War of the Worlds: Spielberg’s Version of Wells Sci-Fi, Starring Tom Cruise

If “Jurassic Park” was “Jaws” with claws, “War of the Worlds” is “E.T.” gone bad. Spielberg’s contemporary retelling of the H.B. Wells sci-fi classic is a big scary movie committed to one goal: Mass entertainment.

Lacking the vision of Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the lyrical innocence of “E.T.,” and the poetic depth of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “War of the Worlds” is mostly a dazzling display of movie technology.

There are few directors with the experience and vision of Spielberg to execute a project of that size and scope with such skill, deftness, and enthusiasm. That said, “War” is imbued with a darker tone than Spielberg’s previous sci-fi films, particularly “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.”, reflecting changes in Spielberg’s life, sensibility, and worldview, as well as the world we live in.

“War” inspires awe and wonder at its technology and special effects, but it also inspires shock at how simplistic and minimalist its tale is. “It’s the biggest little film we have made,” says David Koepp, who also scripted “Jurassic Park” and “Lost World.” Indeed, a truly intimate yarn with few and simple charactrers is contained within a massive machine

In their second collaboration, after “Minority Report,” both Spielberg and Tom Cruise are in good shape, though Spielberg impresses here more as a consummate craftsman, in total command of state-of-the-art special effects, than as an artist.

Thematically, “War” blends together the conventions of three genres–the sci-fi, horror, and disaster movie—a trend that began in Hollywood movies of the past decade. Artistically, “War” is a better picture than “Jurassic Park.” The aliens’ paths of destruction receive full and glorious display onscreen, with meticulously depicted invasions by vicious, heat-ray-blasting aliens. However, intellectually, “War” is only a notch or two more sophisticated and challenging than “Jurassic Park.”

It’s hard to tell to what extent sheer commercial considerations have shaped this picture, which seems determined to give the audience their money’s worth.

Neither Spielberg nor Cruise has had a mega hit over the past several years. “The Terminal” was a mediocre film that didn’t perform at the box-office, grossing only $77 million, and by Spielberg’s standards, “Minority Report,” his previous sci-fi, was a moderate success (about $133 million). As for Cruise, his popularity is slipping domestically, as his latest films, “Vanilla Sky” and “Last Samurai” have shown; both pictures were more popular overseas.

“War” reveals the battle for the future of humanity through the eyes of one American family fighting for it survival. Cruise stars as Ray Ferrier, a divorce dockworker and less than perfect father of two: Teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and younger daughter Rachel (Dakota Flanning). After Ray’s ex-wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto) and her new husband drop off the children for a rare weekend visit, a strange and powerful lightning storm touches down.

The first reel is terrific, with taut narrative, strong characterization, and spectacular visuals. But the second and third reels are weaker and repetitious. The filmmakers must have been aware of this problem, as Koepp told Premiere: “I wish I could make a living just writing the first thirty pages of scripts, because that’s where all the fun is. Movies are best when they are all about anticipation. But eventually you have to show the audience what youve got, and nine times out of ten they go, Oh, that’s what youve got’ Well, all right.”

With the exception of the fourth reel, most of the plot is disclosed in the first chapters; the rest is more of the above.

Moments after the reluctant meeting between father and children, Ray witnesses at an intersection near his home an extraordinary event. A towering three-legged war machine emerges from deep beneath the earth and, before anyone can react, incinerates everything in sight. An ordinary day suddenly becomes the most extraordinary event of their life, due to a catastrophic alien attack on Earth.

Ray scrambles to get his children away from this merciless new enemy, embarking on a journey that takes them across the ravaged countryside, where they become caught in the desperate tide of refugees fleeing from an extraterrestrial army of Tripods. But no matter where they run, there is no safety and no refuge. Only Ray’s unconquerable will to protect his family.

First published in 1898, H.G. Wells’ story has become a classic. The frightening specter of our planet being ripped from us, with ordinary human lives held in the balance like ants on a twig, has retained its power for over a century. Known for films about more hospitable intergalactic guests, he taps ideal source material—the 1898 novel, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio play, the 1953 cult movie—and pays tribute to them in one way or another. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 film, make cameo appearances in the same way that Scorsese had cast Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck in his remake of “Cape Fear.”

But Spielberg revisits the idea of alien invasion with a different intent. He seems eager to show the story’s resonance for today’s viewers. “I thought it would be a good time to send “War” crashing down around everybody’s ear,” Spielberg has said. The movie fulfills his promise, that “War will not be “one of my sweet cuddly benign alien stories.” Indeed, anyone looking for long-fingered friendly space travelers will be disappointed. While the aliens in “War” are long-fingered, like E.T. was, they certainly are not friendly.

With “War”, Spielberg takes the opportunity to explore the antithesis of the characters in “Close Encounters” and “E.T.” “E.T.” was initially meant to beedgier and darker, but it somehow evolved into a more benign story. “War” is the flip side to the alien forms that were benign—the story is about our justified fears of aliens.

Spielberg has done extra-terrestrials before, E.T showed up early, but the little visitors in “Close Encounters” only appear in the final scene. Defying the notion that a movie is scarier if you don’t show the shark or the alien, in this version, the seen and unseen share the screen, including the three-legged creatures that had appeared in the 1953 cult movie.

Some viewers may be disappointed by the fact that the film offers no explanation as to who the aliens are, and why they attack. In this context, the only questions—and sources of tension—are: Will the family survive To what extent a father would go to protect his own flesh and blood

On the plus side, most of genre’s formulaic devices are absent: Capitalists being destroyed, generals or scientists waxing on importantly, TV reporters panicking, while debris explodes behind them. Sensitive to life in the post 9/11 era, there is no “beating up” of Manhattan. “War” takes place in the ordinary world, far away from the Pentagon or the Oval Office.

Indeed, quite admirably, Spielberg avoids clichs. There’s no destruction of famous landmarks, no shots of Manhattan getting the crap kicked out of it, no shots of generals standing around a large map pushing ships with sticks into place, no TV crews photographing the destruction.

Instead, “War” is a simple story about the basic elements of human nature, set against an extraordinary, unnatural event. Though the whole world is under attack, Spielberg focuses on one family of three characters, showing their dilemmas, their confinement, and their lack of information. Significantly, all the events are presented from the consistent and subjective POV of Ray, a modern Everyman. Ray is a far cry from the noble and diabolical characters Cruise had played. Here, he’s an average guy who’s not heroic but running away.

At the center of a story about death and destruction is a literal and metaphorical journey, taken by Ray, an inept man previously unable to commit to fatherhood. A painful distance exists between father and children when the story begins: Rachel and Robbie arrive at his house with less than enthusiasm for a rare weekend visit.

But the challenges faced by Ray with a surly teenager and a reticent daughter quickly pale, compared with the external threat ahead. When the Tripod attack begins, there’s little to do but try to stay alive. There’s no attempt to be intellectual about stopping the enemy, or be persuasive, or put an armament against it.

With the world literally crashing down around them, the familial tensions are heightened. Robbie is at the impossible age when young people yearn for both acceptance and independence. A rebel, Robbie wears his defiance boldly, sporting his red and white Red Sox cap in contrast to his father’s Yankee blue. The bond between brother and sister compensates for what’s missing in their relationship with their father, their broken home, and their mother’s new life.

Though Mary Ann’s presence is limited to a few scenes, her character is important for she serves as a compass point for the entire story. Ray’s first impulse is to get the kids to their mother, because he knows she can take care of them.

In the last reel, a major event occurs, one that indicates that the threat is not only from without but also from within. Having been separated from Robbie (for reasons that can’t be specified here), Ray and Rachel seek refuge in a farmhouse. They are “invited” by a stranger named Ogilvy (Tom Robbins) into the cellar of an old house. The story takes a dramatic shift in tone, and the drama intensifies as it becomes clear that there’s another force to fight. A broken man, who has lost his whole family, Ogilvy has been hiding out in the basement, cultivating deranged plans of how to handle the attackers.

Ogilvy thus becomes as much a danger to Ray and Rachel’s survival as the alien attackers. In the movie, just as in the novel, the encounter with the psychotic stranger creates a healthy level of discomfort and anxiety. When the story moves indoors into the small and dark cellar, it becomes claustrophobic. Up until then, the tale took place above ground, with urban intersections along highways and rivers, and expanses of refugees spilling out onto the wide landscapes.

From Close Encounters to War of the Worlds

For those interested in a more detailed analysis: “War” is an apt companion piece to “Close Encounters.” Both movies are big, noisy, meticulously crafted adventures but they are vastly different in many significant ways.

Heroes

Both protagonists are white, young-to-middle age working-class males. “Close Encounters’ Roy is a low-level employee at a power system, which, literally and symbolically, breaks down; Ray is 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 is an adolescent, and Rachel is about 10.

Setting

“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, before moving onto Boston. The journey may be short in mileage but long in tension, intensity, and scares.

The Family

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 there was a class difference between the spouses that might have played a more significant role than either partner is willing to acknowledge. It’s established right away that Ray is an irresponsible and immature father, whose attitude toward his children and the sacredness of the family needs to change.

In both films, the hero links the worlds of the adult and child. Roy is first see 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.” Later, Roy is transformed inside the mother ship into an angelic alien star child, not unlike Pinocchio.

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 aliens; he keeps staring at the sky, choosing to remain in the world of pre-puberty.

Both Roy and Ray are immature. In “Close Encounters,” the wife can’t cope with her husband’s breakdown in the shower and she refuses to mother him; 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. When they all desert him, Roy is left alone outside his house.

Approach and Meaning

Since Spielberg had such an optimistic view of the aliens, “Close Encounters” was not the cold panorama of space ships, gadgetry, and special effects that most sci-fi films are.
“Close Encounters” represented a desire for authoritative guidance in a culture lost in the complexities and problems of that era. Everyman 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 “Close Encounters,” the security offered by religion and domesticity is replaced by affinity with the world of childhood and belief in the magic of toys and Disney movies. There’s a sense of assurance in the alien revelation that strengthens Roy against his loss of employment and separation from family. In contrast, Everyman Ray begins as a child-like, irresponsible father, whose bright kids are more mature than he is.

Humans and Aliens

In “Close Encounters,” the aliens’ presence is conveyed by a 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. By submitting to the alien presence, adults recapture the wonder and magic of lost childhood. Roy, the crowds, the cops, and even the investigators have a childish expression of adoration on their faces. In contrast, in “War,” Ray has been a lost child for too long, and he can’t rely anymore on outside help, let alone the aliens.

In “Close Encounters,” the communication with the aliens is more desirable, because it is based on 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 threat of separation, and at various points, Robbie and Rachel are either lost or tempted to leave. In “Close Encounters,” Roy is singled out by the aliens and enters the ship alone. In “War,” no human enters the spaceships and their interiors are not seen. In the 1977 film, a contrast is drawn between the vast, empty, and tidy spaceship and the busy, messy, and claustrophobic interior of Roy’s home.

“Close Encounters” urges the viewers to believe that “we are not alone,” 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.

Though “War” is much darker and pessimistic than “Close Encounters,” its human message is more upbeat. In “Close Encounters,” 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 of his own will.