By Tom Kapr
“No one would have believed in the early years of the 21st century that our world was being watched by intelligences greater than our own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns, they observed and studied, the way a man with a microscope might scrutinize the creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency, men went to and fro about the globe, confident of our empire over this world. Yet across the gulf of space, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our planet with envious eyes and slowly, and surely, drew their plans against us.”
These are the words of the opening voice-over narration of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, taken almost word for word from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel. (The bit about the 21st century is, of course, the major difference.) Although it has been updated to take place more or less in the year of its release, 2005, and even though the protagonist has been changed from a nameless first-person narrator looking for his wife to a divorced man trying to hold on to his ever more distant children, Spielberg and company’s adaptation is surprisingly faithful to the book.
This version of War of the Worlds is nearly a perfect film for the first two acts. As with so many big-budget thrillers lately (and with so many Spielberg films lately), it derails in its third act: it becomes cliché, with Spielberg even stealing a bit from one of his own previous films (and not one of his good ones, either); characters start making decisions that make no sense except to set up the next mediocre scene; it ramps up the action aspect too much by having Tom Cruise’s character essentially go commando on an alien ship; and it wraps things up in the end too tidily, giving itself a happy ending it did not earn.
To be honest, the aliens themselves are not even that scary, though they are much more menacing than their description in the novel (in which they are essentially unable to move around in our gravity on their own power). But they have some amazing technology, and that technology is designed solely for the purposes of the worldwide genocide of humanity. As in Battle Los Angeles, the film that got this list going, the invasion and subsequent extermination is much more gritty and in-your-face than in most films in the alien-invasion genre. Whereas Battle Los Angeles spent most of its time at street level in L.A., the extermination process in War of the Worlds has a far more epic feel to it. It is the scenes of the unseen aliens in their tripods, obliterating every human in sight, that earns this film a spot on this list.
And as if monstrous alien machines casually exterminating human beings isn’t scary enough, leave it to Steven Spielberg to pepper his film with visual references to the Holocaust. The first scene in which the tripods attack is one of the most heart-pounding sequences ever filmed: Cruise’s character runs through the streets as people left and right are caught in the alien death ray and literally disintegrated into ash. When he makes it back home and sees himself in the mirror, sees what was recently his neighbors caked all over his face and body, we feel his revulsion as he freaks out. This and a later scene in which the clothes of disintegrated people rain from the sky, as well as a handful of other scenes including a burning train speeding by and a bunch of bodies floating down a river, are reminiscent of Spielberg’s work in Schindler’s List. The director is taking the subtle anti-war themes of Wells’ novel and expanding on them in a powerful way. These echoes of the consequences of Nazism, terrorism, and systematic violence in general, make the invasion of War of the Worlds one of the scariest in film.
(Read Nate’s article on loose adaptations for a slightly less enthusiastic look at Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.)