This essay on the 2005 blockbuster War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by David Koepp, was written by Matthew Connolly, Teaching Assistant in the UW, Madison Communications Arts Department. A 35mm print of War of the Worlds will screen on Wednesday, March 11, at 3:30 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening will be introduced by David Koepp, who will also participate in a post-screening discussion.
By Matthew Connolly
“No scenes of beating up on New York. No destruction of famous landmarks. No shots of world capitals. No TV reporters saying what‘s going on. No shots of generals with big sticks pushing battleships around the map. Let‘s not see the war of the world. Let‘s see this guy‘s survival story.” – David Koepp, describing the ground rules for adapting War of the Worlds, in The Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2005
Released four years after the September 11th attacks, War of the Worlds not only attempted to revive a somewhat moribund genre (as co-screenwriter David Koepp’s above comments reflect) with a focus upon individualized experience over dog-eared clichés. Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel rethought these conventions to breathe new relevance into a genre that many felt had exhausted its potential to entertain the minute the Twin Towers plummeted into Lower Manhattan.
Indeed, Spielberg explicitly stated that a contemporary War of the Worlds should engage with the imagery of terrorist attacks that the genre had become inextricably bound up in in the days following September 11th. The director told the Los Angeles Times, “I think 9/11 reinformed everything I‘m putting into War of the Worlds 2005. Just how we come together, how this nation unites in every known way to survive a foreign invader and a frontal assault. We now know what it feels like to be terrorized…” The 9/11 signifiers found throughout the film—the ash and ripped paper floating through a decimated urban landscape; the hastily assembled collection of “missing” signs strung on a fence after the aliens’ attack—provoked debate about whether the film proved provocative or exploitative, yet Spielberg saw no other way to tell Wells’s story in a relevant and even responsible fashion. Prior to the film’s release, Spielberg stated simply to the Los Angeles Times that “9/11 set the tone and made it worth my time and the audience‘s time to see this story treated in this way.”
Not that Paramount and DreamWorks (the film’s co-financiers and distributors) supported the project due solely to its makers’ topical ambitions. War of the Worlds came about in part due to the fortuitous holes in the schedules of its director, star, and one of the studios behind its production. Paramount originally planned on releasing the third installment of their highly successful Mission: Impossible franchise in the summer of 2005, but had to postpone the project until the following year after then-director Joe Carnahan left the project in July 2004. The studio had both a massive gap in their summer 2005 schedule and no project for Cruise, who was set to reprise his role as Ethan Hunt. Around the same time, Spielberg also found himself with delays. The initial screenplay for Munich—the filmmaker’s other, more explicitly topical release in 2005—had been given to playwright Tony Kushner for a rewrite, and hopes of reviving the long dormant Indiana Jones franchise halted when producer George Lucas expressed reservations about the script. In short, mid-2004 saw one of the world’s biggest stars, most profitable directors, and largest studios with idle time and money on their hands.
After Minority Report (2002), Spielberg and Cruise had previously agreed that War of the Worlds would be their next project together when both of their schedules opened up, and had even had a brainstorming session with Koepp in January 2004 about the screenplay. Agreeing to push forward with the project in mid-2004 seemingly solved everyone‘s problems: Cruise and Spielberg could pursue the script, and Paramount (along with DreamWorks, who joined the project along with Spielberg) had a summer blockbuster. The sudden nature of the project’s fruition, however, meant that Spielberg and company had roughly ten weeks of preproduction: a relatively brief amount of time to plan what would become a special-effects heavy, $132 million production. Shooting proved equally as tight, with production beginning in early November and scheduled for 75 days. Spielberg worked to alleviate some of the pressures of this fast-paced shoot by storyboarding major sequences with computer animation, shooting key action sequences first so they could be immediately sent for post-production work to special effects house Industrial Light & Magic (ILM); and working with previous collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, editor Michael Kahn, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and ILM visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren. The film was ultimately ready for its June 29, 2005 release date, undoubtedly a comfort to Paramount studio executives who less than a year earlier had wondered if they would have any major blockbuster to offer during the summer months.
At the time of its release, however, the film proved notable for other—and, for its star, more unfortunate—reasons. The principal target of discussion (and derision) was Cruise‘s May 23, 2005 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Cruise rapturously proclaimed his love for new girlfriend Katie Holmes by jumping onto the set’s couch and falling onto one knee. Cruise provoked additional skepticism amongst the press, however, by increasingly foregrounding his belief in Scientology. The New York Times reported in March 2005 that Cruise had insisted on taking visiting executives of United International Pictures (the international distributor for War of the Worlds) on a personal tour of Los Angeles based Scientology facilities: a trip that caused chagrin amongst some attendees, who had to extend their planned stays especially for the visit. He also insisted upon sponsoring a Scientology tent on the War of the Worlds set, a potential violation of Universal Studios policy (where the film was shot) that Spielberg had to personally intervene on Cruise‘s behalf. These were among the less publicized moments. Cruise’s discussions of his religion within the media took on increasingly hostile tones, with accusations that fellow Scientologist Brooke Shields violated the religion‘s principals by taking medication for post-partum depression and culminating in a terse interview with Matt Lauer over the efficacy of prescription drugs. Spielberg defended Cruise multiple times throughout the build-up to War’s release, even coming to Cruise’s aid in a joint interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, comparing Cruise’s Scientologist principles to his own work with the Shoah Foundation in promoting Holocaust awareness. (An executive at DreamWorks later deemed the comparison “unfortunate”).
Such eyebrow-raising antics did not stop War of the Worlds from receiving a generally warm reception from critics and a worldwide gross of almost $600 million. Indeed, Cruise gives one of his best Hollywood leading-man performances, tamping down his irascible on-screen charm to foreground the resentments and failures of his Ray Ferrier, a mediocre divorced dad forced into parental duties when the extraterrestrial attacks occur while teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) visit him for the weekend. Anchoring the film’s bravura set pieces, Cruise’s frequently bewildered and exhausted face acts as a highly effective stand-in for our own terror and curiosity as the aliens unleash a series of deadly attacks whose relentlessness becomes amplified by the screenplay’s ruthless focus on Ray and his kids and Spielberg’s astonishing control of cinematic pacing, suspense, and surprise. What ultimately results is not merely a popcorn flick with a dash of topical relevance, but a thrilling reminder of how (at its best) blockbuster filmmaking can provide a large-scale forum to explore our collective fears and anxieties—those queasy curiosities and unspoken fantasies best acknowledged in the communal darkness of the movie theater.