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This Week in Genre History: Steven Spielberg’s 'War of the Worlds' was a 9/11 movie we didn't see coming

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Jun 30, 2021, 2:27 PM EDT

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

We are only a little more than two months away from the 20th anniversary of September 11. As someone who lived in Manhattan on that day, working at a hospital no less, it is difficult to overstate how bizarre it feels that it has been 20 years. There is a theory that the horror the United States experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, was so overwhelming that we are collectively still suffering from post-traumatic stress from it: That we still have not recovered. I’m not sure I’m particularly looking forward to the anniversary, myself. It still doesn’t seem that far in the past.

Our cultural institutions inevitably attempted to capture September 11, with varying degrees of success. There are some great books, from 102 Minutes to Fall and Rise, and the best piece of art to come out of 9/11 is probably Paul Greengrass’ United 93. But the one film I found that captured the inexplicable horror of that day, the way a normal morning turned into something apocalyptic that changed everything, isn’t explicitly about September 11 at all. It is Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds, a big-budget summer movie that was pitched as a blockbuster thrillfest. It is anything but that. It is Spielberg at his absolute best, using his incredible, almost instinctive skills to craft something that comes as close as anything to capturing what it felt like on September 11. The film came out 16 years ago this week. But it really feels like what it felt like 20 years ago.

Why was it a big deal at the time? Spielberg had, obviously, made movies about aliens before, but they were always nice, kind, good-hearted: They were here to help. The initial excitement about him doing War of the Worlds was, as he said, getting a chance to make a “really scary film with really scary aliens.” But clearly, he had more on his mind than simply that. Spielberg made a point of noting that he wanted the film to be hyperrealistic and that the apocalyptic stakes of the film hit particularly close to home to him. He said it played on his “tensions and fears” of the time. 

The public was mostly distracted by star Tom Cruise’s theatrics on Oprah Winfrey’s show while promoting the film, but when it came to the actual movie Spielberg, along with Cruise, focused on what the film was meant to be: Terrifying. And extremely relevant. By the time Cruise is wiping ash off his face in the mirror after the aliens attack, you can’t miss it. This is Spielberg processing… all of it.

What was the impact? Spielberg was reportedly irritated by Cruise’s Oprah nonsense when the movie was released, thinking it took the spotlight off his movie. But the movie was still a hit, bringing in $100 million its first weekend. There was still a sense that the movie could have done better, though. Cruise’s antics were one thing, but it’s also possible the movie was, in fact, too dark for the multiplex, as entertaining as Spielberg made it. Los Angeles Times film critic said the movie worked “better than [Spielberg] realizes.” Spielberg was working fast at the time, knocking out a movie a year, sometimes more, and working more viscerally, instinctively. It is almost as if his subconscious fears and anxieties spilled out onto the screen… and then became our own. 

The film was positively received upon release, but there was still a standoffish nature to the reviews, also likely because of Cruise. But as the years have gone along, more and more critics have warmed to it, and Cahiers du Cinéma magazine ended up putting it on their list of the top 10 movies of the 2000s. It is increasingly mentioned among Spielberg’s best films, and definitely one of his best ones of this century. It’s also, without accounting for inflation, his second-highest-grossing movie, as it turns out … behind only Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. It seems to grow in renown every year. But especially this one.

Has it held up? Seriously, go ahead and watch the alien invasion scene, the first one, when all the characters think they’re in one kind of Steven Spielberg movie and discover quickly that they’re in a very different kind of one.

That is, obviously, not exactly what it felt like to be in Manhattan on September 11. But it is remarkable how well Spielberg folds in images of that day. People running and screaming. Ash everywhere. Pieces of cloth floating through the air. The panic. And mostly, the undeniable feeling that nothing in the world will ever be the same. It is almost subconscious, the memories that scene conjures. It might be one of the greatest sequences Spielberg has ever pulled off. 

Not all of War of the Worlds works. The Morgan Freeman narration is misplaced, the son character disappears for too long, the ending is far too pat. But at its core, War of the Worlds is as powerful and evocative of a collective terror as any film of the last 50 years. It holds up splendidly. Frankly, it holds up too splendidly.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.