Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Steven Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS

Steven Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS

Movie Review by Dennis D. McDonald

The Movie

In the months leading up to the release of this film,  I remember seeing itspreview along with a variety of other action movie previews.

While most action/adventure previews are starting to look and sound alike (especially sound alike), my reaction after seeing the WAR OF THE WORLDS preview was always the same: “This REALLY looks like something dreadful is happening.”

I was right. This movie gave me nightmares. The night after we saw it my wife and I were awakened by a distant rumbling noise and we both thought out loud, “Is that a plane or have the aliens arrived?”

Why is this movie so unsettling? And how is it that a director with such gifts for sensitivity, emotion, and pathos can put such a presentation of horror and carnage up on the big screen?

It is unsettling because Spielberg understands how to personalize things. No matter how large or complex the scene, he focuses on people, and not just his stars. Extras are not just used as moving waves in this film, they are real people who run, scream, yell — and ultimately disappear in a cloud of vaporized human ash — picked off one at a time by the alien heat ray.

Even in scenes involving crowds of humans we see the actions of individuals, as illustrated in the scenes with the crowded ferry. As the alien machines stalk through the destruction they drop down their serpentine grappling hooks and one by one haul up writhing screaming victims.

And how is it that Spielberg is so able and willing to illustrate such a massive example of death and destruction, and at the same time be so capable of maintaining that image despite the months and years it takes to produce and orchestrate the massive number of details that go into making such a complex film?

That’s hard to say but, having seen and loved so many of his films (my personal favorite is A.I.: Artificial Intelligence), I think it’s because he harbors great artistic integritry and at the same time he respects his audience. When he decides to make a movie about the destruction of the world, he decides he is going to SHOW the destruction of the world. He is not going to go for a pure comic book. He knows that his audience has seen horror in modern days and expects a certain level of reality. And he pulls no punches.

It helps that he has the money and clout to do what he wants. The talents he brings together, both onscreen and offscreen, are awesome. The impact of the special effects in this movie, for example, almost defy description. And the surround sound effects in the theater are spectacular — and not just loud.

I also enjoy that Spielberg respects the origins of this movie. The beginning narration refers back to the original novel, and the final alien scene is straight from the George Pal version. Plus, we get to see Gene Barry, star of the Pal film, if only for a split second.

This movie will probably make a lot of money.I’m wondering, though, if people outside the U.S. will enjoy watching the Eastern U.S. get ravaged as much as American audiences?

Movie Review - Addendum

It’s been two days since I saw this film and I still feel disturbed by it. It’s as if Spielberg has made an entire film like the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan.

I’m sure somewhere there must be some blogs addressing the political significance of this film. What popped into my mind was, “This is what Total War is all about.” Do you think, for example, that what you glimpse about human terror in this film is what people in Tokyo and other Japanese cities during WWII felt like during the B-29 firebombings? Did they rationally pause and think, “I know we started this war so it’s understandable why the Americans are burning down our cities?” Or did they just scramble in terror to save their kids from being melted?

I know WWII was a “Just War” — we didn’t start it, after all — but one of the things I take from War of the Worlds more than other alien invasion films is that we in the U.S. have never experienced — until 9/11 — what it was like to be attacked on our own soil. In War of the Worlds we see the horror of 9/11 expanded upon a thousandfold. And I have to admit that, as I watched this film, and dreamed about it afterwards, that I was reminded of that awful day when I watched from across the river in Brooklyn as the two towers burned and collapsed.

I suppose some will say that Spielberg is just cynically taking advantage of our fears by holding up a magnifying mirror to show us multiplied terrors.

I don’t think so. I think Spielberg is showing us war on a grand scale and saying, “It doesn’t matter who’s right or who’s wrong. Everybody dies.”


On getting the DVD home I realized with some chagrine that I had inadvertantly purchased the single-disc version, not the multi-disc version. Drat!

The single extra is a brief documentary on the design of the Alien Tripod and the Aliens themselves.  It’s actually a pretty good documentary as these things go, even though the don’t explain why the aliens have two, not three eyes.

The movie is still grim and horrific.

Review copyright (c) 2005 by Dennis D. McDonald



Voyage to the Planets and Beyond