Thursday Rethink: Spielberg's War of the Worlds Is More Important Than You Probably Think

After a recent viewing of Steven Spielberg’s under-appreciated 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, I was struck by how the film seems to have created a new template for 21st century blockbusters. In particular, I believe that War of the Worlds introduced a new approach to destruction in the Hollywood blockbuster and one that has been highly influential. In the popular consciousness it may not hold the same importance as landmarks like The Dark Knight or The Lord of the Rings, but it is possibly as influential as those films. I’m not sure whether it created this new template alone or was just the first part of this shift in approach, but Steven Spielberg wields a lot of influence in Hollywood so I could picture it working either way.

It was the first blockbuster to reference the War on Terror for emotional effect

War of the Worlds was the first blockbuster film to tap into 9/11 trauma and fears to maximize the impact of an action scene. When the tripod first rises from underneath the ground in New Jersey and starts vaporizing bystanders, the air fills with their residual dust and covers our hero, Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise. This is reminiscent of the news footage of people in the streets underneath the World Trade Center on 9/11, covered in the dusty debris of the collapsed towers. Coming only four short years after the attacks of 9/11, War of the Worlds repeatedly prods that open wound to intensify the emotional impact of the tripods’ destruction. The first time a tripod vaporizes a human onscreen is even captured through the digital screen of a handheld camera. Most people witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers through footage caught by handheld cameras.

Nowadays its old hat to have blockbusters reference 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror as a shorthand for emotional and thematic resonance. The destruction of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel and the finale of The Avengers where the Chitauri attack New York City both attempt to do this. Blockbusters like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Oblivion,and Star Trek Into Darkness have similarly followed the lead of War of the Worlds and started mirroring other real-world political traumas linked to the War on Terror, such as drone attacks, in order to generate impact.

Its CGI destruction denies escapism and forces audiences to confront real-life horror

Disaster films before War of the Worlds reveled in the appeal of seeing things destroyed onscreen. Films like Armageddon, Independence Day, and Twister were all about the escapism of watching buildings and cities blown up. War of the Worlds was the first film to deny escapism in CGI destruction and instead confront its audiences with the destruction’s real-world parallels. Each set-piece in War of the Worlds is focused on an act of destruction that one could see on the evening news: the crashed airplane in the suburban neighbourhood; the overturned ferry in the river; the bullet train speeding by in flames. War of the Worlds uses the limitless potential of CGI to drag the audience down to the chaos of realistic disaster. Perhaps this was inevitable in a world dominated by the War on Terror and the 24-hour cable news cycle, but War of the Worlds was the first blockbuster to embrace the world’s new mindset regarding destruction.

Flash-forward to the current spat of blockbusters and nearly every film uses CGI to reflect real-world disaster. Metropolis is leveled in Man of Steel in an echo of a devastated downtown Manhattan on 9/11. Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe climaxes with an urban centre being destroyed by superpowered beings doing battle with each other. In fact, if a current blockbuster doesn’t end in CGI devastation suggesting some real world disaster, we label it an aberration.

Despite the dark tone, it still has a happy ending

Of course, War of the Worlds still ends with a happy ending despite all the destruction on display—something many viewers feel is its main weakness. After all the destruction on display and the misery at the film’s every turn, viewers thought the optimistic ending where Cruise’s Ray Ferrier reunites with his family in Boston was unearned, even if it resembles the novel’s ending. It was thought that after two hours of destruction and misery, the ending cheapened the suffering and never commented upon everything that was lost.

Such tonal transitions from dire to optimistic, from destruction to light humour, are matter of fact now. In Man of Steel, General Zod obliterates downtown Metropolis with his World Engine, but the film ends with Clark Kent waltzing into the offices of the Daily Planet without ever commenting on all the lives lost in the climactic battle. Ditto for The Avengers, where the Chitauri’s attack on New York City is uncommented upon in the final moments as the Avengers share a shawarma dinner. World War Z focuses on a zombie apocalypse that devastates the entire globe, but the ending sees Brad Pitt’s U.N. facilitator reuniting with his family after discovering how to defeat the zombies. Most recently, Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla reboot ends with humans cheering on the reawakened Godzilla as he returns to the sea. The news program even has the headline, “Godzilla, Savior of Our City, King of the Monsters?” Sadly, just as modern filmmakers have copied Saving Private Ryan’s shaky camerawork without also copying its horror at the sight of death, none of these blockbusters capture the true gravity of humanity’s loss in the midst of destruction like War of the Worlds does. Think of the scene where Dakota Fanning’s Rachel looks out on a river and the water fills with bodies floating past. Current blockbusters never pause to focus on such human loss.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating War of the Worlds’ importance in the the shaping of 21st century blockbusters, but I believe it was the first blockbuster to draw on and delve into the chaotic and ever-present spectre of destruction that dominates our post-9/11 world.