- War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s most underrated movie, unfairly disregarded by audiences.
- The film effectively blends sci-fi action with a bleak family drama, creating a tense atmosphere throughout.
- Spielberg’s creative vision is on full display with visually-striking alien machines and terrifying yet beautiful settings.
War of the Worlds delivers Steven Spielberg‘s take on H.G. Wells’ classic story, depicting Earth’s collapse and society’s break-down following the meticulously planned attack of beings from outer space. The story unravels from the perspective of a father trying to protect his estranged family, with Tom Cruise in a memorable lead role and a career-defining performance by a young Dakota Fanning.
Summer blockbusters were a whole different thing two decades ago, and War of the Worlds is a sturdy example of that. Although it’s an action-packed sci-fi movie, the film maintains a bleak atmosphere from beginning to end, connecting it to a moving family drama. Over the years, audiences seem to have been carried away by the film’s supposedly anticlimactic ending and unfairly disregard the genius of Spielberg when dealing with the sci-fi genre, rendering War of the Worlds into his most underrated movie.
War of the Worlds Delivers Mass Hysteria from Beginning to End
The best sci-fi movies aren’t those that deliver mind-boggling dangers from outer space or terrifying predictions of humanity’s future, but rather those that can blur the line between the fantastical and the ordinary, effectively deconstructing what audiences perceive as common. After all, the tension that the sci-fi genre carries is directly linked to the threat it poses to humanity as a whole. To give substance to this tension, a sci-fi story must rationalize humanity’s biggest fears and concerns with the help of absurd themes that are, in fact, strangely familiar.
What War of the Worlds does is incorporate the menace of the alien invasion into humanity’s inherent fight between good and evil. It’s a battle that everyone fights, since everyone has a little of both, except for children, innocent in nature — and that’s where Dakota Fenning’s character comes in. Everything that happens in Spielberg’s movie revolves around the three main characters: Ray, played by Cruise, his son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and his daughter Rachel (Fanning). She is a necessary mediator in the chaos that ensues from the very beginning until the film’s final moments.
Most apocalyptic movies and TV shows offer a glimpse at the initial destruction, but never really dive into it. The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and A Quiet Place Part II are all great examples; they introduce their characters when the world was still unchanged, just to flash-forward to the present, when a good chunk of their humanity has already been taken from them. On the other hand, War of the Worlds in its entirety consists of mass hysteria, showing in detail the progress of chaos. That’s the biggest strength of the film’s source material, but it takes a lot of talent to perfectly adapt that to another (visual) medium.
Orson Welles will always be remembered as one of the few who managed that, even bringing the story’s mass hysteria to the real world: his famous Halloween radio broadcast narrating War of the Worlds reportedly convinced listeners that an actual Mars invasion was taking place in the United States, causing people to flee their homes in despair due to his realistic tone of urgency and bewilderment.
Similarly, the terror of miscommunication is one of the threads that hold the narrative of Spielberg’s movie together: in the blink of an eye, all individuality is lost. As society begins to collapse, one must either go down the rabbit hole with the others or they’ll be forced to. The scene in which Ray has his car taken from him, just to witness the robber get murdered minutes after, is a brilliant, yet disturbing showcase of Spielberg’s true vision of the end of the world: it isn’t about the aliens taking over, but rather humanity giving in to the ugly parts of themselves.
A Harrowing Family Drama Elevates the Tension
With the end of the world comes the end of all responsibilities, but not that of a father. The character of Ray perfectly encapsulates this aura of every-man-for-himself that applies to the chaos that falls upon Earth, but his duty as a father prevents him from wholly acting like that. That’s why having a less-than-perfect father as the protagonist of this story effectively builds a harrowing drama to elevate the tension. In War of the Worlds, the role of the father is more than just protecting his children at all costs, as viewers are used to seeing. Here, it’s also about fighting to gain their trust and making them feel safe in a world that collapses into itself.
Spielberg’s movie explores the father/daughter relationship between Ray and Rachel in earnest, remaining faithful to the character of Ray as he doesn’t miraculously become a good father. Yet, with all his flaws, he gives his body and soul in order to pass along a feeling that everything is going to be okay. Of course, all the promises and the comforting words work with a child, but with Robbie, a teenager on the verge of adulthood, it’s a whole different story. It’s in the moments between the two young actors playing his children that Cruise’s performance truly shines: viewers get to see the distress in Ray’s eyes as he realizes it’s too late to be a father to Robbie. Rachel offers him a new beginning; Robbie marks the end of the lane.
War of the Worlds Is a Feast of Spielberg’s Creative Vision
After establishing himself as one of the best directors of his time, Spielberg reached a point in his career where his name would enable him to explore all the riskiest creative ideas he wanted to explore. The period of the 2000s in Spielberg’s filmography marks a distinctive shift in tone, as he takes advantage of his best trademarks to experiment with ideas outside his comfort zone. However, since the sci-fi genre was what made him famous in the first place, the Spielberg viewers get to see in War of the Worlds is one of the most mature showcases of a filmmaker at the peak of his creative vision.
The irony of the initial alien invasion scene is the first hint at Spielberg playing with the audience’s expectations: sci-fi movies tend to make viewers fear what comes from the sky, but here, the menace comes from the underground: massive machines that are as terrifying as they are visually-striking emerge from the ground, revealing a thousand-year plan from the aliens finally being put into practice. War of the Worlds has the whole package: big alien machines, lasers incinerating people, light abductions — yet somehow, Spielberg effectively blurs the line between the familiar and the obscure; there’s an aura of mystery surrounding these puzzling invaders.
The whole survey sequence in which the tripod probes explore the basement is peak Spielberg tension. Just like Jurassic Parks‘s iconic scene featuring the raptors in the kitchen, the tension goes through the roof as Ray and Rachel struggle to remain undetected while their host looks for an opening to recklessly attack the creatures.
And then there are the absolutely terrifying settings: War of the Worlds is an impressive visual achievement that gradually progresses into absolute doom. Sightings of a valley of falling clothes, a river of floating corpses, and woods of burning red are only a few of the mesmerizing landscapes crafted by Spielberg, who manages to find beauty in horror. There’s something equally terrifying and prophetical about the red-colored vegetation spread by the aliens across the Earth: the red-blood aspect of it appears to suggest a land infested with our own remains.
There’s a purpose even to the blinding whiteness that envelops the characters at the beginning of the movie. At a fateful moment, halfway through War of the Worlds, a flock of white birds flees in order to give space to the black crows that surround the tripods. The same transition happens in the film’s imagery. The Earth goes black, and all hope is dead. The way Spielberg perfectly sets up this dreadful mood is one of the reasons viewers tend to find the ending so sudden, so anticlimactic. Yet all the signs of a happy ending were there, in the image, once the whiteness started to envelop these characters once again. White represents light, and light enables us to see. It’s the perfect irony to the invisible forces that end up killing the aliens at last.
Stream War of the Worlds on Paramount+ or Hulu