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Take the Strangeness Away: On Signs and War of the Worlds

Released in the summer of 2002, “Signs” was never intended as a direct response to 9/11, though the cast and crew were waist-deep in the process of filming when the attacks took place. Nevertheless, its mysterious alien invaders seemed to represent this new, unknowable enemy; and its methods eerily resembled the mood of alarm and uncertainty that seemed to hang in the air. Long gone were the days of conquerable foes, and with them a certain picture of America itself.

Also hinging on the spiritual crisis at the center of American politics and culture, was “War of the Worlds,” which follows Tom Cruise as an estranged father charged with protecting his children as they evade murderous extraterrestrials on a perilous journey to Boston. Like the Hess family, the Ferriers are just random people hoping to make it out alive, not heroes ultimately responsible for humanity’s salvation. Whereas “Signs” is a minimalistic psychological thriller, “War of the Worlds” is a more straight-forward horror-adventure movie, with big, impressive set-pieces and visions of sprawling catastrophe. In my book, Spielberg’s adaptation doesn’t get at the marrow-deep feeling of dread that “Signs” so effectively conjures—instead it belongs to a lineage of big-budget disaster movies whose relationship to 9/11 is more plainly obvious. Spielberg has acknowledged the connection: “We live under a veil of fear that we didn’t live under before 9/11. There has been a conscious emotional shift in the country.” In a visual callback to the infamous World Trade Center plume, heavy dust clouds the air in the opening attack scene in Brooklyn—a tripod emerges from the ground and begins zapping humans into powdered smithereens, leaving behind only scraps of clothing drifting in the sky. Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, like Graham, returns home after this chilling encounter, nearly paralyzed by what he’s seen, but determined to get his loved ones out of a soon-to-be burning Brooklyn pronto.

There’s a strong survivalist streak to “War of the Worlds,” namely because we’re so tethered to Cruise and his exceptionally capable and fortunate avatar. Ray has one of the only functioning cars around, and zips past envious stragglers with kids in tow until a mob overwhelms the vehicle and takes over. A plane crashes into the family’s hideaway in the suburbs, but the trio manage to take cover in the basement utility room at exactly the right moment. A run-in with an unstable stranger, played by Tim Robbins, ends in justified violence, and Ray’s teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is emboldened to take a stand and joins the resistance. Much later, when Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is swooped up by one of the tentacled spacecrafts, Ray deliberately gets himself caught to join his daughter in the attached holding cell. And when a tentacle chooses Ray as the next unlucky victim from its reserve of juicy bodies, he gets sucked into the tripod with a grenade in hand, and releases it before getting pulled out by his fortuitously energized fellow prisoners. Ray may be especially resilient—a quality as miraculous as the hand of God that supposedly saves Morgan in the final showdown of “Signs”—yet we’re told as he looks out, battered and wide-eyed, into a field doused in human blood, that it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out.

In the H.G Wells book, a wizened artilleryman explains, “there never was a war, anymore than there’s war between men and ants.” In both “Signs” and Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” this fact remains true to the end. Our protagonists come out alive, but not by their own, or any sort of human intervention. The aliens are defeated in final act twists by biological forces beyond their control. Our planet is made up of mostly water, and the invaders in “Signs” turn out to be deathly allergic—they retreat, leaving behind their injured to get killed by baseball bats and smashed glasses of water. In “War of the Worlds,” the aliens are ravaged by Earth-borne infectious microbes to which we are immune—these once intimidating, hulking creatures tumble out of their spaceships like pale corpses.

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