H.G. Wells’s science fiction work had been adapted in various forms since its publication in 1897; a radio broadcast version, directed by Orson Welles, had caused widespread panic in 1938. By presenting the first two-thirds as a news bulletin, Welles confused thousands of people who believed the end of the world really had arrived. A successful film adaptation in 1953 (The War Of The Worlds) and a US TV version, which ran over two series between 1988 and 1990, followed.
The TV series retained the fifties setting and the characters of the first film, but Steven Spielberg’s reimagining in 2005 updated the action to modern times, and changed both the characters and the nature of the invading force. Where Wells’s text and previous versions had shown the aliens arriving in spaceships, Spielberg’s had them buried underground for millennia, surfacing only when the Earth’s population had grown sufficiently for them to harvest people as food.
The plot follows Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise), a dockworker and divorced father of two, who finds himself at the frontline of the battle as he tries to protect his family from alien attackers. ‘Tripods’ begin rising from the earth and start to vaporise humans with their alien weapons, harvesting them to fertilise a plant called the Red Weed.
Though the plot is clearly fantasy, the film is visceral and the violence has a hint of reality. Several of the scenes recall images from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, with crowds of people running towards the camera and Ferrier returning home after the first attack covered in grey dust. Spielberg himself said that he would not have made the film had 9/11 not happened. He stated that, just as Welles’s famed radio version 'terrified millions' as the shadow of Nazi Germany was falling on Europe, and the 1953 film coincided with Americans’ Cold War-era fear of nuclear war, 'Our version also comes at a time when Americans feel deeply vulnerable'.
The Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA) rated the film PG-13, and, in June 2005, it arrived here at the BBFC with a 12A request. Though the filmmakers had kept the film’s content secret, there was significant advance publicity and our Director and Deputy Director joined the examination team to view the film, aware that it was likely to be a popular release.
Under the BBFC Classification Guidelines at the time, Examiners agreed that the 12A request was reasonable and awarded the film that category, without cuts. The BBFCinsight read ‘Contains sustained menace, threat and moderate horror’. Significant scenes noted in the reports included the first attack on the town centre and the Tripods’ attack on the pier. They emphasised the fact that the perpetrators are giant alien machines, rather than human-sized foes, and felt that this reduced the impact of the violence and threat.
Examiners noted that other recent films, such as The Day After Tomorrow, also passed at 12A, contained similar levels of violence and threat. They also argued that the film was unlikely to disturb the average twelve year old, with reports noting ‘I would imagine that most know that well-known 'hero' Cruise won't let anything happen to his 'daughter' particularly as the pattern is reinforced so regularly’.
Though the action is intense, Examiners observed that there are significant pauses for breath and that there is very little detail to the violence. Humans are vaporised into dust rather than injured in a realistic manner and many scenes of violence take place off-screen.
There were some concerns about the fact that one of the main characters is a ten year old girl. However, the scenes in which she is under direct threat (when she sees dead bodies floating in the water and when she is blindfolded so that she does not see her father kill a man) are handled with restraint and did not present an issue at 12A.
After its release, some sections of the press began a short-lived campaign questioning the film’s suitability at 12A. However, the campaign soon died down when it became apparent that our classification was very much in line with those of other ratings bodies around the world. We received a significant, but not unprecedented, number of queries about the classification, but the vast majority of the viewing public appreciated the film and had no difficulties with it at 12A.
In 2015, we published long ratings info for the film.