Common elements in War of the World and Back to the Future


Some things just stick in your head.

That’s what happened when I watched War of the Worlds and realize I had seen and heard bits and pieces of it before, not just from other related films such as the original War of the Worlds, but from films connected to Steven Spielberg such as Back to the Future.

Anything connected even remotely to Spielberg seems to echo other work he’s done such as Chicken Run and its obvious bits borrowed from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Several episodes of Back to the Future borrow from Raiders as well, especially the tunnel scenes in BTTFII which resemble the tank scene in the third Raiders movie.

Spielberg, of course, secretly directed several scenes in the last Star Wars movie, which may explain why some scenes in it so strongly resemble scenes from Minority Report.

This repetition of image and theme confused me since he didn’t always get credit for directing films.

While you would expect to find these stylistic overtones from one film to another by Spielberg, how do these spill over into films on which he is listed as executive producer such as Back to the Future?

At times, I wondered about these things, such as the very obvious patterns in Harry & the Hendersons, Gremlins and other films, and presumed that Spielberg secretly directed the films.

But clearly films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the Back to the Future films are so high profile, you would think that if Spielberg directed them, he would want to retain credit for them.

This thought struck me very hard while I was doing research for my parody of Back to the Future and discovered such strong stylistic elements in common with that series and the recently released War of the Worlds, I needed to investigate more closely.

Since then, I have come to believe that these stylistic similarities are deliberate, a kind of in joke played by Spielberg and the other producers – allusions that are drawn upon their own body of work rather than on other films – although Spielberg does also borrow openly from other films such as the duplicated exchange from a John Wayne movie in which Ray argues with his son about calling him dad.

At a critical point in War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise, playing Ray Ferrier, repeated a phase I had heard in Back to the Future, though when I heard it I didn’t realize where I had heard it before.

In this scene, Cruise bends down to touch a piece of asphalt that has cracked as the resulted a repeated lightning strikes. The aliens had ridden down the bolts as a means of entering their machines buried underground.

When asked if the stone was hot, Cruise says no, ice cold.

Tracking down the original, of course, was hardly a problem since a very similar phrase was contained in the first Back to the Future films, a series I watch frequently.

This phrase comes at a similar structural position in Back to the Future, a point at which in both films might be called “departure” where the film launches itself into the fantasy.

It is not aliens driving the machine, but rather, one of the heroes, Doc Brown, who has just sent his dog into the future as a test. The hero, Marty, touches the vehicle, and Doc asks if it is hot. Marty replies, no, it’s ice cold.

Is this coincidence? Or is Spielberg making some reference that only our suspicious minds might pick up on?

Could it be that the aliens in War of the Worlds are some kind of time traveling morlocks from our distant future, coming back in time to feed off the more hapless past? Is this a statement that the bright future depicted in the Back to the Future series simply did not occur and what we get is a much darker aspect with allusions to earlier series.

Perhaps in crafting War of the Worlds in 2005, Spielberg unconsciously lifted the exchange from the earlier film.

While this exchange is the most obvious similarity between War of the Worlds and Back to the Future, it is hardly the only one, suggesting that Spielberg had much greater influence in creating the original series, and fell back on these tried and true methods when he created War of the Worlds.

My wife thinks Spielberg sees himself as a perpetual orphan, explaining why so many of his films from AI to Catch Me if you Can features boys in crisis with their parents.

This is also true for War of the Worlds and Back to the Future. In both films the sons are extremely disappointed in their fathers, and both heroes show many of the same flaws their fathers have.

While Spielberg clearly draws from other classic films to enhance this relationship, such as the ball playing scenes in Field of Dreams and Ray’s throwing the ball through the window, we see many common elements in War of the Worlds and Back to the Future.

Both War and Back are films which fall into the literary myth pattern of “there and back again” with the heroes struggling to get life back to normal. In Back to the Future, the blame for destroying the world is much more obvious than in War of the Worlds, but both films there is a strong relationship between the deteriorating family and the changed and brutal world.

In both films, the character believes he is dreaming, and, in both films, we see the character waking again and again from sleep, like a dreamer waking from one nightmare only to find himself in the middle of a new and even more bizarre nightmare.

In both films, lightning figures prominently especially in regard to machinery. Lightning allows the aliens to enter their vehicles in one, and allows the machine to operate in the other. In both films, lightning stops time, one by hitting the clock tower, and in the other by stopping Ray’s watch.

In both films, the heroes lack any concept of time, both arriving late in the beginning of the films, both filled with unsatisfying explanations as to why.

My favorite similarity, however, deals with the concept of homework.

In Back to the Future we get a repeated routine that requires Marty McFly to do Biff’s paperwork either as homework or as something for work. McFly has not yet done the assignment, and Biff scolds him saying he needs time to copy it over so that the boss or teacher won’t know he got it from McFly.

“You wouldn’t want me to flunk out of school, would you?” Biff says during one of these routines.

McFly promises to have the work done over the weekend.

In War of the World, Ray’s son, Robbie, has a paper due the following week, but has not yet started on it. He tries to con Ray by saying its done but only needs to be typed. Ray doesn’t buy it and says Robbie will flunk out of school.

In Back to the Future, we get Principal Strickland scolding the heroes for being slackers; in War of the Worlds, Ray’s wife, Maryann, pretty much says the same thing to Ray and more kindly to Robbie.

In both films, the father figure struggles to become a better father in the end, a theme so common in Spielberg films we might say this about any of his works.

We find many other elements in both these films that are common in most if not all Spielberg films such as the key role cars play.

In many ways, the car has replaces the horse as a mythological symbol. Spielberg often has characters stealing vehicles, riding recklessly and chasing each other as a result. Ray’s son steals Ray’s car. Ray steals a van then cracks it up. In some ways, Marty’s adventure is kicked off in much the same way as Ray’s is, with a flight by automobile. Biff cracks up cars so frequently as to be comical, and in fact, the whole Back to the Future series hinges upon whether or not Marty succumbs to ridicule or avoids a car race that would otherwise ruin his life.

While the Oedipus Complex is a theme common to nearly all Spielberg films, it is very obvious in Back to the Future and War of the Worlds.  Marty, of course, is disgusted by his mother’s attraction to him; Ray’s son seems more comfortable with it and part of his rage against his father seems to be generated out of this. War of the World is stuffed with mother and baby images.

Similar to the stylistic phrase that caught me up in this comparison is another repeated element in both films. When Doc and Marty crash back into an altered 1985 in Back to the Future II, we get a dark screen and Marty’s voice asking: “Are we back?”

In War of the Worlds, we get Ray’s daughter saying something similar after the crash of an airliner into the house. The screen remains dark, her voice asks: “Are we still alive?”

The timing and sense of silence is so similar in both instances it is hard to imagine they were created by two different film makers.

Even musical passages are repeated in both films, echoing similar themes in each. These comparisons can go on and on, since we can trace similarities in use of TV and other elements typical in Spielberg movies. Even some of the structural elements of War of the Worlds resemble Back to the Future, although some of these scenes appear in the script and never made it to the screen, such as the use of a tavern or soda shop as a jumping off place.

As I watch these films, I’m sure I’ll discover many more similarities. So stay tuned.


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