When Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' opened in June 2005, I went along to the midnight screening. I was furiously excited, both because of how much I love Spielberg and how much I enjoy a good balls-to-the-wall disaster film, which is what I expected it to be. When I emerged from the cinema two hours later though, I was exhausted, overwhelmed, emotionally battered, and deeply disturbed. I had expected a fun science fiction blockbuster. What I had seen were the fears, paranoias and nightmares of the early 21st century made manifest with startling ferocity.
Wells' novel of a Martian invasion of Earth is one of those classic texts that lends itself to reinterpretation through any time period and any lens. In fact, of the four major adaptations (the two films, the radio play and the rock opera), only one keeps its Victorian setting. Orson Welles' historic 1938 radio broadcast tapped into the political and social uncertainty in the lead-up to the Second World War. Byron Haskin's 1953 film adaptation reframed the novel through the lens of Cold War paranoia, the fear of invasion from the Other and our eventual cultural destruction. It makes sense that we should have returned to Wells' text in the years following September 11, and much of science fiction in cinema at the time - including Spielberg's own 'Minority Report' (2002) - felt the need to respond to the enormity of the event and its effect on the way we lived, moved and interacted with one another.
'War of the Worlds' is amongst the most inventive, direct and harrowing of all the films created in response to 9/11. It tapped directly into our collective social nightmare in ways that no other blockbuster had managed to do, specific to its time and breathtaking in its scope. Our marker for alien invasion films until that point had been the bravura patriotism and bombastic spectacle of films like 'Independence Day' (1996), where destruction was impersonal, where multiple storylines and devises delivered complete narratives, where the heroes were in positions of power and influence, and where the threat never felt palpable. There's nothing wrong with those kinds of films, but after 9/11 they felt idealistic, even ignorant. In 2001, we looked at our televisions and saw something we had only seen in a cinema, except this was real; the destruction was happening in real time, in the real world, and the loss of life, the psychological trauma, the jaw-dropping awe was a horrifying reality.
This was something that Spielberg deeply understood in approaching 'War of the Worlds', which he did quickly, trusting his gut in a way he hadn't since the early '90s. He knew that any degree of empty spectacle would be an insult to what his country had experienced, and their continued state of shock. If he was going to approach a film about mass destruction, the tired artificial tropes of the genre needed to be jettisoned. This film had to feel immediate, personal, assaulting, and honest. It would be the beloved filmmaker at his most unforgiving, and woven within the spectacle are some of the most disturbing images of any science fiction film. It utilises our shared collective iconography of mass destruction - debris floating through the air, walls of smoke and flame, smouldering ruins, buildings collapsing like houses of cards, ordinary people dwarfed in the face of catastrophe, even the visceral horror of human beings reduced to ash. A lesser director would not have understood the power of these icons. This great director wields them like a weapon, forcing us to face the great fears of our time and moving us towards catharsis.
We remember its enormity, but 'War of the Worlds' is a surprisingly intimate film. The focus is less on the spectacle (many of its most impressive sequences happen in the background) and more in its core characters, the blandly ordinary Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, the 'Mission: Impossible' series) and his children Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). We only see what they see, learn what they learn, and unlike the usual disaster movie trope, these are ordinary people, with no authority or power. They have no aims to defeat the Martians, no special skills or intelligence. Their only aim is to escape, hide and survive, and the greatest threat to their ability to do so is not the Martians but their inability to work with one another. Ray is an utterly inadequate parent, but the lesson he learns isn't so much how to be better, but how his lack of commitment to the role can have enormous consequences, that when he needs to be the carer and leader, he hasn't earned the right to be respected and looked at as either. In a way, Ray's journey on a micro-level mirrors that of the societal realisation in the face of the invasion, that to be confident in your position of power is pointless unless you have the bravery, empathy and compassion to maintain that position. He is also now forced to no longer take his children for granted, faced with losing them through violence (Rachel being swamped in the car) or emotion (Robbie determined to fight back, mirroring the ideological passion of America's young men in the aftermath of 9/11 determined to defend their country). His world is spinning out of control, and all he can do is try and maintain the small part of it he has in his grasp, at all costs. The push and pull in him is how much of his humanity he must muster or lose in the process.
And that pull lies at the heart of the true horror of 'War of the Worlds'. The annihilation of human beings by the tripods is terrifying, particularly in how "vast and cool and unsympathetic" it is, but the moments that sear into your memory are the actions of human beings in response to that annihilation. The centrepiece of the film is not a special effects-filled moment of spectacle, but where Ray and his children are caught in a crowd while driving a working car. The surprise from the crowd turns to begging to pleading to demanding to desperation to violence with shocking swiftness, as the car is swamped with bodies frantically trying to get in, like something out of a zombie film. The shot of a man clawing through a hole in the shattered car windscreen, blood pouring from his bare hands as he slices them open in frantic desperation, might be the image of 21st century cinema. No single image better captures the primal fear of our time. In a moment of blind panic, we are reduced to our most basic instincts, to survive at all costs in the face of the impossible, even if that means losing our humanity. We see it in Ray's terrified eyes as his car is dragged away, as shots are fired in the battle for ownership of it, his eyes wide and confused and scared out of their wits. Civilisation in 'War of the Worlds' is not just in a state of collapse, but facing the unfathomable reality that this is a collapse from which it cannot survive.
It would be the beloved filmmaker at his most unforgiving, and woven within the spectacle are some of the most disturbing images of any science fiction film.
And yet, it does. To quote another Spielberg masterpiece, "Life finds a way," and in the end it isn't the human race that wins, but the planet itself. The wider scope of the ending might feel like a letdown, but that is precisely the point. We aren't the victors, we don't defeat the invaders, we don't save ourselves. There's no rousing presidential speech, no race against time to blow up a bomb and save the world. In the end, we're left standing in the middle of catastrophe and unfathomable loss, reminded that, when push comes to shove, we are just a small part of the ecology of all things in this universe, that we do not matter and that all life is precious in its own way. And this is why Ray needs to get his daughter home, and why he needs to see his son has survived crossing the hill into the war of the worlds, to be reminded of how delicate everything in his life is, how easily it can be taken away, and how lucky he is that he still has it. The end of 'War of the Worlds' is only a cliché happy ending if you forget everything you've seen over the previous two hours, the deep horror and psychological trauma, because you can sure as hell guarantee that these characters haven't and probably never will, just as none of us can forget those hours watching the World Trade Centre fall in New York. Surviving catastrophe doesn't absolve the experience of that catastrophe.
15 years later, 'War of the Worlds' has not lost one ounce of its power. This speaks to its incredible craft and its unwavering convictions, but perhaps also because the collapse it depicts is a nightmare that has never gone away. We can't watch this at an arm's length, dismiss it as pure fantasy. It haunts us because it feels like it could happen, that we could be reduced to a desperate mass of bodies, but in many ways, over the last fifteen years, those images have become a reality. The jaw-dropping refugee crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, the Black Lives Matter riots, the continued acts of violence by the State and police against its people in countries like Russia and Hong Kong and the United States, all of these events and even more echo the nightmares woven into Spielberg's film. It should have only spoken to the horrors of the years after 9/11, but those horrors have continued, morphed and escalated. 'War of the Worlds', along with Alfonso Cuaron's thunderous masterpiece 'Children of Men' (2006), has emerged as a prescient vision that grows with every passing year. What it offers is not a pessimistic prophecy of inevitable collapse, but a reminder that it is our humanity and empathy that will save us in the end, our ability to connect and listen to one another. In the face of the impossible, all we have are those we can hold close in love and friendship. For a film that plunges so deep into the darkness, it reminds us that the best way to reach the light again is to hold each others' hands and find it together.
I walked out of that midnight screening in a state of shock. My brain was buzzing, my body was exhausted from shaking, my eyes were red from crying. I stood in the cold crisp air of 2am, trying to comprehend what it was I had seen.
Twelve hours later, I went back to the cinema and watched it again.