The impact of 9/11 threw Hollywood into a state of confusion: the attacks, which had been viewed as frightening and unprecedented, caused an upstir of sensitivity and fraught reflection in American cinema. Images of the towers were removed from movie posters and trailers (most famously Sam Raimi’s Spiderman), the theory being that they might be too upsetting for American audiences still struggling to comprehend the attacks. American cinema has seldom depicted the attacks in any great detail, and for a number of years following the attacks recreation of the event has been seen as disrespectful and tasteless within a nation still suffering. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, many films were postponed; elaborate action set-pieces of cities being destroyed became viewed as inappropriate, as were other films like the 2003 comedy View From the Top which focused on a woman’s desire to become a flight attendant. The concept of returning to 9/11 was seen as too traumatic, too soon for a grieving nation to be made to look back upon that day. Some film-makers pushed back against this stance and kept the images of the towers in their films — Spielberg’s A.I and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, for example — but the overall mood seemed to be one of trying to avoid facing the reality of the loss.
In the first few years, nothing directly depicted the events of September 11. Instead, films often obliquely referenced it, or used allegorical means to comment on the subject. The first 9/11 films, as direct depictions of the tragedy, came in 2006: Paul Greengrass’ United 94 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. War of the Worlds continues in this vein, treating the events allegorically rather than directly. However, the post-9/11 impact can be felt throughout the film in numerous instances. For example, during a particularly effective scene of New Jersey being attacked, Rachel (played by Dakota Fanning) cries, “Is it the terrorists?” situates the Spielberg adaptation in a particularly post-9/11 America; terrorists were seldom the go-to answer for wanton destruction before, but in 2005 it seemed a natural explanation. The threat felt real and ever -present. In this new millennium, the comedic portrayal of terrorist groups such as in James Cameron’s 1997 film True Lies was now long gone.
While Spielberg never made a direct 9/11 film, he mused on the attacks several times after they had happened. The Terminal explores xenophobia following the attacks in a satirical manner. Munich follows the Spielbergian pattern of looking backwards through history to find complementary narratives that reflect upon the events of the time; in this case, terrorism and counterterrorism through the lens of the Munich massacre at the 1977 Olympics. However, Spielberg’s most upfront treatment of the impact 9/11 has left on American identity is found in the allegorical War of the Worlds. Fredrick Wasser describes Spielberg’s films as a view into the general sense of American identity and viewpoint:
Spielberg has become the Hollywood director who both explains America to the world and gives us the American perspective on world events.
The truth of this statement can be observed in War of the Worlds, a film that immediately removes itself from Spielberg’s previous extra-terrestrial treatment. The aliens in the post-9/11 film are neither friendly nor poetic, in contrast to the genial E.T or the musical creatures of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, they are instead cruel and destructive, their motives are never fully explored or understood, they are creatures of terror. Spielberg himself noted in an interview that the changing mood of the nation following the attacks influenced him to attempt a more visceral alien film, an invasion with violent purposes instead of benign ones:
It seemed like the time was right for me as a filmmaker to let the audience experience an alien that is a little less pleasant than E.T. Today, in the shadow of 9/11, I think the film has found a place in society
With this incarnation of H.G Welles’ classic story, Spielberg attempts to treat the sense of uncertainty and paranoia that reportedly gripped the United States after the attacks. Characters are untrusting and prone to riots, people fight each other in desperation: a scene sees Ray (played by Tom Cruise) and his children ousted from their car as people jump on it, batter the windows, and one man breaks open the windshield with attention paid visually to his bloodied hands; eventually a man steals it by threatening Ray with a gun, he attempts to drive away until he himself is killed by a gun-shot off-screen. The film, in contrast to the warm colouring of E.T and Close Encounters, is instead more drab in pallete, continuing a shift that began with Schindler’s List, to Spielberg’s choice of visuals reflecting his (often) grimmer choice in thematic concerns. Here, there is a harshness to the lighting, and the camera work is often hand-held to give an unstable and uncertain vibe to the world.
The sense of American domesticity is upended in Spielberg’s film: the director who so clearly sees the heart of American society in the resilience of these values offers a film where they are continually desecrated. Direct connections are drawn to the 9/11 attacks in the way the aliens have operated: the attacks did not begin from an identifiable foreign position, but instead began on American soil, from agents hidden in the nation itself. The mise-en-scene draws inspiration from the events of the day: the initial alien attack scene — where the tripods rise from the ground — shows a large crowd gathering around unexpected circumstances. In the same sequence, Spielberg introduce a man with a camcorder filming the strange event, when the tripod fires its first lasers, this man is eviscerated, and Spielberg cuts to a shot of the camera on the ground, his own running up towards it into a close-up of people running in terror seen through the viewfinder. A clever reference to how the world experienced 9/11 — and many other major tragedies of the early 2000s such as the Boxing Day tsunami — through the dissemination of amateur footage. And, perhaps the most telling image taken from the attacks, the reveal that follows Ray from inside his ex-wife’s home out into the debris of a crashed plane during the night, pulling back into a establishing shot of the area with burning plane parts strewn throughout.This shot itself begins from the relatively intact basement, out into a mid-shot of Cruise opening the door, slowly revealing the house has been mostly demolished into an almost post-apocalyptic ruin in a complex crane shot move. In some ways, it is interpretative of the film’s ultimately goal: to take the viewer from pre-9/11 domesticity and guide them into the traumatic post-attack sense of hopeless anxiety and shock.
Tonally and visually War of the Worlds has all the markings of a powerful film. It feels relentlessly grim at times, and Spielberg embraces the darkness of the territory. One of the most haunting images sees the young Dakota Fanning stumbling upon a river as dozens of dead bodies float down it, or the way in which the lasers of the alien tripod’s reduce humans to ash, eerily echoing the heavy dust clouds that consumed the streets of New York as the towers fell. Likewise, at the end of this sequence, Cruise himsel is covered in ash.
Some critics, like Stephen Prince, felt the film did not reflect accurately on the behaviours and attitudes during the attack:
War of the Worlds is a blunt and one-dimensional film, showing an extreme situation eliciting an a narrow range of emotional responses by the characters, mainly terror and blind panic… In this respect, it fails to get one of the most memorable things about 9/11, which was the impressive spirit of co-operation that prevailed amongst office workers and first responders as the buildings were being evacuated.
In Prince’s view the film inaccurately projects a cynical view of selfish desperation and animalism on people who, in reality, did not display such things. Complicating the aesthetic choices further is that the mass destruction depicted in the film highly exaggerates the extent of destruction that was actually inflicted upon the city. Spielberg shows mass evacuations, possibly millions of deaths, huge infernos engulfing entire countrysides, and entire cities reduce to rubble. Some critics like Lester Friedman note that this, ironically, more accurate reflects the impact of the wars in the Middle-East rather than the more limited damage range during the attacks during 9/11. Indeed, in the film, America seems helpless under assault by highly technologically advanced foes, but the means employed during the September 11 attacks were relatively primitive.
This ‘shock and awe’ created by the aliens in War of the Worlds resembles the panic generated by the American military more than it does the devastating, but as yet singular, attack on the World Trade Center.
Of course, both Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp also described the film as ‘anti-Iraq war’ and there may be some irony involved in showing American audiences the terror their aggressive counter response has unleashed on other peoples in the world. In this regard, the fleeing citizens and the mass devastations inflicted upon the United States seem to bring the dark realities of the war in the Middle-East into the heart of American society itself, a greater and more powerful military force upending the established life and inducing a sense of profound terror. In this way, the film attempts to walk a balance of acknowledging the United States’ victimhood at the hands of a terror attack whilst imagining itself also as a victim of an invasion at the hands of a force with significantly imbalanced technological power over it.
Further, there is the rather peculiar ‘Hollywood' ending which features an abrupt shift in the mood of the film: going from an intense chase and paranoia-driven thriller, to seeing Cruise essentially become an action hero and take on a tripod. Oddly this scene does feature the contraption prisoners working together to help pull Ray out of the tripod after he had planted the grenades in it, which oddly has echoes of the collaborative spirit that Prince feels is missing. But its imagery, as scholar Terrence McSweeney notes, is rather discordant with the previous aesthetic and tonal choices of the film:
…the previously distinctly fallible Ray takes on a giant alien tripod and single-handedly destroys it as if he were participating in some 1980s Schwarzenegger or Stallone film in a scene so jarring and out of place that it initially resembles a dream sequence.
The ultimate transition from people-in-terror to Cruise’s return as the American hero, fighting back against impossible odds and coming out on top, continues towards the (heavily denigrated) ending of the film, where the family is reunited all alive and likely having had their frayed relationships healed through the struggle. The ending reads far too pleasant and its ‘return to equilibrium’ tone lacks the impact intended; it feels to shrug off the past hour and a half of trauma, and instead of heartwarming, leaves the question as to how Ray’s son Robbie (who has no military experience) ran straight into an on-going battle full of massive explosions and survived it.
Likewise, the alien invasion itself is never contextualized; their motives for attacking Earth (or planting their machines underground millenas ago) is never explored. In this way, again, Spielberg taps into the ‘unexpected’ narrative surrounding 9/11 that grabbed America at the time: the one of an innocent nation, attacked out of nowhere, by vague and threatening evil. Roger Ebert critiqued the film on this point, stating that it was less interesting to him than if the aliens had been bequeathed some kind of depth by the script:
Does it make the aliens scarier that their motives are never spelled out? I don’t expect them to issue a press release announcing their plans for world domination, but I wish their presence reflected some kind of intelligent purpose.
War of the Worlds coheres to the immediate narrative following the attacks, in which American media focused on stories of heroism and victimhood, a view of the nation as a victim of attacks by a vague and malignant enemy who attacked without reason or purpose. The alien invasion is never given any real depth, leaving them to fundamentally be vicious assailants whose purposes on Earth remain uncertain.
Likewise, in contrast to the supposedly aimless aliens, Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda did express and attempt to ‘justify’ their attacks; it had political and symbolic purposes, and was intended to reshaped, by their own propaganda, into reactionary violence for American imperialism and support of Israel against Palestine, as well as their own ‘impure’ nature by promoting and allowing such things as homosexuality and gambling. These ‘reasons’ he explicitly gave for calling a fatwa against America. The aliens in the film lack any appropriate depth that would deepen the film’s allegorical intentions. For all its impactful and boundary-pushing (for a PG-13 feature) imagery, the script consigns itself to relatively safe and familiar territory of the Hollywood invasion/disaster picture, with the antagonists being vague threatening figures rather than having an identifiable purpose for their cruelty. Ultimately, despite its aesthetic power at drawing influence from the imagery of the attacks, especially in the initial attack scene, the writing behind War of the Worlds seems a lot less considered and more haphazard in its application.
Still, looking at the piece on the whole, it features several powerful and even poignant sequences that correlate strongly with the overarching cultural mood that America found itself in. As an allegorical piece, it connects with the traumatic experiences of 9/11 from a relative distance, and in some ways reinforces dominant narratives that emerged following the attacks. Possibly, Spielberg himself identified this limitation, as his following attempt to grapple with terrorism, Munich, looked much more deeply at the nuanced cycle of violence and attempted to view terrorism and its perpetrators in a more complex, even human, way. For War of the Worlds the situation is one of fear, paranoia, and anger. The ending itself offers an attempted ray of hope, one that many feel is undermining; the ending too ‘clean’ given the on-going complications that the post-9/11 world continued to face. In some ways the film feels an odd imbalance between Spielberg — one of the great visual masters of film — crafting an elegantly immersive visual experience of American suburbia reduced to ruin and terror, awkwardly walking alongside a more confused script.