Movie Night With Urbaniak: War of the Worlds


It has been quite some time since

  ventured over to my house to watch a movie on the big screen, and last night we didn’t even have a plan. He suggested Raiders of the Lost Ark, which turns out to have been absconded by my son for a trip to San Francisco, I suggested Primer, which is a fantastic movie that Urbaniak had never seen. Urbaniak was keen to watch a big, splashy Hollywood movie and somehow we settled on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which was new to Urbaniak.

I will, of course, post a thorough analysis of War of the Worlds in due time. I think it is top-drawer Spielberg, as technically accomplished as any of his spectacles and as important in its way as Jaws or Saving Private Ryan.

What comes across loud and clear in War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s anger. Anger is an emotion we rarely associate with Spielberg, but War of the Worlds roils with it. It is supercharged filmmaking, vital and impressive, intense and gripping. But what, exactly, is Spielberg angry about here?

There is a moment toward the end of Act II when the dad, played by Tom Cruise, leads his family through a riverside town on the way to a ferry, amid a sea of refugees. The crowd stops for a railroad crossing and waits patiently as the train passes through. When the crossing gate goes up, they resume their trek to the river. Why is this moment important? Well, for starters, the train passing through town is on fire. It rockets through the center of town and the crowd, who has seen plenty of weird stuff in the past 24 hours, pays no attention to it. No one comments, no one even gives it a second look. There are no Spielbergian shots of awe-struck common-folk gazing in wonder or fear. A flaming train rocketing through the center of a riverside New Jersey town is, by the end of Act II of War of the Worlds, the least interesting thing in the world.

I hadn’t noticed this before, but Urbaniak picked up on it right away — War of the Worlds is, in part, about a population’s reaction to wartime and the total breakdown of a society. We paused the DVD here and stopped to consider the allegory of War of the Worlds, and its limitations. On the one hand, the movie invokes 9/11 and its horrors, but on the other hand it suggests that 9/11 was not the disaster the media presented it as. Urbaniak remembered that, on 9/11, he had, of all things, a dentist appointment, and rode his bike uptown to keep it, witnessing on the way New Yorkers going about their days, relaxing in Central Park, laughing and socializing in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Quite apart from signaling a breakdown of society, the collapse of the World Trade Center made people in New York extra polite to one another — I don’t remember a single cross word being spoken in New York for weeks afterward. (Elsewhere, of course, it was a different story, as conservatives everywhere seized on the destruction of the World Trade Center as a tool to press their agenda of hate and fear.) I’ve been paying pretty close attention to Spielberg’s themes lately, but it was Urbaniak who noted that War of the Worlds is linked to, of all things 1941, as a portrait of a society that uses a threat of invasion as an excuse to indulge in a number of examples of inappropriate behavior.

So if War of the Worlds is an allegory, who are the humans and who are the aliens? A straight-ahead reading suggests that the humans are decent, working-class Americans and the aliens are the creepy, unknowable members of whatever International Islamic Jihad conservatives would have us believe waits and plots to take over the US (through their Manchurian Candidate Obama, of course — how sneaky, how diabolically clever, to have your inside man have the middle name “Hussein” — excellent work, International Islamic Jihad!) Read this way, the movie suggests that the Jihad may attack America, and they may try to turn us all into Muslims, but ultimately they will fail and die — because we’re American, damn it, and our blood is poison to them. In this reading, the mini-drama in the basement of the country house pits Decent Blue-Stater Tom Cruise against Rabid Red-Stater Tim Robbins in the battle of how best to respond to the threat.

But another way to read the movie is that the humans in War of the Worlds are the Iraqis and the aliens are the American Army. It’s the Americans who invaded a country for no good reason, destroying the societal fabric and the physical infrastructure, provoking a civil war between factions of the population. In this reading, Cruise becomes the Regular Iraqi Citizen and Robbins becomes the Wild-Eyed Insurgent. In both readings, the regular-man protagonist becomes increasingly radicalized as the threat comes closer and closer to destroying the only social structure that matters — the family.

A third way to read the movie, of course, is that the humans are the United States and the aliens are the Neo-Conservatives, who have been lying in wait for many years, waiting for their chance to pounce and take over the world, eliminating all their competition for the sake of total dominance, turning the population into quivering masses or digesting them outright. In this reading, the movie turns prophetic, suggesting that the hubris of the Neo-Conservatives and their “Permanent Republican Majority” is as ridiculous a notion as the English empire that inspired H.G. Wells to write the novel in the first place, the Nazis who inspired Orson Welles’s version of the story, or the Communist Menace who inspired the 1953 George Pal version.

It was a real pleasure for me, at this juncture of my Spielberg analysis, with Always under my belt and Hook looming in the wings, to fast-forward briefly to 21st-century Spielberg, who beats the pants off early-90s Spielberg in every conceivable way, not least in the skill of his casting and work with crowds. Not to mention the paradigm-shift of his shooting style, which I peg to Schindler’s List, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.


26 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: War of the Worlds”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    Theme does seem to be the only excuse for why the aliens had buried their invasion craft deep, deep under the Earth millions on years ago… just in case they ever had to invade.

    • eronanke says:

      Yes, I agree; there seems to be no sense in burying their fleet unless it is for some kind of symbolism.

      • Todd says:

        Obviously the aliens place a high value on symbolism.

        • eronanke says:

          It just seems so… stupid a plan. It’s like the Daleks, fighting on millenia after their war is over – the Aliens in War of the Worlds are waiting to activate regardless of the state of their empire or of the state of the planet they are meant to take over.

          Another question I had that wasn’t explained by the movie: why are they chomping up people and spitting out the blood all over the countryside? Like vampirism, this doesn’t seem like a sustainable lifestyle if they are being used as sustenance. It seems like bloodshed for bloodshed’s sake.

          • Todd says:

            Well, also, if what kills them is the bacteria in our water, wouldn’t that bacteria have been there millions of years ago when they came here to bury their ships?

            • eronanke says:

              Well, theoretically, they could have come here BEFORE life, but that’s another stupid plan, because why do you need to plan an invasion BEFORE there is life on Earth?

              Unless there was a significant change in bacteria since their first arrival… It’s much more likely that they would be taken down by a virus rather than a bacteria; virii are brilliant little things that are incomparable to bacteria in that they mutate so quickly and so unpredictably, (see: HIV), and can mutate both inside and outside a host. The papillomavirus is said to be the oldest human-affecting virus, but it has been around since the dinosaurs, so idk.

              Sorry for the tangent, but it’s just so inexplicable a choice for a theoretically sentient race; UNLESS – what if they were EGGS? like… Parasites. And the race just goes around seeding planets and it doesn’t matter which ones activate or not because they are so many planets seeded that a bunch will survey regardless?

              omg my brain hurts. 🙁

  2. serizawa3000 says:

    A lot of the negative reviews for War of the Worlds didn’t seem to point any of this out. It was more “Why are the Martians* after Tom Cruise?”

    It would be interesting to compare this to Cloverfield, because Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is, like Cloverfield, told from the point of view of people who are not experts. And, of course, both films had people divided…

    *I know, they’re not necessarily Martians in the film, but thanks to the book they’ve always been Martians to me.

    • Todd says:

      Which is, of course, an insult to all decent, hard-working, God-fearing Martians who live peacefully among us without causing any trouble whatsoever.

  3. craigjclark says:

    Always under your belt?

    Call me crazy, but I’m not seeing that posted anywhere.

  4. curt_holman says:

    Primer, etc.

    I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on ‘Primer.’ I didn’t feel like I understood the plot in the last third of the movie (which seems to be the intention), but it strikes me as the most Philip K. Dick-ish film ever made, without having any actual connection to Philip K. Dick.

    Will you be doing any of Spielberg’s ‘Amazing Stories’ episodes? It occurs to me that ‘The Mission’ (which is on Youtube) ties in to his love affair with WWII aircraft, which you pointed out earlier.

    I believe Spielberg says on that Turner ‘Spielberg on Spielberg’ documentary that the train-on-fire scene was more or less made up on the set. It reminds me of the burning cattle scene in ‘Mars Attacks!’

    • Todd says:

      Re: Primer, etc.

      Primer just about blew my mind. It electrified me in the theater, and the day I bought it on DVD I sat and watched it three times in a row. But no, I’d need to go over it a few more times, and be a more educated person, before I’d be able to make sense of the third act.

      I should probably watch the Amazing Stories episodes.

  5. pirateman says:

    what are your thoughts on the ending of WofW? I personally thought it nearly ruined the whole rest of the movie for me (how Boston was completely untouched, everyone was fine, etc etc).

  6. urbaniak says:

    When I called the dentist in the late morning of 9/11/01 he wasn’t sure if he was staying open or not. I figured they’d be closing but I rode my bike uptown anyway just to be outside (when I got there they had closed). The feeling in the streets was not panic: it was quiet confusion. The people in dust-covered business clothes walking up Broadway outside my apartment walked calmly. The weather was famously gorgeous and I remember seeing some people talking and smiling in Central Park. They weren’t monsters, they were just doing what everybody was doing: trying to process what had happened while simultaneously trying to follow the grid of their lives. There was a is-this-really-happening quality to the day. So businesses didn’t officially close right away and people in conversation still found some reason to smile at each other. Everybody maintained order, waiting at the signal as the flaming train went rushing by, so to speak.

    • eronanke says:

      I’ve always felt that people love the status quo, and will do anything possible to maintain it. There is such a comfort in NOT screaming through the streets, etc.

      I remember watching the events of 9/11 on tv live in Toronto. My mother asked me if I still wanted to attend University in Chicago (for which I was supposed to leave 4 days later). And I thought about it. And I saw the Towers fall, and I thought, “Ok, they’re going to war with SOMEONE, and then they’ll be fine again.”

      Mind you, my definition of ‘fine’ is quite open, but before the Iraq war kicked off and politics got in the way, I stand by that statement. That before 2003 rolled around, Urban America was on the path back to normalcy.

      Of course, this is just the perspective of an immigrant, so I could be wrong.

  7. I close my eyes and sing “Lalalalalala!” upon seeing this crap movie compared to Jaws…

    It was full of bad acting, plot holes and logical inconsistencies, and the protagonist prevailed NOT because of his own effort but because of a deus ex machina. It had a beautiful look, but that’s ALL it had going for it. Terrible movie.

    • rennameeks says:

      and the protagonist prevailed NOT because of his own effort but because of a deus ex machina.

      I’m not a fan of this War either, but it is worth mentioning that the deus ex machina ending is not new to this story.

      • robjmiller says:

        The ending of War of the Worlds is a little out of date, but when it was first written it was on the cutting edge. Pathology was a fairly new idea and many people still didn’t believe ‘germs’ existed.

  8. teamwak says:

    Isnt early 90’s Speilberg Jurassic Park and Schindlers list? Or is this mid 90’s?

    I know we havent had your analyse of these movies yet, but surely none of the 2000 movies hold a candle to them?

    Although I do love the ending of Minority Report something rotten!

    • Todd says:

      I’m thinking of Hook as early 90s. Schindler’s List is the point where everything shifts for Spielberg.

      • teamwak says:

        Fair enough. I know what you mean about HOok. The kids doing bad hip-hop dancing still scares me now lol

        What a waste of Dustin Hoffman as Hook that movie was.

        • Anonymous says:


          The family went over the line into Hallmark card territory – that single dad must at all costs keep his cute family (well, the kids anyway) together, and then it is done without any meta-commentary as was evident in, say “Poltergiest”.

          Tom Cruise’s task for most of the film is pretty boring. Especially towards the blue-skies ahead ending that is going to occur because this is a known entity of a story. His task could belong in any Spielberg themepark setting. Welles didn’t need this kitsch, and even the 50s version didn’t. Only Spielberg’s view, which unlike the earlier versions had anything necessary required to do the film in some ways technically proficient, is the least imaginative, and is conservative regarding what he thinks the average public needs, in terms of this family ploy – and to consider anything about WAR.

          At the moment he could have delivered a challenge to the way the theme is handled, post-9/11, the film ends up more than ever all about watching the paid mega-star Cruise and Co just makin’ it, surrounded by cool, killer Mars machines. It’s so packaged, the outlines of themepark rides already there in the action – sequences. At least J.Park admitted it was on the verge of being such a theme park to allow the joke in…

          Most grating was the patriotic pull-string toy – the son – a minor sub-plot suddenly occuring on “serious levels”, that is, the conversion of a rebelious son who now realizes he must leave Father, fading into the unknown future with the others (i.e. fog) to do his duty for the nation. But precisely there, that scene has no real effect, considering the point, as we don’t care about this whatshisname. It’s just dramatically shot, not scripted. We have to apparently read this only on Cruise’s reaction, which is the point. He has beeng given the emotional range to work out in action with: constantly saving younger daughter, finally losing grasp on son to “adulthood”, trying to regain wife’s belief… all the time doing what he does best, jumping in and out of dynamic, M.I. style worlds.

          I think Spielberg would have needed to invent or further modify this cloying family construction because it plays to Cruise’s, uh.. “abilities”. Cruise on the other hand, I am sure signed on this project as it has a certain Thetanesque character (and he was allowed by Spielberg to put up his Scientolo-stations to “save” the workers there daily) that may answer some of those questions as to why aliens live dormant, buried somewhere etc.

          War of the Worlds always implied THE epic story, its themes were important in each era it occured. Spielberg handles it like another Tom Cruise vehicle, and in fact, looks just lost at what to do with bigger statements of the kind the original story had within, about the world, about war – and about “us”.

          As for the “burning train” – that indeed was one of the best scenes, and I think it shows what Spielberg is capable of: in the midst of something else going on, is a certain action, a scene of its own, that surprises in tone amidst the overall sentiment. Although in this case, it seems too close to the more religious overtones of a train-that-leads-to-the-destination-of-death moving along on its business no matter what, belonging more to Chagall than contemporary cinema (and a contemporary world where the train doesn’t really register in the same way anymore…)

  9. sheherazahde says:

    War of the Worlds

    OK I watched this movie because of you.

    My first impression is that the main character, Ray, is an asshole and I don’t like him.

    About the whole Robbie plot I can see how it might be about a father letting go of his son so his son can grow up. But, there are some problems with that. Robbie points out early in the film that his father just wants to go to Boston to dump his kids back on their mother so he won’t have to deal with them. Letting go of his kids is not Rays problem he has let go of both of them a long time ago.

    Also Robbie doesn’t just want to kill the invaders he also wants to help others. There is a big contrast between Robbie and Ray on the ferry. Ray abandons Sharyl and her daughter to save his own family. But Robbie climbs the wall to help stragglers. Ray just wants to protect his family Robbie wants to help everyone.

    And what is with Robbie being at his mom’s house before Ray and Rachael? I know we needed to see that he didn’t get killed, but that totally goes against his plot line. It would have made more sense if they met Robbie at a refugee help station or patrol.

    About that “growing up and letting go” arc. Robbie goes from calling his dad “Ray” in the beginning to calling him “Dad” in the end. That is more of a bonding arc than a growing up arc. But I saw no other evidence of bonding.

    Why does Ray keep covering Rachael’s eyes. I can see he wants to protect her from the horrors around her. But really he doesn’t succeed, he can’t. And that girl needs to learn to stop screaming.

    The end was sort of odd. The aliens are dead, so yay! humanity wins. And Ray succeeds in getting both of his kids safely to their mother. He has been through hell and literally killed a man with his bare hands to protect his daughter. But in the end he is still the same. Standing alone in the middle of the street.

    I think the reason the aliens were sucking the blood out of everyone and spraying it everywhere was because they were Martian-forming the planet. There is that great scene where Ray is standing on the hill looking out over a red landscape.

    The scene with the flaming train was great.

    The scenes with refugees trudging along reminded me of 9/11 and all the people walking home over the bridges.