For all the reputation Spielberg has as being all about feel-good emotions and happy endings, he really can be a bit of a bastard sometimes. He spent three grand of his money to film the infamous floating head scene from Jaws because he felt the film needed one more good scare, and he even managed to freak himself out by how dark a direction he took Temple of Doom. For all his cuddly aliens and warm glowing tableaux, he’s not afraid to make you afraid. But he’s also great at using what you don’t see to scare you (the shark for most of Jaws and the unseen aliens for most of Close Encounters, for example). He knows that if he sets the proper mood, we don’t actually need to see the giant slavering monster; our minds will create one more terrifying than he could ever think up.
War of the Worlds contains what’s to me one of Spielberg’s most haunting images, and it’s precisely because of what he doesn’t show and the horror it conjures in my mind. It’s the scene where the shell-shocked refugees stop at a train crossing and watch a burning train scream past for what seems like an eternity. We don’t get a good look at the train, just flame-shrouded cars streaking past and perhaps quick glimpses of shapes on fire inside. But we see those people reacting to it, the silent, staring faces, some struggling to comprehend, some blank and emotionless, unable to comprehend one more horror, and our minds fill in the blanks of what must have happened twenty or thirty miles ago, more chillingly than coming right out and showing us.
A lot of War of the Worlds has shots where we’re shown the aftermath of a horrific event rather than the event itself. We don’t see why there are dozens of pieces of clothing falling from the sky. We don’t see how all those dead bodies ended up in the river. And we really don’t need to; we know there are aliens rampaging across the countryside. We’re also following three characters who would have no way of knowing what’s going over the next hill, let alone in the next town over. Keeping us just as in the dark as they are makes those reveals all the more powerful. There’s no set-up, no preamble, they just appear, dark lightning from a clear sky.
Which leads me into what’s probably the most talked about aspect of the film: it being a reaction to 9/11. The parallels are obvious: a sudden, unexpected attack; the stunned reaction; the confusion and fear of those caught in the midst of it; the varying reactions to the enormity of what’s occurred. It’s clear Spielberg is trading on our collective memory of 9/11 here, letting our recollections of what happened that day fill in a lot of blanks for him. Fleeing humans are covered with the dusty remains of victims of the alien death ray, and we think of the fleeing populace of downtown New York, covered in ash. Survivors doggedly trudge down abandoned roads, and we’re reminded of the pedestrians streaming over the Brooklyn Bridge to leave Manhattan. I don’t think Spielberg is using this to make any grand statement about 9/11 or what it meant to us as a people, aside from maybe that we have the perseverance and grit to see our way through such times. He’s simply taking advantage of the shorthand the event makes available to him. He’s hiding the shark again, except with history rather than music.
Now, the fun part: the ending. It’s something that for many is an absolute deal-breaker. “The son should be dead,” they’ll argue. “That fireball would have killed him.” And I get it. In strict story terms, it makes sense. The son is old enough to take care of himself. The daughter clearly isn’t. It’s the moment where the son grows up and the father has to accept and acknowledge it. And it does seem a little pat that this one family somehow escapes from this entire ordeal pretty much unscathed (well, physically, anyway). But in terms of theme, I think Cruise has to see his son alive and well at the end. It underlines that he did make the right decision back on that hill, that his son could in fact take care of himself. The whole film has traced the growth of Cruise from a sort of “father because he has to be” to a true parent. Robbing him of his son to finish off that lesson seems a little cruel to me. He doesn’t deserve it for having done the right thing. And for those who want to call it a happy ending, remember, we don’t exactly see Cruise invited inside for dinner as a thank you for shepherding his kids through Hell; he doesn’t even get a hug from is ex-wife. He’s saved his children, yet in doing so has still lost his family. Heart-warming, huh?
Later that same year Spielberg would really deal with 9/11, instead of just using it as a springboard. But that’s for later on down the list.