Steven Spielberg entered the decade with nothing to prove as a filmmaker. Showing an uncanny sense for picking projects with commercial viability and critical approval, Spielberg directed 17 films between 1974, the year of his first feature-length film, The Sugarland Express, and 1998, the year Saving Private Ryan won Spielberg his second Academy Award for Best Director (Schindler's List five years earlier was his first) out of six nominations (he received his first nod for Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Jaws, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, and Jurassic Park each became the top grossing films of their time. In collaboration with George Lucas (the Star Wars franchise), Spielberg directed all three (later four) films in the popular Indiana Jones franchise.
Any other director would understandably slow down, but between 2001 (Artificial Intelligence: A.I. ) and late 2005 (Munich) Spielberg directed six films, each commercially and critically successful, but none with more resonance than his modern-day adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1898 science-fiction novel, War of the Worlds. Adapted directly once before by producer George Pal in 1953, featuring state-of-the-art visual effects, the War of the Worlds had influenced countless iterations of the alien invasion premise, most recently Independence Day, the big-budget science-fiction-disaster-action film directed by Roland Emmerich in 1996. Could Spielberg bring War of the Worlds up-to-date and make it relevant again? With screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp, and Tom Cruise in the lead role, the answer was (and remains) an emphatic yes.
Reverting to H.G. Wells' character-centered novel, Spielberg's War of the Worlds focuses on the plight of Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a divorced, New Jersey dockworker estranged from his children, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and Rachel (Dakota Fanning). In a nod to Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, Spielberg has the aliens arrive in New Jersey. Out of a mix of curiosity and fear, Ray watches as a three-legged war machine, a Tripod, rises from the ground and attacks using a heat ray that vaporizes everyone it touches. It's the first of several bravura set pieces, each of which could easily qualify as a scene we love, or if the word "love" is too strong a word or even inappropriate, a visually powerful, emotionally wrenching scene.
Ray escapes with his family in a stolen mini-van just as the Tripods renew their attack. In another masterfully directed scene, Spielberg decided against quick cuts and editing and instead filmed the scene in a CG-aided, single, continuous take. This is also an excellent example of how to deliver exposition. Another continuous take, using a crane pulling back, upending our expectations, happens minutes later. Ray and his family survive the crash of a jetliner. The wreckage lies strewn around what used to be his ex-wife's McMansion, a member of a television crew fumbles around the wreckage, searching for food; another clues Ray in on recent developments, none positive.
In the next major set piece, Tripods attack a ferry that echoes with his first commercial hit, Jaws. Hours later, the military attempts a counter-attack. Spielberg keeps the battle out of sight, beyond the crest of a hill, but the burning military vehicles and a massive fireball are more than enough to let us know of the outcome. For every big scene, Spielberg makes sure not to forget the human element. The conflict between Ray and his son, between flight and fight, two of the most basic human instincts, comes to a head on that hill. Robbie wants to fight, even if it means certain death. Ray, once a poor excuse for a father, simply wants to bring his children to presumed safety in Boston with their mother.
After the seemingly permanent resolution of Robbie's story arc, War of the Worlds introduces a new character (Tim Robbins) hiding in a farmhouse basement. It's a talky, oft-criticized scene, saved by the appearance of an alien probe and our first glimpse at the three-limbed aliens (a nod to Pal's 1953 adaptation). A Tripod later captures Rachel, leading to Ray allowing himself to be captured as well. War of the Worlds concludes with a half-hearted attempt to convert the military and Ray from passive victims and survivors to active heroes. All of these scenes, up to, but definitely not including the doubly implausible endings (one for Ray and Robbie, the other for everyone else), are worthy of "scenes we love" consideration, but none has the resonance of an earlier scene in which Rachel, answering the call of nature, wanders out of Ray's sight.
As Rachel reaches a nearby river, late afternoon light hitting the river, a body floats by. Her surprise turns to terror when another body, then a third, a fourth, and eventually dozens of bodies float by. Ray rushes to her side, but it's too late. He's tried to protect her from harm, from knowledge of the alien attack and the death and destruction they've created, ends abruptly.
This scene, more than the heavy-handed, over-obvious 9/11 references (e.g., dust and ash that covers Ray early on, empty clothes floating down from the sky, a billboard covered with pictures of the missing), takes War of the Worlds from the realm of science fiction and horror and into the real world (i.e., ours). Wells wrote War of the Worlds as a cautionary tale for his British readers. It was both anti-imperialistic (anti-British Empire and its use of military force) and an empathic plea for the British Empire's colonial subjects. It's a lesson as relevant then as it is now.
Do you agree or disagree with my favorite scene? If you have another favorite scene from Spielberg's War of the Worlds, which one is it?