War of the Worlds ★★★★½

I don't remember 9/11 at all. Brief images of seeing the attacks on a television at Applebees bounce around in my mind, but I'm pretty sure those were just manufactured in my mind. I've grown up with it being somewhat of an abstract event, the catalyst for our subsequent decade long war in the Middle East, our spending of trillions and trillions of dollars on military equipment and surveillance, a fierce debate over the importance of our rights during wartime and our society's unfortunate racism towards a whole people despite their almost universal innocence. You could say it defined my life, even though I don't recall anything about it.

Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is an on-the-nose response to 9/11, that much is obvious. Orson Welles' classic radio broadcast with the same title is a tribute to terror. Proof that through a simple story of Martian invaders conveyed realistically, Welles' could in fact infiltrate people's dreams and plant a seed of terror, drawing on the ease with which we accept what we're being told and buy into anything we deem to be genuine. Hyperbole is the word that correlates Orson Welles' radio play to 9/11 in my mind. Hyperbolic thinking inspired thousands to react in terror to Welles' dramatization of an alien invasion, and to a more controversial degree, hyperbolic reactionary measures landed us where we are today immediately following 9/11. I won't delve down the political rabbithole of why I feel the months following the terrorist attack were some of the worst in our history, but I think it's a consensus belief that Americans acted out of passion rather than measured intellect. Terror, to those who grew up in safe environments, is, for lack of a better word, terrifying.

That's fundamentally what Spielberg's interpretation is all about. Terror. Masses of people fleeing an impossible pursuer. Walls papered with missing posters. Onlookers covered in ash, observing disaster rather than reacting. Mountains of rubble in suburban neighborhoods. Airplanes falling out of the sky. Imagery cultivated by a man in tune to post-9/11 hivemind, brought home by the suggestion that the aliens were really among us throughout our evolution, living with us as we grew and developed. The first glimpses of aliens are not exciting as Spielberg's filmography would suggest, but rather almost nauseating, filmed with an intent to capture the chaos and pure adrenaline-induced reactionary thinking. There's no grace to these foreign invaders, no beauty to be found in their conquest. They're unmistakably evil, no gray area to be had.

Despite my praise for it's thematic intentions, War of the Worlds is deeply flawed. Tom Cruise, despite my almost universal appreciation of him, is miscast as hell here. Furthermore, alongside the themes of terror, there;s in intriguing but ultimately overdone transformation in Cruise's character to dead-beat dad to ferocious defender of his children that could have been pretty powerful, but in the end feels a bit forced in execution. Still, Spielberg's masterful visionary style results in many stunning, beautiful images. And contrary to many of his blockbuster efforts, this film is chilling. Many feel this film bores, or is pretty mediocre in execution, but I couldn't feel more differently. I was electrified from beginning to end, wholly engaged and genuinely fascinated by how Spielberg would progress through this story. Four and a half stars may seem a bit high, but to me this is one of those movies that aims so high and, while it may fall short in some ways, lands pretty damn high as well. I'd take a visionary, ambitious leap of sci-fi storytelling over standard Hollywood fare any day.

Film #16 of Steven Spielberg Ranked

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