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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: War Of The Worlds (2005) – 15th Anniversary

A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “You keep your eyes only on me, you understand? Don’t look down. Don’t look around me”. A 15th anniversary celebration of Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise’s “War Of The Worlds”. Based on the classic H.G. Wells sci-fi novel and written for the screen by Josh Friedman and veteran screenwriter David Koepp. After the success of Spielberg and Cruise’s superb “Minority Report”, the two wanted to work together again. While it’s faithful to its origins, at the same time, its own separate creature, but filled with that trademark Spielberg magic. Shot in only 73 days, using five different sound stages as well as five real locations. It was surrounded by secrecy so details wouldn’t leak before its release. Cruise gives one of his best performances alongside a scene stealing Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins, “War of the Worlds” was a born summer blockbuster and an enormous box office success. It became 2005’s fourth most successful film worldwide, grossing a whopping $600 million on a $135 million budget. The film earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. Spielberg impressively updates the action, effects and proves his technical mastery hasn’t deserted him. Spielberg’s version features an affecting story, while the action scenes are thrilling and the issues are resonant. It was pure spielbergian magic 15 years ago and still ranks as one of both Spielberg’s and Tom Cruise’s finest. 

Part 1: Where The War Began

English author H.G. Wells was a futurist, as he wrote a number of utopian works and foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web. His science fiction works imagined time travel, alien invasion, invisibility and biological engineering. Referred to as the “Shakespeare of science fiction”. 

His most notable science fiction works include “The Time Machine” (1895), “The Island of Doctor Moreau” (1896), “The Invisible Man” (1897) and the military science fiction “The War in the Air” (1907). Wells was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times.

One of his most popular works includes “The War Of The Worlds”, which was first serialised in 1897 by Pearson’s Magazine in the UK and then by Cosmopolitan magazine in the US. The novel made it’s first appearance in hardcover, in 1898. Written somewhere between 1895 and 1897, it is one of the earliest stories to detail a conflict between mankind and an extraterrestrial race. The novel is told in a first-person narrative of an unnamed protagonist in Surrey and his younger brother in London as southern England is invaded by Martians. 

“The War of the Worlds” has inspired seven feature films, various radio dramas, comic-book adaptations, video games, a number of television series and sequels or parallel stories by other authors. In 1953 came the first theatrical film of “The War of the Worlds”, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry.

While there were many theatrical adaptations. The one attempted most recently and which remains one of the best is from groundbreaking and legendary director Steven Spielberg. Released in 2005 and stars Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins. 

Part 2: Development 

After collaborating in 2002’s excellent Sci-Fi actioner “Minority Report”, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise were interested in working together again. Spielberg stated about Cruise, “He’s such an intelligent, creative partner, and brings such great ideas to the set that we just spark each other. I love working with Tom”. The two met during the filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” in 2002 and gave three options of films to create together, one of them being an adaptation of “The War of the Worlds”.

Spielberg who owns one of the last copies of the Orson Welles radio script, which he purchased at an auction. Spielberg had wanted to make the film years ago, but decided against it when “Independence Day” was released and became a box office sensation. 

He finally chose “The War of the Worlds” and stated of him and Cruise, “We looked at each other and the lights went on. As soon as I heard it, I said ‘Oh my God! War of the Worlds – absolutely.’ That was it”. The film is Spielberg’s third feature film on the subject of alien visitation, along with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial”. Producer and longtime collaborator Kathleen Kennedy notes that with “War of the Worlds”, Spielberg had the opportunity to explore the antithesis of the characters brought to life in “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. 

“When we first started developing E.T., it was a much edgier, darker story and it actually evolved into something that was more benign. I think that the edgier, darker story has always been somewhere inside him. Now, he’s telling that story”. Spielberg stated that he just thought it would be fun to make a “really scary film with really scary aliens”, something which he had never done before. Spielberg was intent on telling a contemporary story, with Kennedy stating that the story was created as a fantasy, but depicted in a hyper-realistic way. 

Director (“Super 8”, “Mission Impossible 3”, “Star Trek”) and tv series creator (“Alias” and “Lost”) J. J. Abrams was asked by Spielberg and Cruise to write the script but had to turn down the film as he was already working on the plot for “Lost”. Josh Friedman delivered a screenplay, which was then rewritten by David Koepp (“Jurassic Park” and “Stir Of Echoes”). 

After re-reading the novel, Koepp had decided to do the script following a single narrator and created a list of elements he would not use due to being “cliché”, such as the destruction of landmark buildings. Some aspects of the book were heavily adapted and condensed in the script, including: Tim Robbins’ character, who was an amalgam of two characters in the book, with the name borrowed from a third. 

While the setting was changed from 19th century to present day, Koepp also tried to “take the modern world back to the 1800s”, with the characters being devoid of electricity and modern techniques of communication. Spielberg had accepted the script after finding it had several similarities to his personal life, including the divorce of his parents and because the plight of the fictional survivors reflects his own uncertainty after the devastation of the September 11 attacks. 

For Spielberg, the characters’ stories of survival needed to be the main focus, as they featured the American mindset of never giving up. Spielberg described “War of the Worlds” as “a polar opposite” to “Close Encounters”, as it featured a man leaving his family to travel with aliens, while “War of the Worlds” focused more on keeping the family together. At the same time, the aliens and their motivations would not be explored, as “we just experience the results of these nefarious plans to replace us with themselves”. 

Although he accepted the script, Spielberg asked for several changes. Spielberg had been against the idea of the aliens arriving in spaceships, since every alien invasion movie used such a vehicle. The original Martian cylinders were discarded, where Spielberg replaced the origins of the Tripods with stating they were buried underground in the Earth long ago.

Producer Lawrence Brown wrote: “Spielberg’s decision to present the invaders’ fighting machines as having been there all along, buried deep under the Earth, raises questions which did not exist in the original Wells book. In Spielberg’s version, these invaders had been here before, long ago, in prehistoric times. They had set up their machines deep underground, and departed. Why? Why not take over the Earth right there and then?”

He continues on to say: “Spielberg does not provide an answer, and the characters are too busy surviving to wonder about this. An answer suggests itself as a very chilling answer. The invaders were interested in humans as food animals. When they came here before, humans were very scarce. The aliens left their hidden machines and departed, patiently observing the Earth until humans would multiply to the requisite numbers and then they came back, to take over. Under this interpretation, all of us humans over the whole of history, have been livestock living in an alien food farm, destined to be harvested”.

Spielberg also had changed Miranda Otto’s (playing Tom Cruise’s Ex wife) part. He always had her in mind for the part of Mary Ann, but at the time he called her she was pregnant and thought the opportunity would be missed. Spielberg then decided to incorporate Otto’s pregnancy into the film, changing the part for her.

Part 3: Filming

Filming had taken place in Virginia, Connecticut, New Jersey, California, and New York. The films shoot lasted an estimated 72 days as Spielberg originally intended to shoot “War of the Worlds” after his excellent true story thriller “Munich”, but Tom Cruise liked David Koepp’s script so much that he suggested Spielberg postpone the former while he would do the same with “Mission: Impossible III”. Most of the crew from the production of “Munich” was brought in to work on “War of the Worlds”. 

In 2004, the production crews quickly were set up on both coasts to prepare for the start date, scouting locations up and down the Eastern Seaboard and preparing stages and sets which would be used when the company returned to Los Angeles after the winter holiday. Pre-production took place in only three months, essentially half the amount of time normally allotted for a film of a similar big budgeted size and scope. Spielberg noted, “This wasn’t a cram course for War of the Worlds. This was my longest schedule in about 12 years. We took our time”. Spielberg collaborated with crews at the beginning of pre-production with the use of previsualization, to get the shots configured ahead of time, considering the tight schedule. 

The scene depicting the first appearance of the Tripods was filmed at the intersection of Ferry Street, Merchart Street and Wilson Avenue, in New Jersey. The ferry sequence was filmed in the New York town of Athens. During the filming of the underwater scenes (where the ferry capsizes), director Steven Spielberg played a prank on Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning by playing the dramatic music from Jaws (1975) (also one of Spielberg’s films) through the massive underwater speakers on the sound stage.

The location of Mary Ann’s (Miranda Otto) parents’ house was located in Brooklyn (but was featured in the film as Boston). For the neighborhood plane crash scene, the production crew bought a retired Boeing 747 formerly operated by All Nippon Airways with transportation costs of $2 million. The crew dismantled it into several pieces and built houses around them. The destroyed plane was kept for the Universal Studios back-lot tour.

Ray’s (Tom Cruise) house was filmed in New Jersey, with a soundstage doubling the interior. Meanwhile, the valley war sequence was filmed in Virginia and Mystery Mesa in California. The scene where the tripod is shot down and crashes through a factory was filmed in Connecticut at an abandoned chemical plant. The scene of the bodies floating down the river was filmed on the Farmington River in Windsor, Connecticut by a second unit using a stand in for Dakota Fanning shot from behind with the portion showing the faces of the credited actors cut in later. Some filming was shot on the Korean War Veterans Parkway in Staten Island, New York. The film ultimately used six sound stages, that was spread over three studio lots.

During filming, Tom Cruise and a twenty-member entourage including Steven Spielberg, visited a Lexington, Virginia Dairy Queen. Cruise had seen a jar on the counter with a photo of a young woman named Ashley Flint. She had been in a go-cart accident a few months earlier, leaving her family with a mountain of hospital bills. Cruise put $5,000 cash into the jar to help her cause. 

Principal photography began on November 8, 2004 and wrapped on March 7, 2005.

Part 4: Design and Visual Effects

The crew had to start filming only seven months prior to its release. So the visual effects team could finish all 500+ CGI effects. Spielberg had to direct all the big action scenes in the early stages of shooting. For the 500+ effects, leading CGI company Industrial Light & Magic was the main special effects company during production. 

While Spielberg had used computers to help visualize sequences in pre-production before, Spielberg said, “This is the first film I really tackled using the computer to animate all the storyboards”. He decided to employ the technique extensively after a visit to his friend and collaborator George Lucas. In order to keep the realism, the usage of computer-generated imagery shots and bluescreen was in limited use, with most of the digital effects being blended with miniature and live-action footage.

The design of the Tripods was described by Spielberg as “graceful,” with artist Doug Chiang replicating aquatic life forms.[19] At the same time, Spielberg wanted a design that would be iconic while still providing a tribute to the original Tripods, as well as being intimidating so the audience would not be more interested about the aliens inside, rather than on the vehicle itself. 

The visual effects crew tried to blend organic and mechanical elements within the Tripods depiction and made extensive studies for the movements of the vehicle to be believable, considering the “contradiction” of having a large tank-like head being carried by thin and flexible legs. Animator Randal M. Dutra considered the movements themselves to have a “terrestrial buoyance”, in that they were walking on land but had an aquatic flow and Spielberg described the Tripods as to look like they were moving “scary ballet dancers”. Most of the elements of the alien revolved around the number three, as the Tripod had three eyes and both the vehicle and the aliens had three main limbs with three fingers each. 

Visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman depicted the scale of the Tripod as challenging, considering “Steven wanted to make sure that these creatures were 150 feet tall”, as it was the height described by Wells in the novel. A styrofoam alien was used as a stand-in to guide the Cruise,?Dakota Fanning and Tim Robbins in the basement scene. 

Spielberg did not want any blood or gore during the Heat-Ray deaths; in the words of Helman, “this was going to be a horror movie for kids”. So the effects crew came up with the vaporization of the bodies and considering it could not be fully digital due to both the complexity of the effect and the schedule, live-action dust was used alongside the CGI ray assimilation and particles. 

The IL&M crew admitted that the destruction of the Bayonne Bridge was the toughest scene to be made with heavy usage mix of CGI effects and live action elements and a four week deadline so the shot could be used in a Super Bowl trailer. The scene originally had only a gas station exploding, but then Spielberg suggested blowing up the bridge as well. The scene involved Tripods shooting a Heat-Ray towards the minivan and the minivan’s escapes from it involved a lot of CGI layers to work out. Over 500 CGI effects were used over the course of the film.

Costume designer Joanna Johnston created 60 different versions of Ray’s leather jacket (which gained popularity online), to illustrate the degrees to which he is weathered from the beginning of the journey to the end. “He begins with the jacket, a hoodie, and two t-shirts,” explains Johnston. One piece of Dakota Fanning’s costume that takes on a special importance is her lavender horse purse: “I wanted her to have something that made her feel safe, some little thing that she could sleep with and put over her face”. Johnston says “That was the lavender horse purse. We tied it up on a ribbon and Dakota hung it on her body, so it was with her at all times”. While Johnston dressed Robbie for an unconscious emulation of his father, “They’re more alike than they realize, with great tension on the surface”.

Part 5: Music

A Spielberg collaborator of nearly 40 years John Williams composed the music score for every Steven Spielberg film except for 1985’s “The Color Purple”. Scoring “War of the Worlds” was the first time Williams had to compose with an incomplete Spielberg film, as only the first six reels (totaling sixty minutes), were ready for him to use as a reference. 

He considered the score “a very serious piece,” which had to combine a “necessary frightening atmosphere” with “propulsively rhythmic drive for the action scenes”. Williams added small nods to classic monster movie scores by having orchestras doing a “grand gesture” in the scenes overlooking Tripods. To increase the scariness, Williams added a female chorus with a crescendo resembling a shriek, which would “humanize” the track. Williams would representing use a nearly inaudible male choir, which Williams compared to “Tibetan monks, the lowest known pitch our bodies can make”, for the aliens exploring the basement. The only deviation from orchestras were electronic sounds for the opening and closing narrations. 

A soundtrack album was released by Decca Records, that featured the film’s music and Morgan Freeman’s opening and closing narration. The songs “Little Deuce Coupe” and “Hushabye Mountain” that are also featured in the movie, are on the soundtrack with the former sung by Tom Cruise and the latter by Dakota Fanning.

Part 6: Themes

When released, the film was described as an anti-war film, as civilians would run and only try to save themselves and their family instead of fighting back against the alien Tripods. Many reviewers considered the film tried to recreate the atmosphere of the September 11 attacks, with bystanders struggling to survive and the usage of missing-persons displays. Spielberg declared to Reader’s Digest that beside the work being a fantasy, the threat represented was real: “They are a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life”. 

Screenwriter David Koepp stated that he tried not to put explicit references to September 11 or the Iraq War, but said that the inspiration for the scene where Robbie joins the Marines was teenagers fighting in the Gaza Strip, “I was thinking of teenagers in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks at tanks, and I think that when you’re that age you don’t fully consider the ramifications of what you’re doing and you’re very much caught up in the moment and passion, whether that’s a good idea or not”. 

Although there are very few panoramic images in the movie. Almost all shots, especially during the tripod attacks, were filmed with the camera set at a person’s eye-sight. This manner of filming was influenced by the amateur footage of the terrorist attacks on New York City of September 11, 2001.

Retained from the novel is the outcome of the aliens being defeated, not by men’s weapons, but the planet’s smallest creatures…bacteria. Which Koepp described as “nature, in a way, knowing a whole lot more than we do”.

Part 7: Secrecy 

Spielberg kept most of the production a secret, as the cast and crew were left confused about how the aliens looked. When asked about the secrecy of the screenplay, David Koepp answered, “Steven wouldn’t give the screenplay to anybody”. Koepp explained he would e-mail it to him, and he would give a section of the script that was relating to whatever somebody was doing. Miranda Otto thought of not even discussing the story with her family and friends. Otto said, “I know some people who always say, ‘Oh, everything’s so secret.’ I think it’s good. In the old days people didn’t get to know much about movies before they came out and nowadays there’s just so much information. I think a bit of mystery is always really good. You don’t want to blow all of your cards beforehand”.

Spielberg admitted after keeping things secret for so long, there is in the end the temptation to reveal too much to the detriment of the story at the films press conferences and press junkets. So, Spielberg only revealed the hill scene, where Ray tries to stop his son from leaving, stating “to say more would reveal too much”.

According to Vanity Fair, Spielberg’s relations with Cruise were “poor” during the film’s release because Spielberg believed Cruise’s “antics” at the time, such as his erratic appearance and couch jumping on the Oprah Winfrey show had “hurt” the film. This was the episode that Spielberg was scheduled to appear along with Cruise, but last minute post-production work, he had dropped out out of the appearance. There was also an incident where a doctor who Spielberg had recommended to Cruise was picketed by Scientologists.

Part 8: Box Office

Released theatrically on June 29, 2005, the film earned the thirty eighth biggest opening week and the third biggest film opening on Independence Day weekend. The film earned $200 million in 24 days, ranking thirty seventh place in the list of fastest films to gross $200 million. It was the fourth highest-grossing film of 2005, and the 66th highest-grossing film worldwide. On a budget of $135 million, it grossed more than $600 million. 

This was Tom Cruise’s sixth consecutive film to break the $100 million dollar barrier domestically since 2000, and his thirteenth movie to break that barrier in total.

Part 9: The Legacy Of “War Of The Worlds”

“War Of The Worlds” was nominated for 3 Oscars, including best sound mixing and editing and visual effects. 

Steven Spielberg was right in the middle of a career resurgence as he released a cluster of films one after another, right around the release of “War Of The Worlds”. In 2001 “A.I.”, in 2002 “Minority Report” and “Catch Me If You Can”, in 2004 “The Terminal” and 2005 saw “War Of The Worlds” and “Munich”. Spielberg always delivers a quality product and teaming him up once again with Tom Cruise in one of his best performances. 

The filmmaker and box office legend partner again, after their superb “Minority Report” and it results in another sci-fi actioner done well. He does a masterful job of building the tension and moves from one action set piece to another, seeing everything only through the eyes of its main characters and in doing so avoids many sci-fi clichés.

Spielberg’s adaptation of “War of the Worlds” delivers on the thrill and paranoia of H.G. Wells’ classic novel while impressively updating the action, effects and proves his technical mastery hasn’t deserted him. Spielberg’s version features an affecting story, while the action scenes are thrilling and the issues are resonant.

“War Of The Worlds” is the definition of summer blockbusters and one that is faithful to its origins and while at the same time, its own separate creature. It was pure spielbergian magic 15 years ago and still ranks as one of both Spielberg’s and Tom Cruise’s finest. 

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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