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The World Wasn't Ready for the Bleak Brilliance of Spielberg's War of the Worlds

"Lightning never strikes in the same place twice."

It sounds bonkers, but it’s true: once upon a time in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg came out with an alien movie that America was sort of meh about.

No, not Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and certainly not E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but War of the Worlds. An adaptation of H.G. Wells’ acclaimed novel and a remake of Byron Haskin’s 1953 film, War of the Worlds had all the ingredients to become one of Spielberg’s smash hits. Tom Cruise was headlining, Morgan Freeman was narrating, and Tim Robbins was starring... but something just felt off.

While Spielberg was busy depicting larger-than-life alien tripods decimating America’s favorite cities, the wounds of real-life terror were still too fresh in the country’s mind. Much of Spielberg's imagery — layers of ash, a downed flight, personal belongings falling from the sky —was too reminiscent of 9/11 to make for a fun summer blockbuster in 2005. Critics were mostly able to judge the film on its merits, but audiences were simply bummed out.

But if War of the Worlds had come out, say, last year? Not only would its visuals still impress, but it would be revered as one of Spielberg’s best genre films, right up there with Jurassic Park and Jaws.

Spielberg doesn’t immediately launch viewers into a full-blown alien invasion. Instead, he thrusts us into the sad and empty Boston home of emotionally stunted divorcée, Ray Ferrier (Cruise), who reluctantly has his kids for the weekend: the petite, precocious, severely anxious seven-year-old Rachel (Fanning), and his bitter teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin). Things are awkward between the three of them, and the ostensible adult in the room is incapable of swallowing his pride to try to make things right.

Suddenly, though, Ray transforms from a villain in his kid’s eyes to a hero: lightning strikes twice, and it isn’t coming from the clouds. Foreign intruders, who look like giant animatronic spiders, are shooting laser beams that pulverize humans and wreak havoc across the planet. There seems to be no way to talk things out with these aliens, who are annihilating humanity with ease. Rather than attempt to save the whole world, Ray focuses on saving Rachel and Robbie, keeping them out of harm’s way while inadvertently growing up in the process.

When the sky looks like that you know there’s a problem.

Paramount Pictures

Cruise reliably delivers as the Hollywood heartthrob action directors were flocking to. It’s obvious in his performance that he’s a seasoned genre performer and a bonafide movie star, able to sell implausible situations so that the audience has no choice but to suspend disbelief. When Cruise shakily holds his hand over his daughter’s mouth as a CGI alien snakily scours the bunker they’ve been hiding in, the audience sees genuine terror in his eyes.

But Fanning is the true scene-stealer. In signature Spielberg fashion, viewers are made aware of what fantastical and freakish events look like in the eyes of a child. Rachel is petrified by the blood and guts of it all, as well as the violence that breaks out among the desperate survivors. Fanning, even at her young age, is impressive in her ability to capture the state of her character’s psyche, the nuance of her strained relationship with her father and older brother, and the complexities of what it would be like to live through a mass-extinction wrought by aliens.

Dakota Fanning won a well-deserved Saturn Award for her work here.

Paramount Pictures

In another Spielberg signature, one of the most compelling parts of War of the Worlds is the flawed humanity depicted throughout it. Rather than offering an Eagle-screeching victory for the United States, humans are pretty much useless against the aliens up until the very end. A sense of despair and smallness is palpable throughout; kids scream and teens lash out, but adults like Ray throw outrageous tantrums to cope with confusion and an overwhelming loss of hope. Why are people determined to screw everything up? This is the element that ultimately makes War of the Worlds a nail-biting watch. It’s a visceral one, too: intestines scattered on the grass, bodies floating downriver, and a flashing neon sky? Rural Pennsylvania has never looked more fearsome.

If the timing for War of the Worlds had been better, it would have been the hottest movie of the summer, and it would still be regarded as one of Spielberg’s best. Instead, it’s a curious surprise and a reminder that even our greatest creators are beholden to their circumstances.

War of the Worlds is streaming on HBO Max.

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