[BONUS] Framing in “War of the Worlds” (2005)

December 9, 2019 § Leave a comment

As I was choosing which topic to write my bonus blog on, I thought it would be interesting to watch a movie I’d never seen of a book I’d never read – an unusual combo for someone who can be quite neurotic about the ‘book before movie adaptation’ rule. But the combination of Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, and a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes convinced me to give it a try. War of the Worlds follows a father (Cruise) and his children as they attempt to survive a violent and unexpected alien invasion.

While this is not a review, I will preface with the fact that I really didn’t like this movie. It had some of the most overused tropes known to mankind: a brooding teenage boy, a screaming and helpless younger sister, and a deadbeat dad who was also dumb as a rock. That doesn’t even get into the bizarre choices by the characters who, for example, seemed convinced that sprinting towards the aliens blowing up the planet was the safest and most logical course of action. On the bright side, the aliens were very scary and the suspense was wonderful. But, like I said, this is not a movie review, so I’ll leave it at that.

As I watched, I looked for things that I could write about that would relate to the class, and within the first 15 minutes I was presented with the perfect opening – a frame narrative!

In another classic movie trope, the impending disaster is introduced not by the character’s firsthand experience, but by a strange report on the news of mass blackouts and mysterious lightning strikes. As I only learned the term ‘frame narrative’ this semester, I was delighted to realize how the technique lived on outside of 19th century books and into modern cinema. The newscaster, while not a true narrator, performed the basic task of a frame narrative by introducing the watcher to the main plot from a distance.

 After this first realization, I watched the rest of the movie looking for other types of frame narratives and how they translated into film. A common theme I found was the use of technology or mirrors as framing devices, rather than human narrators. Outside from newscasters acting as temporary storytellers to contribute to worldbuilding, most of the framing was done through the use of creative cinematography.

For example, in the screenshot below the aliens are seen destroying the city through a handheld camcorder lying on the ground. Like a frame narrator might, this shot gives us more information than just seeing the aliens head on. The watcher feels guilt over the presumed death or destruction of the camcorder’s owner, while also a strange detachment from the scene created by the removal of the first person perspective. They also learn that this movie is set in 2005, where camcorders are common, but cell phones aren’t, which could explain to a current viewer the state of technology at the time and why the aliens seemed so darn difficult to kill or track.

The other most obvious and common framing device was the use of mirrors. On multiple occasions the camera would show a rearview or sideview mirror in the car the family drove in. This again had the removal effect, where the watcher was seeing events through a layer of distortion. It also added to the suspense of the scenes by showing us only parts of what was happening, rather than a complete picture. Again, while this is not a traditional frame narrative, it reminded me strongly of the secondary perspective many of the novels we read contained.

I double-checked to make sure that the novel itself has a frame narrative and from my skimming was surprised by the differences between the tone of the movie and book. While H. G. Wells wrote a rather dry and factual novel recounting a traumatic event, Steven Spielberg went the action/adventure/horror route to create a much more thrilling tale. It made sense to me that any frame narration would have to adapt in a similar manner as the style of the story changed.  So while these examples may not be perfect, orthodox frame narration like something out of The Princess Bride, the use of technology and filming techniques to add to the tone or information in the movie was very interesting to pick out and find, and something I will certainly do with films in the future.

-Maddie Nystrom

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