Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 1

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Ray Ferrier, like Frank Abagnale, has lost his home. Like Viktor Navorski, he has lost his home due to an unexpected war. Like John Anderton, he has a problem with losing his son.

Spielberg’s post-9/11 movies Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and War of the Worlds are vastly different in tone and quality. Yet they form a cumulative picture, a gathering storm of concerns, including questions of fatherhood, citizenship, fakery, who-is-the-real-enemy warfare, homelessness, justifiable homicide, being a "good son," and much more. This storm of concern will culminate with the astonishing Munich, so far Spielberg’s greatest movie of the 00s — but more on that later.

In the prologue to War of the Worlds, a narrator intones a slightly modified recital of the famous opening of the HG Wells novel. It’s all very familiar, and Spielberg wishes to intentionally invoke it, to draw comparisons and contrasts with the novel, the Orson Welles radio broadcast and the George Pal version. War of the Worlds always seems to come up during times of "invasion panic," and one of the things Spielberg wants to do with this version is question a lot of assumptions involving invasions, occupations and colonialism. But the part that’s most pertinent to his purposes here is the part about how the aliens are planning, have planned this invasion for thousands of years. Thousands of years is indeed a long time to plan something, and Spielberg draws battle lines between "planning" and "improvising" that correspond to the protagonist’s actions. Planning, for the purposes of this movie, is evil, while improvising is not only very good, but seemingly the only way to stay alive under the circumstances.

(Spielberg also wishes, of course, to scare the ever-loving shit out of the audience, at which task he greatly succeeds here. Halfway through the movie, during some unspeakably horrible scene or other, I checked the video box to see what the movie was rated. The answer: PG-13. Same as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Well, Jurassic Park is Hook compared to War of the Worlds — I can’t imagine anyone taking a child under 12 to see this thing, and I know more than a few adults who completely freaked out over it. The horrors that Spielberg invokes here are visceral and uncompromising, and, for the most part, unleavened by humor or heroism. More on why that’s important to his purposes later.)

We first meet Ray at his job, where he stacks shipping containers in a New York Harbor port. This seemingly arbitrary starting point, with its extraordinary opening shot, accomplishes several things: it tells us that Ray is similar to the aliens who show up later in that he is the intelligent center to a gigantic, impersonal machine, that he is good at his job (as are the aliens), but that he doesn’t care. When offered an extra shift, he turns it down with a smile and a shrug — he has absolutely no ambition, he’s leading an unexamined life. He has no plans. (We find out that his plans are "to spend the weekend with his kids," but we also find out just how little thatmeans to him.)

(The opening shot, of course, also includes an image of the place where the World Trade Center isn’t any more, one of dozens of cultural signifiers that Spielberg crams into every minute of War of the Worlds — certainly too many for me to keep track of.)

Ray takes life as it comes. That means that he’s more or less happy, but it also means that his family life is a disaster — heading a household takes plans — lots of plans. Because of Ray’s inability to plan, his wife has left him and married a successful guy who owns a "nice house" and a "safe-lookin’ new vehicle," while Ray has a crappy row-house in Bayonne and drives a muscle car.

Ray is, essentially, still living like an adolescent, unprepared and uninterested in fatherhood. He’s got a pinball machine jutting out of his front hall closet and an engine block on his kitchen table. His 10-year-old daughter seems to like him okay, but his 15-year-old son openly despises him — he, apparently, is brimming with plans, none of which involve Ray. And who can blame him? Ray, it seems, has not given fatherhood a moment’s thought since the wife and kids left him years earlier — his son, Robbie, still has a bed in the shape of a race car, while his own bedroom is still in the condition it was when his wife finished redecorating it. Ray’s life stopped when his wife left him, but he kept going, day to day, just kind of letting things happen. His wife, meanwhile, is starting a new family with Safe Husband — she’s pregnant. She certainly has plans, and their lives are apparently full of plans ("Of course they’re not here, they’re never here," says Ray when he crashes their McMansion later.)

As Ray’s wife drops off the kids for the weekend, Robbie walks by Ray while Ray makes a sarcastic comment about "no hug." It’s a small moment, and Ray is, after all, a teenager, but we will see that Ray’s story will eventually culminate in his ability to earn that hug.

Ray takes Robbie out back to play catch, not because he wants to necessarily, but as though he’s checking off the "play catch" box on his "fatherhood" checklist. Robbie not only doesn’t want to play catch, he plays catch while wearing a Red Sox cap, indicating that he has "left" Ray for his mother, who hails from Boston.

In another cultural signifier, Robbie is supposed to be working on a school report on the French occupation of Algeria. He never gets around to it, but suffice to say he gets a lot of perspective on failed occupations before the movie is over.

His "fatherly duties" discharged, Ray heads for bed — before noon — and leaves the kids in charge of themselves. Robbie remains steadfastly teenaged throughout the movie, but 10-year-old Rachel is pressed into dual service as daughter and mother to Ray ("What are you, my mother or yours?" asks Ray at one point). More than once she is required to be the plan-maker, even in the act of demanding fatherly care from Ray.

In the afternoon, Ray wakes up. Rachel has gotten a sliver, but she refuses to let Ray take it out. She insists that her body will naturally resist the foreign object and push it out on its own. This turns out to be the best possible plan for dealing with foreign invaders. (In another cultural signifier, Ray does not recognize hummus as food.)

Robbie, it turns out, has left with Ray’s car, requiring Ray, like Carl Hanratty in Catch, to go fetch his wayward son. Before he can head out, however, an amazing electrical storm hits over New Jersey. ("It’s like the 4th of July," says Ray. "No it’s not," says Rachel — perhaps an invocation of American ideals, perhaps a subtle dig at Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, Spielberg’s way of saying "You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.") Ray’s need to recover his lost car (and, incidentally, punish his son) take him from the house to the town center, and War of the Worlds‘ concerns suddenly expand from the family to the community. Robbie, it turns out, is already on his way home — a "good son" despite the theft of his father’s car — leaving Ray to pursue his selfish goal of recovering the trophy of his arrested adolescence.

Once Ray arrives in the town center (at 19:00), the first showpiece of the movie begins, eight minutes of sustained suspense, action and horror, a sequence that gets more impressive every time I see it, a casually brilliant presentation staggering in its scope, immediacy and attention to detail, a setpiece to stand aside anything in Spielberg’s career, which is saying a whole hell of a lot. The difference between this and, say, the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park is that Spielberg shoots the mayhem like he shoots the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan — we stick close to the protagonist, and just barely glimpse the flabbergasting horrors that unfold around him as he struggles to survive against impossible odds.

The comparison to Ryan is apt, and yet the soldiers in Ryan, despite their peril, were the attackers in their scenario. Ray, on the other hand, has no intention or desire to attack the monstrous machine that rises out of the pit in his home town — he flees, as fast as he can, to get the fuck out of the way. Ray will, in fact, spend the bulk of the movie struggling to stay out of his antagonists’ way, just as he has spent the bulk of his life staying out of fatherhood’s way.

Back home, the scope of the situation hits Ray, and he takes a moment to stare at himself in the mirror, a moment of literal reflection, to think of what to do next. Here Ray’s struggle begins: he must, with a literal gun to his head, a gigantic, intergalactic one at that, figure out, on the fly as it were, how to be a good father. He never really gets around to making any "plans" apart from "getting the kids to Boston" Unlike Frank Abagnale, Ray isn’t trying to reassemble his broken family, only to rid himself of it so he can get back to his life of arrested adolescence. Ray’s fatherly abilities will be tested under fire in the most pressing sense of the word as Act II of War of the Worlds unfurls.

He begins his journey into forced fatherhood by deciding to tell his children only what they need to know to survive, to get out of the house, which Ray suspects, correctly, is about to be destroyed. Children, Ray thinks, cannot be expected to absorb information this mind-bendingly terrifying. He turns out to be half-right in this regard: Robbie seems perfectly capable of understanding the terror before him, but Rachel is another matter.

Using his mechanical skills and his improvisatory abilities, Ray steals a minivan and high-tails it out of the neighborhood as it is destroyed all around him. Now homeless, he heads for his wife’s home, and catapults his family, and the narrative, into Act II, one of the most sustained, impressive sequences of horror and devastation ever created.


29 Responses to “Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 1”
  1. blake_reitz says:

    I just saw this movie for the first time last week. Most of Spielberg’s films in the last decade have failed to woo or wow me, and so I dismissed War of the Worlds when it came out, which is really quite unfortunate as Act II deserves a theater experience.

    And I’ll take a moment to plug Radiolab’s fantastic podcast on the (three) radio broadcasts of War of the Worlds. In one segment they read statements given by the panicked to the police the day after, and a sizable amount thought that it was not aliens, but a German invasion combined with over-imaginative radio journalists. Interesting, considering most of the characters first think the invaders are terrorists.


  2. stormwyvern says:

    Yet another film I haven’t seen, but am very interested to read about. I’m sure the significance of Ray having to trade his muscle car for the dreaded minivan was not lost on you.

  3. I really love this movie, mainly for that 8-minute sequence that kicks off the invasion. Although there are a lot of intense and suspenseful setpieces (god, the part where the mob is trying to take the kid out of the car), it never quite HITS like that first sequence. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen before.

  4. swan_tower says:

    I never built up much appreciation for the stuff Spielberg was doing here because I simply never cared about the characters. Probably for the exact reasons you’ve been describing about Ray, but whatever the cause, I didn’t care about them, so I didn’t care much about the story.

    Regarding ratings: my favorite recent example of how borked that system is would be The Dark Knight, which was also PG-13. Sure, there’s almost no visible blood, and nothing particularly sexy, but it’s psychologically brutal in a way that I don’t think is at all PG-13.

    • Todd says:

      And you know, 2001: A Space Odyssey is rated G, brutal murders, contemplation of God and all.

      • swan_tower says:

        The MPAA is messed up beyond the telling of it. Sure, be as violent and horrible as you like, but flash one boob and it’s all over.

        • the_stalwart says:

          I was particularly appalled by Prince Caspian’s PG rating. The combat scenes are ever bit as brutal as The Lord of the Rings, except they didn’t use any fake blood. It’s like showing kids “slicing someone with a sword won’t really hurt them, just make them limp a little.”

  5. marcochacon says:

    I like the way that the car has become the unit of sci-fi invader power. In ID4, the cars blowing down the street like leaves told us the end of the world was here. In WotW the machine throws an SUV (upping the ante? Maybe just going for the zeitgeist?).

    Either way, for some reason this is how we know these things are powerful.

    Also: What is up with the clothing remaining when the ray is used? It pulverizes a freeway but leaves the polo shirt? I suspected an ending scene where people were rematerialized but I guess that was too saccharine for WotW?

    Anyway–good job: keep up the great work.


    • ndgmtlcd says:

      In theory you can perfect an extremely focused aimed microwave ray so that it boils and sublimates people from inside, going outwards in a fraction of a second, and giving the impression of an explosion of dusty human remains. The clothes would not be affected for the same reason that textiles (or some plastics and ceramics) aren’t affected if you place them in a microwave oven. The microwave rays in the microwave oven are diffuse, but they start off as focused before they hit the reflectors inside the oven.

    • the_stalwart says:

      Either way, for some reason this is how we know these things are powerful.

      This makes a lot of sense to me. What’s the heaviest thing that the average moviegoer has regular interaction with? Plenty of us in colder climates have strained to push these massive hunks of machinery out of snowbanks or mud. When we’re shown them tossed about like toys, we have a visceral knowledge of what magnitude of power that illustrates. It does what movies do best: Show, rather than tell. Or, as I believe Mr. Alcott has said before, “Movies are best at showing giant pieces of metal flying through the air.”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Amid my terror watching this for the first time the other night (and I’m talking about an image letterboxed on a 19-inch TV, not the overwhelming experience of a huge theater screen), I had to latch onto the few unconvincing details and the usual Spielbergian fatherhood obsession just to get through it without having a heart attack.

    So I must complain about the hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if fully operational video camera — the only electrical or battery-powered object (besides the car Ray steals) in downtown Bayonne that actually works after the invasion. And it keeps on filming after its owner disappears. Cheesy!


    • woodandiron says:

      That also bothers me a lot because it definitely seems like they completely forgot their “electrical outage” just to have a neat-o shot in there.

      For any piece of entertainment, I’m willing to buy any sort of flight of fancy and suspend my disbelief…but only as far as they stick to their own rules regarding it. If they say Mr. X can travel through time but only backwards, I’m okay with it. But if then Mr. X travels forward through time randomly and with no merit, you’ve lost me.

  7. I’m conflicted about this one: there are some truly great Spielberg moments in the movie that just give me shivers, but the overall feeling the movie gives me is a bit underwhelming. There’s a handful of nitpick-type criticisms I have, but even aside from that, the movie just couldn’t move me enough. I think a lot of that is generated by the fact Dakota Fanning’s incessant screaming basically numbs my brain after a while, to the point the only real emotion I’m feeling is murderous rage at having to suffer her banshee wail. And I probably went to see this a bit too soon after going through that no-really-this-isn’t-a-joke-Tom-Cruise-is-batshit-crazy collective revelation we all experienced not that long ago, so maybe I was too high on antipathy for the guy. That said, there are plenty of moments I just love, and one particular moment I’m hoping you hit on, because it’s fairly high(ish) on my list of the most powerful moments ever put onscreen.

    • Anonymous says:

      Oh, I really wanted to kill that little girl. Until she was finally too traumatized to scream.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I really like this movie a lot, a lot … but I think it’s got a fatal flaw regarding the son … basically, the end of the movie, when he’s found with his mother already, it’s a gimme that’s not earned from the carnage we’ve witnessed, and when we last saw the son he was running right at the invaders …

    Just my opinion …

    Joshua James

  9. curt_holman says:

    “the part about how the aliens are planning, have planned this invasion for thousands of years”

    I was thinking about this — about how the aliens apparently left their war-machines buried a thousand years ago, then decided it was time to ride down in lightning bolts and commence the conquest of Earth. First, it kind of makes the premise that the aliens are subject to communicable Earth-diseases make less sense: if they planned out centuries in advance, wouldn’t they test for that kind of thing?

    I believe one character suggests that the aliens attack to harvest Earth’s resources. If that was the aliens’ real motivation, then wouldn’t they have gotten more bang for the buck if they’d just attacked Earth a thousand years sooner, before the human race had started using the resources up?

    Then it occurred to me, maybe the human population represents the resources the aliens want, given the way the tripods go around gathering people and apparently draining their blood. Maybe they decided to attack when the quantity of the human population reached a certain point.

    Of course, if humanity is the resource they really want, they’re kinda cavalier about death-raying bystanders when they first attack.

    • schwa242 says:

      I’ve lately had problems with suspension of disbelief regarding stories of alien invasion for the sole purpose of resource acquisition. This really stuck out for me in Independence Day… aliens using all these resources and energy to invade inhabited planets and claim their resources, when there are probably other resources available on other planets that don’t involve blasting cities, elaborate defense shields, and millions of tiny ships sent to pick off the local populace one by one. It seems to me like a massive waste of effort. What do Earth and other life-sustaining planets have that other planets wouldn’t? But then it hit me. The aliens are addicted to foreign oil. If a planet has life, then a planet may have plenty of cellular material that has been pressurized under the ground into that sweet sweet crude. No life, no oil. That, or they are here to steal our stockpiles of golden delicious apples, because in space, no-one can grow golden delicious apples.

    • noskilz says:

      I have no idea what the writer’s intentions were, but bacteria and viruses are busy little critters who can change drastically in a very short period of time, so whether one would still be resistant to a variety of somethings that have gone through many thousands of iterations and learned some new tricks along the way( consider: last year’s flu shot may not do you much good against this year’s models.) Which one isn’t covered by your countermeasures? Which one of the metric freakload of microbes could be an issue?

      It’d be interesting to know what sorts of premises were built into movie and which pathogen the writers decided would do the aliens in, if one was.

    • greyaenigma says:

      That’s always been my biggest problem — even if humanity was the resource, why not throw them into farms immediately? It’s got to be more efficient than burying untold numbers of invasion machines deep below the surface.

  10. kevspace says:

    Well, this particular ending has the misfortune of needing to be true to the ending of the original story. Which, despite its classic status, really is a bit of an anticlimax, at least by Hollywood standards.

    • romahdus says:

      Which is what confuses me: I assume Spielberg didn’t make a film to just copy something done before, but based a film on something that has resonated with people (and himself) before to create an entirely new experience – why else do it? I also assume, that when Spielberg decided to make his adaptation of WotW, he wasn’t bound by legalities saying he can’t change so-and-so (am I wrong here?). If these assumptions are correct, the decision to include the anti-climax was intentional.

      And yet I can’t believe someone with so much storytelling experience would feel that’s the most satisfying ending for the film.

      Spielberg wouldn’t have needed to change the reason the invaders died, just take his protagonist’s story to a more fulfilling ending. I can’t help feeling that whole “ooops, time ran out, Ray looks like you’re a lucky guy, saved by the bell (bacteria), go get your hug now” -thing even if I really try not to.

  11. samedietc says:

    Ray and the Heat-Rays

    In Wells’s book, the narrator is unnamed, so what do you think is the reason Ray is named Ray?

    Probably part of that is to have an “R” name to match up with his kids, Rachel and Robbie. I’m not sure I would look for too much meaning in “Rachel” and “Robbie,” but since there’s so much freight placed on whether his kids will stop calling him “Ray” and start calling him “Dad,” I’m curious why that’s the choice: Ray vs. Dad. It’s funny, because in the planning vs. improvisation reading, (improvising) Ray is totally different from the (planning) aliens–and yet I can’t get over how the other important ray in this film is the heat-ray that announces the aliens’ intentions.

    Also, Wells was politically anti-Empire, but I always find the end of this book odd on that score–if dying in a land is part of how you claim it as your own, then the death of imperial soldiers and colonists may mark the colony as part of the homeland. This movie sticks with part of that sentiment–I mean, the aliens are literally watering the land of liberty with the blood of martyrs, marking it as ours (much as the Freeman/Godly narration notes that our deaths-by-disease have given us the right to this world). And yet, the aliens, as one of the characters remarked, were here before us, if only to plant their machines. (“Plant” here is not chosen lightly, since we start with and end with an image balanced on a plant-leaf/bud.) So, is this really their world and are we the colonists who only earn our land by the toll of a million deaths? Is this a narrative about aliens coming to take-over our home (invasion) or about natives coming to take-back theirs (home-coming)?

    • Todd says:

      Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

      I think Ray is named Ray because it’s a variation on Rei, or “king.” Ray is, obviously, not a king, except in his home, which doesn’t last past the first half-hour of War of the Worlds. “Ferrier” is more interesting — it is, apparently, a Scottish name, meaning “one who ferries,” ie the guy running the ferry. Ray’s job in War is, quite literally, ferrying the children from one home to another (and another, and another).

      • the_stalwart says:

        Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

        Do you suppose that the similarity of “Ray” in this film to “Roy” in Close Encounters is related to Speilberg repudiating his earlier assertion that he’d never make a movie with bad aliens?

        • Todd says:

          Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

          Something obviously shifted in Spielberg’s perception — try watching Last Crusade and Schindler’s List back to back — and it seems, to me anyway, that the prime motivator in his 00s movies is the obligations he feels as a father. Roy Neary, famously, abandons his family to pursue his muse of magic aliens. If War contains a repudiation of anything, it’s that Ray is a repudiation of Roy — Roy rushes pell-mell toward the aliens at the expense of his family, while Ray runs away from the aliens as fast as he can to avoid contact with the aliens. The Roy of Close Encounters is anathema to Spielberg now, and he has said as much in interviews — the family is supreme to Spielberg, everything else — including God — takes a back seat.

          Perhaps that’s why Close Encounters‘ aliens come from the sky and War‘s come from underground — Spielberg wanted to make a clear distinction between the two, and perhaps imply that one comes from the heavens (those savior airships again) and the other from Hell.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

      I’m actually rather surprised that no one raised a stink during the process of making this film about the fact that the protagonist and both of his kids all have names that start with “R.” My understanding is that it’s usually frowned upon to do something like that, as it risks the audience forgetting who’s who.

      • Todd says:

        Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

        It’s frowned upon in the screenwriting process, because the reader can’t keep the names straight on the featureless page. Once the parts are cast and the roles are clear, the audience shouldn’t have trouble telling Tom Cruise from his children. It’s worth noting that the family of War of the Worlds consists of Ray, Robbie, Rachel and — er — Mary Ann, obviously intended to be the odd one out here.

        • stormwyvern says:

          Re: Ray and the Heat-Rays

          I was thinking of it in part because the commentary for the Star Wars: Clone Wars movie mentions that Anakin’s clone commander was originally going to be named “Alpha,” but someone balked when it was realized that they already had Anakin, Ahsoka, and even Artoo to contend with. So the clone’s name was changed to “Rex.” But I guess they knew that they would have to be dealing with scripts containing those names over an entire TV series, making the similar names issue much more problematic.