Back in 2004, director Steven Spielberg decided the time was ripe to remake the granddaddy of all hostile alien narratives, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, the 1898 serialized novel telling the story of a Martian invasion as seen through the eyes of an unnamed narrator based in Surrey and his younger brother, based in London.
This would be quite a departure for Spielberg, whose body of work indicates he traditionally prefers alien visitations of a more benign nature:
War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise, was released on June 29, 2005, to generally positive reviews and solid box-office. Those who weren’t completely sold generally pointed a finger at the moment when the main characters take refuge in a farmhouse–something taken directly from the book, but a momentum-buster nonetheless–and the film’s rather soft ending, which wasn’t in keeping, at least tone-wise, with the bleak carnage that had preceded it.
Whatever the critics’ opinion of the whole, to a one they seemed to agree that the first reveal of an alien Tripod was a masterclass in the cinematic arts, a seven-and-a-half minute tour de force of confusion, slow-burn tension, withhold and reveal, a bit of wonder and, ultimately, utter devastation. Not that this should come as much of a surprise–Spielberg’s grasp of the filmmaking process is unparalleled. He possesses a savant’s understanding of all technical aspects of the medium: where to place the camera and how to move it; how best to stage and block complicated action; where and when to cut to maximize impact; how to elegantly and organically incorporate visual effects, to name but a few. And it’s these various masteries that render his complicated action sequences both coherent and propulsive in ways that wannabes like Michael “Transformers Quadrilogy” Bay and Roland “Independence Day” Emmerich can only dream about.
“[Spielberg has forgotten] more about staging by the time he made his first feature than I know to this day,” wrote director Steven Soderbergh on his blog when, as a filmmaking exercise, Soderbergh decided to deconstruct Raiders of the Lost Ark. Soderbergh, no slouch himself in terms of the cinematic arts (not only does he direct, he also personally photographs and edits his own movies via the pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively), went on to marvel that “no matter how fast the cuts come, you always know exactly where you are—that’s high-level visual math shit.”
What I’d like to do in this post is take a closer look Spielberg’s handling of the emergence of the first Tripod, see if we can identify some of that “high-level visual math shit” that makes the scene so brilliantly unnerving.
Of course, one of the hurdles a director faces when making a film from such a well-known property is familiarity–not only do we have Wells’ source novel, but also the other Welles’ (Orson) infamous 1938 radio broadcast and 1953’s beloved George Pal-produced film. Which means that it’s unlikely there will be many butts in those movie theater seats that aren’t fully aware of the key plot point: that a shit-storm is a-coming in the form of an alien invasion. The key, then, is to mess with expectations. Which is exactly what Spielberg and his team do in this first critical reveal, which comes after a particularly aggressive electrical storm featuring, strangely, not a whisper of thunder. Intrigued and more than a bit concerned (all electronics have been rendered useless, from lights to cars to fridges to cell phones), the movie’s everyman, Ray Ferrier (Cruise), heads into town to check out the intersection where the lightning again and again struck in the exact same spot. Along with a crowd of other curious onlookers, Ray finds a puckered, sizzling hole in the asphalt:
Although confounded–severe electrical storms generally don’t appear in the late fall–the crowd is more curious than worried. The audience knows better, of course; this is War of the Worlds, after all. Even so, from an expectation standpoint, shouldn’t the invasion be coming from above, from space? Because that’s how it’s been done in the past. From Wells’ book to Welles’ radio play to Pal’s movie to other, lesser alien invasion movies (Independence Day…barf), the bad guys come from the sky, their sinister ships casting sinister shadows across our most sacred landmarks:
And if Spielberg were a hack, like so many directors inexplicably allowed to helm $150 million-plus tent-pole summer blockbusters, then maybe that’s how he would’ve handled it. But he’s not a hack, he’s Steven Spielberg, a long-time virtuoso wise enough to play with our expectations. And so, instead of a massive ship darkening the sky above, he has Ray crouch down to touch the steaming asphalt around the hole, which he finds freezing cold rather than hot, another bit of weirdness that’s quickly superseded by a deep underfoot rumble. The bewildered crowd warily moves back, their backpedaling becoming more urgent when the ground around the hole suddenly begins to crack, creating dozens of jagged tendrils in the asphalt:
The cracking begins to speed up and Spielberg’s camera (courtesy his long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński) follows along at shin-level to take in the people shuffling from the fault as it emanates out from the intersection, across the sidewalk and, finally, travels up the side of a building just off the street, cracking its brick facade and shattering windows:
For a moment Spielberg switches to a handheld camera to better convey the confusion and ratcheting fear as a couple of cops try to clear the street, which is now full of anxious bystanders bolting left and right, not at all sure where to run. Things suddenly get worse: the intersection’s asphalt ripples like someone shaking out a rug, the resulting waves bouncing cars and knocking people to the ground:
Ray, caught up in all of this mayhem, hops, skips and jumps over a runaway tear in the asphalt, which he then watches expand, the ground pulling itself apart like a failing seam. More cracks appear, the movement shattering windows up and down the street. One of the faults runs up the side of a church, breaking loose its facade, which, thanks to visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren and his fellow wizards at Industrial Light & Magic, then pulls away from the building proper:
Ray, no doubt experiencing the kind of nauseating discombobulation one would feel in an earthquake, hustles over to the sidewalk in a futile attempt to anchor himself against the faulting and movement. The church facade continues to creep into the intersection, propelled by some massive underground force. Soon its steeple breaks loose and smashes to the ground, an overhead shot of which giving Spielberg the opportunity to show us that all of the cracking, shifting and spreading from where the lightning initially struck is creating a large circular depression:
The depression suddenly expands into a hump, much like a magma plug about to explode, before quickly being sucked back into the ground. Then, like a burp, it erupts in a dust-filled explosion, leaving a large hole:
No sooner does a Jeep roll over the edge (Spielberg takes care to withhold here, shooting the Jeep from within the hole, the camera looking slightly upward so the audience can’t glimpse what lies beneath) than it’s spit 30 feet into the air, crushing another car to Ray’s left as it crashes to the ground. Ray ducks for cover behind another car.
Now, until this point Spielberg’s sound montage (designed by Richard King) has been very naturalistic–no music, no giveaway artificial extraterrestrial effects, just the sound of people reacting to a quickly deteriorating situation (nervous chatter, yelps of surprise, screams of fear) mixed with the physical mayhem (the pop and crunch of cracking asphalt, instances of shattering glass, the uniquely weird groan of a church breaking in half, etc.). As mentioned earlier, if we didn’t know better (and, unlike those in the scene, we do), one might think he or she was in the midst of some natural disaster. Or a catastrophic infrastructure failure. Same can be said for the visuals–as strange as the destruction we’re witnessing plays out, there’s nothing particularly “alien” about it.
But it’s here, a full four minutes into the scene, that Spielberg finally–and slyly–gives the audience what it’s been champing at the bit for: the Tripod emergence proper. The mayhem that has unfolded up until this point is but a prelude, a rough tenderization of the characters’ and the audiences’ nerves. Spielberg doesn’t overplay his hand with the reveal, though; for decades now, starting with his terrific 1971 TV movie Duel and further refined in Jaws (1975), he’s been a master at withholding for maximum effect. And so the first evidence of the aliens comes not as a visual, but as a sound cue, the unmistakable mechanical whirring of something followed seconds later by our first subtle glimpse of the machine: two shadowy metallic objects, about the height of a man and barely visible through the smoke and weak autumn light, emerge from the hole and proceed to slam to the asphalt with a loud thunk-thunk:
The objects stay put just long enough to see through the settling haze that they’re tube-shaped and flexible, not unlike an elephant’s trunk, and have metallic pads for feet. These tubes then lift skyward, revealing that what we thought were only two are actually three: a mini-tripod attached to the bottom of a much larger and longer metallic tube. Spielberg, who’s positioned his camera a couple of feet behind the crouching Ray, dollies in and then cants skyward to mimic Ray’s tilted neck, our gaze now taking in the same thing: the mini-tripod, still mostly obscured by dust and smoke, hovers a second over a street lamp before crashing to the ground again, crushing the car Ray’s taken refuge behind:
Ray retreats, hustling towards the rest of the shocked onlookers. In the foreground, slightly out of focus so we don’t lose sight of the crowd’s reaction in the background, something massive begins to rise slowly, deliberately from the hole, emitting a sound reminiscent of a throttling jet as it sheds dirt and asphalt as it reaches higher. A reverse shot reveals the object is metallic and pulsates light from what looks to be some kind of engine. The cross from atop the shattered steeple suddenly slides off the object’s smooth crown and crashes to the ground, Spielberg’s not so subtle commentary–along with the church facade breaking off earlier–that no amount of faith or prayer is going to get us out of this onrushing pickle.
The machine vents off gases as it slowly rises higher. The crowd, for a moment transfixed by the spectacle, finally comes to its senses and bolts. Until now Spielberg has shown us the Tripod only in tight closeup, focusing in on various details but never the whole. Now he gives us our first somewhat complete look, the machine rising towards its full height, accompanied, for the first time in the scene, by strains of John Williams’ propulsive score.
In the brave and (not so) new world of digital effects, a world introduced to us by James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1992 and, even more so, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park in 1993, the word “photorealistic” is bandied about with much too much frequency. Yes, effects have come miles from those we saw in movies as recent as the late 1980s, let alone the days of Harryhausen and, of course, 1953, the year of George Pal’s take on War of the Worlds. That said, nine times out of ten even your average movie-going Joe is savvy enough to distinguish what’s real from what’s fake, no matter how well done, especially when we’re talking about a major effect rather than something incidental (such as Captain Dan’s nonexistent legs in Forrest Gump). However, I’ll go out on a limb here and say that, for a major visual effect, one that gets a ton of screen time, this War of the Worlds Tripods is about as photorealistic as you’ll ever see, no easy feat considering the reveal happens in daylight. (The diffuse nature of natural light seems to present more complicated lighting challenges for visual effects artists and thus faker-looking effects than what can be accomplished at night, where the light source can be more controlled, i.e. a single source. For example, think of Jurassic Park’s daytime Brachiosauruses v. its nighttime T-Rex. No comparison in terms of realism.)
So how does Spielberg and his team pull off this photorealistic feat? Well, in my humble opinion it’s all about what I’ll call the “sell.” And by that I mean how things in the real world, stuff we know is actually there, react to what we know in our rational brains is not. Again using the original Jurassic Park as an example, think back to the scene in which we meet our first digital dinosaurs, those big-ass Brachiosauruses. Impressive as they were (for the time, at least), what sells them, at least for me, what helps me suspend my disbelief–and yeah, I get this kinda flies in the face of the criticism I just leveled against them in the previous paragraph–isn’t the skin texture or the movement or the lighting, but rather the way the brachiosaur interacts with the tree it’s feeding on, how it grabs an upper branch in its teeth and gives a mighty yank until the branch snaps off, the former bending the tree towards the dinosaur, the latter sending the tree proper snapping back to full height. (Actually, maybe those trees aren’t real, either; but hopefully you get the idea.)
So the way I see Spielberg “selling” the effect in War of the Worlds is, firstly, how he has the Tripod rise seamlessly (no matte lines or other visual effect “tells”) from behind a bunch of complicated real-world foreground objects, such as telephone poles, electrical wires and, most effectively, a leaf-less tree; secondly, his use of hazy, diffuse early winter light, a desaturated color scheme, lots of veiling smoke and, in certain places, soft focus; thirdly, the venting and dumping of gases and what seems to be water from the Tripod and, fourthly, some great use of reflections, which I’ll get to in a moment. Back to the scene…
Ray flees the rising Tripod, hiding with others behind a building. Spielberg has the soundtrack go eerily quiet–no more panicked screaming, no more John Williams’ score–a calm before the storm if you will. Soon the crowd, against its better judgment but compelled by curiosity, begins to move back onto the street to view the fully extended, 15-story machine, only to be scared shitless when the Tripod emits a horn-like bellow (audio file below), simultaneously venting a liquid (water?) from its underside.
Additional mechanical noises sound, these higher pitched, as the machine vents more gases and begins to lower two arm-like appendages. Spielberg reintroduces Williams’ ominous score, making it clear that, five and a half minutes into the scene, the shit is really, truly, about to hit the fan. Yet, before he unloads, Spielberg gives us a couple more brilliant shots, the first two giving him a creative cheat so that he can highlight, in the same shot, the facial expressions of certain onlookers and the tripods, each at opposite ends of the block, via reflections in glass (I mean, how does he think of this stuff?)…
…the third featuring some poor slob holding a Handycam (go ahead, laugh at the quaintness of that technology, but ten years ago it was cutting edge) filming the Tripod at the moment it lets loose with its heat ray (the sound of which has to be the best “laser” sound ever, something along the lines of that ominous spitting crackle you hear when standing under high tension wires, but then magnified 100-fold). The guy is vaporized (tastefully done–a puff of dusts and fragments of clothes flying into the air) and drops the camera (of course), which continues filming, Spielberg then dollying in on its little LCD screen to show us the carnage its recording (again, who thinks of this?):
From here on out it’s utter chaos, people getting vaporized by the Tripod while Ray does everything he can to avoid getting incinerated, dodging this way and that through traffic, other people and storefronts as they all explode around him.
The scene’s penultimate shot, something that will be mirrored to great effect a bit later when a highway overpass is flipped like the Hot Wheels track of an angry toddler, has Ray running towards the camera as everything just behind him is obliterated:
And then, seemingly safe (for the moment, at least), he watches from behind a house as the Tripod lumbers down the street, a burning tree in the foreground.
Whew! Folks, mass destruction doesn’t get any more artful than that!
I’m sorry, but no one working today–and no one I can think of in the past–has Spielberg’s talent for creating tense, frantic, yet totally coherent, action sequences. And how he achieves it cuts across the grain of how many action pictures are constructed today, which all too often involves trying to manufacture tension and thrills via dizzying camera movements, rapid-fire editing and a sound design with all the subtly of a baseball bat to the head. Spielberg, although identified as part of the maverick American New Wave of the 70s, is at heart an old-school Hollywood stylist in terms of camera set-up and movement, editing rhythms (supervised by his longtime editor, Michael Kahn), sound design and mise en scène, to name but a few crucial cinematic techniques. So rather than lazily bludgeoning us, he understand the power of slow-burn dread, of keeping his audience (and characters) slightly off-balance, of messing with expectations, all in the service of ensuring that the big reveal, the thrust of the action, has real power.
I could go on, of course, happily deconstructing two other indelible, virtuosic scenes from War of the Worlds, the first involving a crashed 747 near the house where our hero and his family have taken refuge, the second featuring another Tripod attack, this on a river ferry, but then I risk being dressed down by Mrs. Conflicted Film Snob, who feels that 5,000+ word posts are much too long for this distracted, smartphone generation. Whatever.
Anyway, here’s the full Tripod scene described above for those interested: