They Said What?! is a biweekly column in which we explore the highs and lows of film criticism through history. How did critics feel about it at the time, and do we see it differently now? In this entry, Chris Coffel explores the critical reception of War of the Worlds.
It’s been fifteen years since War of the Worlds hit theaters. Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of the beloved H.G. Wells novel places Tom Cruise in the middle of an alien invasion as an everyman father desperately trying to protect his family.
It’s a big-budget sci-fi spectacle from the king of big-budget sci-fi spectacles. And it proved to be quite successful. At the box office, the film racked up just north of $600 million worldwide, good enough to make it the fourth highest-grossing film of 2005. Critically the film earned high marks as well.
Bruce Westbrook of the Houston Chronicle raved about War of the Worlds, boldly calling it “the most thrilling and action-packed” film of Spielberg’s career. Peter Travers gave the film three stars out of four in his review for Rolling Stone, crediting Spielberg for putting a darker, modern spin on the campy 1953 version of the film. The AV Club‘s Scott Tobias called it one of the more “gripping” films of the year, praising Spielberg for its “purposeful tension and horror.” Nathan Lee of The New York Sun said the film was “literally stunning,” hailing it as a “masterpiece of the imagination.”
Of course, not all critics were fans. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon didn’t like the way Spielberg utilized the young Dakota Fanning. “More often than I could count,” Zacharek wrote, “Spielberg would move the camera in on her terrified face as if he were expecting us to get our jollies from fixating on the fears of a child.” Peter Preston, the late longtime editor of The Guardian, called the film “bloated” and described it as “crass tosh.” Roger Ebert gave the film a two-star review, writing that “characters are disappointingly one-dimensional.”
Critics on both sides of the spectrum picked up on the film’s many references to the September 11th attacks that shook the US in 2001. One of the first Hollywood blockbusters to tackle the subject matter, the film isn’t subtle about it. The aliens leave behind a path of destruction that includes skyscrapers reduced to rubble, and humans are vaporized into white ash that covers the nation’s cities. To further hammer home the point, characters openly wonder whether or not they are currently in the midst of a terrorist attack.
“War of the Worlds reflects our fear of domestic attack and anxiety over global conflicts,” Nathan Lee wrote of the film, stating that it’s “rife with evocations of September 11.”
“The 9/11 parallels are unmistakable,” Peter Travers wrote in his review. “The streets of America are littered with bodies and the next threat comes without reason or mercy.”
Stephanie Zacharek wrote that Spielberg “needs to show us how savvy he is about our national mood,” concluding he did so in the most obvious way. Referencing a scene showcasing a wall littered with missing person fliers, Zacharek called it “as direct a reference to post-9/11 New York City as you could make.”
Peter Preston attributed the film’s success in America to the September 11th references, calling it “the first piece of multiplex fodder ripped straight from the rubble of 9/11.” Preston also believed the film was the perfect mashup of the classic alien invasion story and the more modern fear of terrorism. “It comes to pass that, post-9/11, the two genres could be rolled into one,” Preston wrote, “the sum of all fears.”
Given that the film was released in 2005, the September 11th attacks were still fresh on everyone’s mind. Nearly two decades later, do the 9/11 images still carry the same weight?
Kayti Burt took the opposite approach of Preston in a 2019 article for Den of Geek. In the piece, Burt argues that War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s most under-appreciated film, suggesting the September 11th parable has something to do with that. Burt believes Americans love to remember September 11th but don’t want to talk about it in a meaningful way.
“We don’t like to break it down and work through our trauma or try to understand why something like this happened,” Burt wrote. “Almost from the get-go, we wanted to narrativize it and move on.” Burt’s theory is that if the film wasn’t “so very dark and so very interested in referencing this thing we really don’t want to talk or think about” it would be viewed more favorably.
For SyFy in a June 2020 piece, Alexis Ong discussed how the film resonates differently in a world crippled by an unpredictable pandemic. “Today’s fight against COVID-19 isn’t a literal alien invasion or terrorism, but it’s still a conflict marked by racism and misinformation and a problematic narrative of ‘foreign infections.'”
Ong further compares how media outlets and political figures speak about the virus using popular buzz words associated with war, such as “eradicate, wipe out, and vanquish.” The point being that while War of the Worlds was a direct response to the events of September 11th, the same themes can be applied to the modern-day events surrounding the coronavirus.
In a retrospective article for Forbes on films that confronted September 11th, Scott Mendelson included War of the Worlds among the most explicit. While he points out that the September 11th messages are clear — “the white dust of human remains, the street-level view of unimaginable carnage, planes falling out of the sky” — he does suggest an additional view:
“The film’s metaphorical intent can also be read as a look at the Iraqi invasion from the side of the Iraqi civilians,” he wrote. He even goes as far as to say, “Cruise saves the day (or at least saves his daughter and a number of other abductees) by essentially becoming a suicide bomber.”
Fifteen years may have passed since the film’s release, but the September 11th imagery remains a vital component. The impact of that imagery, and how it relates today, may not be the same that it was, but it’s still very much present.