47 Great Movie Moments #29 – War of the Worlds

Continuing with this series of 47 moments in film that I love (Why 47?), today, for #29, we come to a film that I have always loved, in spite of its obvious flaws.

War of the Worlds (2005)

Directed by:  Steven Spielberg

A man struggles to keep his children alive in the midst of a ruthless attack by ancient aliens.

The Set-up

Ray Ferrier is an ordinary working guy with a difficult relationship with his ex-wife and two children.  While looking after his kids for the weekend, a bizarre lightning storm suddenly strikes all around his New York City neighborhood.  When it’s over, the curious locals gather around one spot where something apparently has come down in a nearby intersection.

The Moment

The crowd gathers around the spot where the lightning has struck, curious by the intense cold of the objects that were hit.  Suddenly, there is a noise from below that nobody can explain, and the ground begins to shake.  The crack in the ground grows and develops into a huge sinkhole, while people frantically back away, scared for their lives.  In the dust, something begins to emerge…something metallic, and huge.  Eventually it towers above them, a massive three-legged machine that stands above the buildings.  It lets out a bellowing mechanical sound, and then begins to fire an energy weapon, vaporizing anyone it can reach.  Ray runs for his life, and by virtue of being pretty fast and extremely lucky, manages to survive, even as cars smash around him and a building partially explodes above his head.

OK, so that description sounds like a bit of a dumb scene in any action film, and in a way it is, but man, it is expertly shot and edited.  On one hand, you might think that its surprising the crowd does not completely run away earlier, but on the other hand you can completely imagine that in the face of something so fantastic like what they are seeing, you might also be glued to your seat…at least, until people start disintegrating around you!

The whole approach of War of the Worlds is to tell a street-level view of an alien invasion:  Ray Ferrier is an ordinary guy in the midst of an unimaginable horror.  The filming reflects this style–there are very few aerial shots or images that give a real sense wide context.  Instead, everything is immediate and in our face, or looming high above us, threatening our existence.

Sometimes filmmakers might do this to make things easier for themselves; things are obscured so they are easier or cheaper to dramatize. There’s nothing like that going on here.  The production value is high, the drama is crystal clear, and we always know exactly where we are and what is going on.  It’s just that our perspective is limited to be just like Ray’s, and Ray’s is that of a man on the street, who only knows what is happening around him, or what is so big that it can’t help but to be seen.

I hear a lot of people talking about how they don’t like Tom Cruise as an actor, but he is excellent at this sort of thing.  He does a great job playing fear and desperation in the midst of intense action.  And Steven Spielberg is a master at pacing and creating a scene.  All throughout this sequence, they put is right into the scene–like Ray and the crowd, we are horrified but completely transfixed by the nightmare that is happening in front of us.

The Payoff

War of the Worlds, which is obviously loosely based on the HG Wells novel, is a movie with a lot of problems, but which for me the pacing of individual scenes makes the movie not just worthwhile, but something great.  Tom Cruise’s goes on to run into a whole bunch of these moments, showing how this guy who is completely normal in most respects will go to any lengths humanly possible to keep his children alive and safe.

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