How to Scare an Audience: War of the Worlds

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own.” 

This is the opening line from the original War of the Worlds radio broadcast given by Orson Wells in 1938. Ironic isn’t the right word, but, for a story about panic, and the damage information can create, this broadcast did just that. Many, at the time, were misinformed, tuning into it in the middle thinking the broadcast was real! What was it about this story that terrified listeners?

It would appear that the subject matter, as much as the broadcast itself, is to blame. War of the World’s themes would be echoed across the decades, with many defining political, and life-changing events being dragged into the cavern misinformation leaves open. 

The most prevalent and effective example of this in my life would be the Covid-19 Pandemic. It’s hard to forget first learning about the outbreak in China, being shown news clips in my 1st-period U.S. History class, not thinking it would be anything I would need to worry about. Little did I know, toilet paper would become the representing factor that perhaps the ‘over the top’ presentation of mass hysteria in entertainment over the years wasn’t too far off from reality. 

These themes were best presented on screen in 2005, with Steven Spielberg’s interpretation of War of the Worlds. While the original (film) from 1953 focused more on a political look at a possible alien invasion, Spielberg decided to take a more grounded approach, almost literally, as rarely is there a shot of catastrophe from an angle that isn’t from our character’s perspective. Specifically, low-angle shots symbolize this element perfectly. 

Tom Cruise as Ray Ferrier, at ground zero of an alien attack in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of RadioTimes

The use of a family unit to bridge the gap between fiction and reality adds to the already dire subject matter. Our main hero Ray Ferrier, an estranged father played by Tom Cruise, cares more about his 1966 Shelby GT 350H than his own kids. In the first act, he consistently tries telling his son and daughter how to behave, and what to do, simply on the basis that he’s their father. Over the course of the story, he grows more comfortable with them, and we see him transform into someone who’s willing to admit that he’s not sure what the right answer is in every scenario. 

According to an article from The Baltimore Sun, screenwriter David Koepp said about the impact of the film, “This movie now has two great undertones that are kind of contradictory: on the one hand, post-9/11 American paranoia, and on the other, the futility of occupying a faraway land. And I’m dying to see how that contradiction plays out.”

When we look towards the 3rd act of the film, which primarily takes place in a basement, the ladder part of Koepp’s statement is best put on display, having Ferrier team up with Harlan Ogilvy, a man who thinks going on the offense is the best course of action. The conversations between Ferrier and Ogilvy show how the power of misinformation can bring forth disaster, with both having to either trust each other’s word or not.

Throughout the story, we see many instances of this, with my favorite being when it cuts from person to person, during a sequence where people are trying to get onto a ferry, where the complete opposite information is shared depending on nothing more than where you’re standing in line.

I certainly wish I could have been at the front of the line at a theater in 2005 because after watching War of the Worlds, it joined the top ranks of my favorite Spielberg movies. It’s unfortunate the truths found in this story, yet look around the world, look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as an example. Films like this prove the lasting power good storytelling can have, and how to incorporate politics into fictional events without relying on those politics to tell that story.

You scare an audience not by showing them ghouls and ghosts, but by leaving an impact that will haunt them in their day-to-day lives. Something as simple as the idea of invasion can span across generations and make us think differently about the events around us, questioning the realities that could be, now, in the early years of the twenty-first century. 

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