to two wonderful children. In contrast, Ray is a divorce, irresponsible father, who’s about to get his two kids for the weekend from his ex-wife now married to another men. Ray’s kids are older than Roy’s: Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is a rebellious adolescent, whereas Rachel (Dakota Flanning) is about 10.


“Close Encounters” is set in Indiana, but also includes foreign and exotic locales, such as
Mongolia, Mexico, and India. “War” mostly takes place in a working class neighborhood in New Jersey, which is ferociously attached by the aliens.

The Family

As an institution, the family is central to both stories, albeit in different ways. In “Close Encounters,” the family begins unified, but soon disintegrates when the father both deserts — and is deserted — by his clan.

In contrast, when the story of “War” commences, the family is already broken. Though the exact reasons for their divorce are not specifically stated, we do know that there was a class difference between the spouses that might have played a more significant role than either partner is willing to acknowledge. And it’s established right away that Ray is an irresponsible and immature father, not only ready for a close-up from his children (and the audience), but also for a comeuppance that forever will change his attitude toward his children and toward the sacredness of the family institution at large.

In both films, the hero links the worlds of the adult and child, albeit in different ways. We first see Roy in his cluttered living room playing with a train set, struggling with his son’s homework, and trying to persuade his children to see “Pinocchio.” In the new edition of “Close Encounters,” Roy is transformed inside the mother ship into an angelic alien star child, not unlike Pinocchio, a wooden puppet that desired and eventually became a human boy.

In both films, the home scenes emphasize the chaos and claustrophobia of modern adult life. Both families become the battleground for the forces of adulthood and extra-terrestrial childlike wonder.

In “Close Encounters,” Roy drives his unresponsive family to the highway, attempting (in vain) to communicate his enthusiasm to them for the alien sight, which he says was “like an ice-cream cone.” To take his mind off the skies, his wife reminds him of their dates as adolescents, but even though they kiss, Roy keeps staring at the sky, choosing to remain in the world of pre-puberty.

Both Roy and Ray are immature, but in different ways. In “Close Encounters,” the wife can’t cope with her husband’s breakdown in the shower, and she refuses to mother him. In fact, Roy’s son calls him a “crybaby.” The family refuses to listen to Roy’s revelation and denies any affinity with the world of childhood. They all desert him, and Roy is left alone outside his house, like the last human among the zombies in a George Romero’s horror flick.

Approach and Meaning

Both “Close Encounters” and “War” have explicit and implicit political messages that reflect the socio-cultural contexts in which they were made.

Because Spielberg has such an optimistic view of the aliens, “Close Encounters” is not the cold panorama of space ships, gadgetry, and special effects that most sci-fi films are. “Close Encounters,” like other films of the 1970s, represent a desire for authoritative guidance in a culture lost in the complexities of the era.

The Everyman hero Roy yearns to escape the confines of his domestic and civilized prison so that he can return to a golden age of childlike responsibility, where all the decisions are made for him. In contrast, Everyman Ray begins as a child-like, irresponsible father, whose bright kids, particularly daughter, are more mature than he is. Ray can’t even take care of their basic needs; he asks them to order any kind of food they want.

In “Close Encounters,” the security offered by religion and domesticity is replaced by affinity with the world of childhood, belief in the magic of toys and Disney movies, and assurance of chosen status. There’s a sense of assurance in the alien revelation that strengthens Roy Neary against his loss of employment and separation from family.

Is Roy a modern Moses Is Devil’s Tower, America’s first National Monument, which is one of the film’s central locales, the modern equivalent of the Bible’s Mount Sinai

Consider the following: When Roy is introduced, there’s a shot of Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments” on his TV screen. The passage through the Red Sea, which represents 1950s state-of-the-art special effects, offers a parallel to some events in “Close Encounters,” which represents the best possible special effects of the 1970s. In his review in the N.Y. Times, Vincent Canby described “Close Encounters” as the best sci-fi films of the 1950s he had seen!

Humans and Aliens

In “Close Encounters,” the alien’s presence is initially conveyed by the moving toys and the child’s smile towards the unseen being. A tension is set up between the reactions of the adults and the child, and the resolution of the tension is by turning adults into children. In the first scene of “Close Encounters,” an old man says: “The sun came out last night and sang to me.”

By submitting to the alien presence, adults recapture the wonder and magic of lost childhood. The crowds at the highway, the cops, Roy, and even the investigators have a childish expression of adoration on their faces. It’s significant that when the young boy rushes out of the house to the highway, the first adult figure he sees is a hippie, who winks at him.

In contrast, in “War,” Ray has been a lost child for too long, and he can’t rely anymore on outside help, be it his ex-wife or any other outside authority figure, let alone the aliens.

There is biblical-mythical imagery throughout “Close Encounters.” The segments in Mexico, Mongolia, and India are linked by the presence of an American interpreter, who was once a mathematician, signaling his possible disillusionment with science. He’s acting as translator of French scientist Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and serves as a reminder of the artificial language barriers of mankind, as opposed to the silent and shared wonder of those tuned in to the alien revelation.

Truffaut’s presence as Lacombe is central to the film. Truffaut, you may recall, is the director of “The Wild Child,” which dealt with the transformation of a wild boy-animal into a civilized human being at a price. That Truffaut played the teacher-investigator in his own 1969 film makes it doubly interesting. In “Close Encounters,” it’s Lacombe who deciphers the alien communication and is the most sympathetic to Roy.

In “Close Encounters,” the communication with the aliens is more desirable because it is by musical notes and sign language-forms of universal communication. Language is an ideological weapon and it creates barriers among people.

In “Close Encounters,” a mother (Melinda Dillon) is separated from her child only to be reunited with him at the end. In “War,” Ray’s family is in constant of separation, and at various points, Ray’s son and daughter are either lost or tempted to leave for reasons that can’t be disclosed here.

In “Close Encounters,” Roy is singled out by the aliens and enters the ship alone. And a contrast is drawn between the vast, empty, and tidy spaceship and the busy, messy, and claustrophobic interior of the Nearys home.

Spielberg told E.W. that “War” is much darker and pessimistic than his other films because we live in darker times, socially and politically. As rosy and optiistic as “Close Encounters” was its message was neither realistic nor upbeat. In that picture, Roy cannot achieve salvation or control his own destiny — he needs the interference of an outside force. In contrast, in “War,” Ray’s odyssey means achieving control, salvation, and redemption through the mastery his will power and survival skills.

“Close Encounters” urges the viewers to believe that “we are not alone,” and that there is no reason to fear the aliens because they represent a benevolent, well-meaning force. In “War,” the aliens are malicious and need to be destroyed for humankind to survive, let alone achieve its potential welfare.

If “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a Disneyland version of the American Dream, “War of the Worlds” is its darker, more realistic account. Tom Cruise has said that, “the new movie is ‘E.T.’ gone bad.” However, there are more significant links between “Close Encounters” and “War of the Worlds” than between “E.T.”and the new movie, though in “E.T.,” too, Spielberg views the aliens as enlightening and benevolent creatures.

This essay is based on analysis of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and interviews that Spielberg and Tom Cruise have given to E.W., Premiere, and other publications about their upcoming sci-fi adventure, “War of the Worlds.” My review of the film will be posted next week.