The Newsweek blurb that honored every physical Stanley Kubrick release the brilliant calls it “The First Epic Horror Movie”. This quote has always stuck with me. Horror movies are many things, but epic isn’t usually one of them. Simply put, a cinematic epic is defined by its sense of scope – telling human drama against a backdrop of enormous scale.
Steven Spielbergit is War of the Worlds remake fits the description quite cleverly.
It is indeed, an epic horror movie.
I still remember my theatrical experience watching Spielberg’s reimagining of the HG Wells literary classic in 2005. The film’s visuals, sound, and immersive quality sucked me in. The sound system alone made me vibrate like a tuning fork – the echoing blast from the tripod horn was a harbinger of doom.
Today, 17 years later, War of the Worlds still packs a visceral punch.
While the film received mostly good reviews from critics and a decent worldwide box office, it was never considered one of Spielberg’s best films – and is often referred to as a dud for the famous filmmaker, with whom I vehemently disagree. Although the film suffers from a botched ending, it is overall a tight, intimate exercise in unbearable tension, dread and dread.
world wars honors the all-man perspective of Wells’ novel instead of the typical alien invasion formula of following scientists and military personnel as they battle an otherworldly threat. Unlike the novel, this version is set in modern America and follows deadpan dad Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) as he finds himself with his two children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) during the weekend.
Spielberg likes to frame his extraterrestrial encounters through the prism of family dysfunction and War of the Worlds is no different. Cruise playing a charming but self-absorbed average Joe is somewhat of a departure from his usual roles, and he does a great job of selling Ray as a man who loves his children, but doesn’t know how to relate to or communicate effectively with them. them.
The cosmic horror of what the family is going through is enough to bring them together immediately, as Ray has been too absent and too closed off to engender the faith and trust in his children needed to see them through.
The start of the film is humble and low key, with no hints or clues, we are about to witness a global alien incursion. Spielberg uses this setup to draw the audience in and place them in the perspective of the family. The way he handles the buildup of invasion is absolute clinical in a slow-building suspense with a chilling payoff.
We see glimpses of what’s to come on news broadcasts reporting mysterious EMPs around the world. Then the storm clouds arrive – dark, ominous maelstroms presaging what could be Earth’s final hour.
The wind picks up, the sky darkens, lightning strikes – fast, violent, deafening and unnatural. All of this is seen from Ray and Rachel’s point of view, giving the audience a sense of immersion in the atmosphere and setting. Spielberg’s sense of geography and space is unmatched. Anchoring the film in a tangible sense of place with authentic shooting that adds to the intimate nature of the storytelling.
When we see a real place populated by realistic people, it makes death and destruction all the more urgent and moving.
The emergence of the first extraterrestrial tripod is shocking. Spielberg continues to play with the audience, peeling back layer upon layer of what’s going on with expert precision. The sense of impending calamity reaches a fever pitch as the massive alien craft reveals itself in full, towering over everything around it. No warning. No greeting.
The Tripod begins annihilating everyone in its path with a beam of energy that reduces flesh and bone to ash. A unique handheld shot puts the audience at the center of the carnage, with the camera acting as a human point of view as we watch people disintegrate all around us. John WilliamsThe haunting score of personifies the shrill screams of utter terror just before a person is zapped from existence.
This sequence further proves why Spielberg is such a master. Everything from the composition of the shot, the editing, the sound design and the visual effects works perfectly. For a film approaching 20 years, the effects work is still breathtaking and hasn’t aged a bit.
Once the first tripod emerges, it’s a fight for survival for Ray and his children.
Spielberg is often criticized for leaning into teary feeling (a criticism that the ending of this film unfortunately validates), but the vast majority of the execution of War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s darkest and most terrible material on the blockbuster side of his filmography.
Rachel’s character is often front and center witnessing the horrors of the invasion. So many events are seen from her perspective, and throughout the film she becomes increasingly shocked, almost to the point of catatonia.
Spielberg isn’t easy on the character just because she’s a kid. Dakota Fanning took the world by storm for a reason when she burst onto the scene: she’s a damn good actress. Not a single note of her performance in the film seems out of step.
Spielberg also has no qualms about unmasking humanity for the panicky animals we can truly be when things go wrong. Aliens aren’t the only threat to humanity’s survival in this film, but so are our fellow human beings. Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the movie doesn’t involve the aliens at all, but a crowd of scared, desperate people willing to do anything, even kill, to wrest Ray’s car from him.
In light of recent real-world events that have transpired over the past two years, this particular streak has unfortunately become more relevant with age.
The growing sense of desperation Ray feels as the world continues, quite literally, to burn around him is carried masterfully by Cruise who, despite his fame, still doesn’t often get the credit he deserves for the range he does. can display. Ray’s character is a man with no extraordinary skills. He’s not suave, cool, or super competent at anything. He’s just a guy hanging by a thread trying to keep his kids alive when the world ends.
In a brilliant reversal of the previous scene of the mob of car thieves – a scene meant to fill the audience with helpless rage and despair – we later see Ray driven to the point of killing himself after a man named Ogilvy (Tim Robin) takes him and his daughter Rachel after Ray assumes he just lost his son, Robbie. Ogilvy has already lost the plot. He’s erratic and half-crazy – which quickly proves detrimental to Ray and Rachel’s continued survival. In a brilliant, wordless scene, we see Ray come to the conclusion that he needs to take Ogilvy down.
Spielberg doesn’t portray Ray as a hero making the noble decision here. He frames Ray in silhouette, an imminent and mute threat come to suffocate a being desperate to live. In this way, Ray is almost like the Unknowable Tripods themselves – coldly leading their conquest.
Every encounter with the tripods is loaded with tension. The way Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminsky shooting the tripods makes the audience never feel comfortable in their presence. Their magnitude is a constant source of admiration and fear.
Making the decision to keep the narrative focused on regular civilians and not the military does all the work of selling the aliens as truly unstoppable and gives the audience a way to relate to the situation in a more personal way. There are no action heroes to cheer for here. It could be us.
The brief glimpse we have of military engagement offers no sense of comfort or encouragement. Tanks and artillery bombard the tripods in vain. It all ends with a wall of flame as they continue their razing of the planet.
As intense as Spielberg is able to keep his effective runtime in check by a hair’s breadth over two hours, the film’s ending feels like a real escape with Robbie’s miraculous survival ending the film on a note that’s too hokey to take. feel believable. It’s a hollow note that sadly sours the relentless ride up to this point, but not enough to deny how well the two-hour procedural was executed. Spielberg himself acknowledges the misfire ending, saying in James Cameron’s sci-fi story that he doesn’t like it either, he could never focus on a satisfying ending.
Nevertheless, War of the Worlds is one of the best modern remakes and what I consider to be a true big-budget epic horror movie.