NEW YORK - Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds marks a turning point in pop culture. America's top commercial moviemaker has sensed that the atrocities of 9/11 and the turmoil of its aftermath must be used as reference points even for escapist movies, no matter how great the risk of exploitation.
Based on H.G. Wells' 1898 novel about Martians crushing everything in their path as they traverse the Earth in three-legged, multi-tentacled war machines called Tripods, the movie is at its best when it revamps the basic elements of Wells' primal space-invasion plot.
In the scariest sequence, an alien invader emerges from a Bayonne, N.J., intersection. The heat ray from its Tripod reduces all human matter to dust, which mixes with the other particles of debris from crushed cars and buildings. You can't help thinking of the foul clouds that billowed down lower Manhattan's urban canyons after the collapse of the twin towers.
After a promising and potent 40 minutes or so, the movie, which opens nationwide Wednesday, settles into middling Spielberg. But the film is fascinating - and may even prove to be historic - as an example of how a popular artist can determine when it's time to confront a recent national tragedy without caution.
I don't think Spielberg set out to do this consciously; he was just trying to make a scary movie in a realistic vein. But the audacious game he ended up playing is the most impressive thing about his War of the Worlds. Its implicit message is that by now the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon must be used for more than hand-wringing or tears.
At a joint press conference in New York with his star, Tom Cruise, Spielberg said that he wanted the movie to operate not as a message movie but as a "prism," with each facet providing a different interpretation of catastrophe. One thing that's not open to interpretation is how thoroughly Spielberg and his screenwriter, David Koepp, have refracted Wells' novel through the prisms of al-Qaida and Iraq - "subconsciously," as Koepp insists, or not.
The script follows Wells' plot far more closely than any previous adaptation, with a couple of significant changes - and even more significant updating. This time the aliens are from some unnamed planet rather than Mars. They ride down to Earth on lightning bolts, in space capsules, then burrow beneath the surface and release their Tripods, which have been buried for eons. It's as if this conquering army from outer space has come together from terrorist sleeper cells.
A certain familiarity
Cruise, playing Spielberg's update of Wells' hero, is a divorced New Jersey dockworker, with one precocious little daughter (Dakota Fanning) and one surly teenage son (Justin Chatwin) on his hands for this fateful weekend. When the aliens go on the march in their Tripods, the girl asks whether they're terrorists. Cruise says no, they're from somewhere else - and the boy asks, "Europe?" At one point, an ungodly blend of screeching and shaking turns out to be a passenger jet that came apart right on top of them.
There isn't a sequence in the movie that doesn't refer to calamitous contemporary history, whether it's a nurse at a makeshift blood-donation center calling for O-positive or the family passing a wall filled with pictures from other families pleading for news of loved ones. When Cruise and Fanning get stuck in a basement with a crazed ex-paramedic (Tim Robbins), the man begins muttering that occupations "never succeed ... . local insurgencies always bring you down."
In New York, when he wasn't smiling through Cruise's shameless flattery (the star appeared to be making up for time lost talking about his fiancee, Katie Holmes, and his religion, Scientology, by waxing euphoric over the director's inventiveness and humanity), Spielberg acknowledged the movie's reflection of reality. But he declined to lay out his own feelings about America as the foe of terrorism and the occupier of Iraq.
He did betray a certain doubt about the limits of military power when noting that he didn't take the film down the gung-ho route of a Reagan-era Cruise hit like Top Gun. (Cruise beamed and played along. Parodying the over-exuberant avowal of love for Katie Holmes that he made while leaping on and off the couch on The Oprah Winfrey Show, he said he jumped up and down on his couch when he read the first 84 pages of Koepp's script.)
Spielberg made his most telling statement when he said that the sole experience Americans have of being refugees comes from local catastrophes - and the most indelible images he had of Americans in that plight came from footage of New Yorkers crossing bridges to escape Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
In a separate press conference, Tim Robbins, a New Yorker, said that removing 9/11-like events to New Jersey - and then to the Middle Atlantic and the New England countryside - rid them of any taint of exploitation and made the movie seem like an apocalypse for all America. But that's an awfully literal view of how drama operates in the hearts and minds of an audience.
This War of the Worlds movie relies for power on placing a powder keg of a story in a charged contemporary atmosphere. And all through a day of roundtable and individual interviews, actors and craftspeople couldn't help revealing how rooted their work was in actuality - including special-effects whiz Dennis Muren, who stated that he and his team studied footage of 9/11 as well as combat to analyze what made the images from that day so devastating. That's how he arrived at the exciting chaos of this film's destruction of New Jersey.
Producer Kathleen Kennedy (who produced E.T. and has been involved in some capacity with nearly every Spielberg movie ever since) said at roundtable sessions with the press that the crucial motivation for her and Spielberg was to deliver "an alien invasion movie for the summer."
To Kennedy, "the tensions and fears" of life in America today made it more apt for Spielberg to create an evil-alien movie rather than another E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Kennedy is right when she says that any symbolic reading of the film will say more about what people bring with them into the theater than about what Spielberg and Koepp embedded in the material. For example, Spielberg says he came up with the idea of Tripods buried in sleeper cells as a way of reversing our expectations of seeing terror from outer space rain down on us - this way, first, it crashes up at us.
Yet Spielberg's choices do bring the movie closer to the way we live now; it was Spielberg, says Koepp, who wanted Fanning to ask if the invaders were terrorists, because that's what an 11-year-old would ask her dad today.
Only Koepp, a canny screenwriter with a disarming frankness and a zest for pop, grappled openly with the risky business underlying War of the Worlds 2005, both at the roundtables and in a separate phone interview.
Koepp has written three pictures for Spielberg (including Jurassic Park) and three better, jauntier ones for Brian De Palma (including Snake Eyes and Carlito's Way); he's also directed a handful of movies, including the unusual 1999 working-class ghost film, Stir of Echoes. Although he praised Spielberg to the high - or hellish - heavens for his "3-D" staging instincts, I came away wishing Koepp had directed War of the Worlds.
Spielberg appeared weary, perhaps because, as Kennedy said, the rush to create an epic movie in 9 1/2 months "has taken its toll on everyone." But Koepp had a glint in his eye and a crackle to his wit, describing his characters in musical terms more real and pop and quotable than anything Cruise had to offer.
To Koepp, Cruise's character was a fading high-school jock-hero reminiscent of Springsteen's "Glory Days," and Chatwin's battle-lusting teenage son echoed the rock-throwing Gaza Strip kid who ends up a suicide bomber in Steve Earle's "Rich Man's War."
"Was there a reason to do War of the Worlds again?" Koepp asked rhetorically over the phone.
"That's the question Steven asked me when he called me. And I thought there were a couple of reasons: It had never been done faithfully, and with a classic like this one it's like moving Shakespeare to a different time and place - it just naturally takes on new meanings.
"If H.G. Wells [was] writing out of anger over the futility of English imperialism, Orson Welles' 1938 radio show was drawing on Americans' fear of the rise of fascism. The 1953 movie mirrored our paranoia that the commies were coming to get us. That's why those filmmakers made religion so prominent - the commies were godless and we weren't, and that would save us. ...
"This movie now has two great undertones that are kind of contradictory: on the one hand, post-9/11 American paranoia, and on the other, the futility of occupying a faraway land. And I'm dying to see how that contradiction plays out."