I recently re-watched Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds and, once again, I was struck by the power (however imperfect) of this movie. Some folks liken the alien-wrought carnage to 9/11, but they're missing the point. In this film, Steven Spielberg decided to make an analogy to the Shoah - complete with human beings turned to ash and the brutal combination of random life and death. Turn left, you die; turn right, you live. There's no reason why. For this reason, Spielberg himself has called this movie a "survivor's story." Appropriately, the director chose not to concentrate on typical summer blockbuster swaths of destruction. You see no capital cities burning, no iconic buildings destroyed. Rather, with few exceptions, the film places its characters in claustrophobic settings of imminent doom.
Here, the film loses some of its resonance, particularly toward the third reel (and the introduction of Tim Robbins as a would-be resistance member who won't tolerate people who "collaborate" with the enemy). By this point, Spielberg replaces much of the film's poignant imagery with haunted house tricks, complete with creaky floors and eerie shadows. Even so, it's pretty scary stuff. In scene after scene, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (both actors surprisingly able to resemble real human beings) snatch themselves out of the maws of death until -- well, the ride has to end sometime.
Folks who've read H.G. Wells' book know that the ending is non-heroic, yet the only one that could be true. How else could humankind endure such an onslaught? Some reviewers have compared this film to Spielberg's other alien flicks, saying that War of the Worlds is the anti-E.T., the anti-Close Encounters. Again, they're missing the point. This film is anti-Independence Day, that lumbering celebration of earthling-jingoism. Rather than kicking some alien butt, the humans in War of the Worlds hold on, but just barely. Some survive with dignity; others survive with luck. Like audience members leaving their seats in a daze, they blink their eyes in the light and wonder how they survived at all.