The ferry attack sequence begins roughly one hour into War Of The Worlds. Ray Ferrier (yeah, that's his last name) and his kids are being hustled down a street and onto a Hudson River ferry, grim-looking soldiers hollering at them along the way. They look like cattle, or refugees, and every face in the crowd looks exhausted. Which makes sense. I mean, every one of these people has seen some serious shit at this point: city blocks leveled, people vaporized; a plane pulled from the sky and tossed into the suburbs like a discarded toy. These people are happy to have someone official-looking point a rifle and tell them where to go.
Weariness and fear established, Spielberg spends the next two and a half (agonizing) minutes ratcheting up the tension. Those soldiers, helpful though they may be, are also an armed presence, and only an idiot would feel secure surrounded by a bunch of armed, jittery-ass soldiers staring down the end of the world. Someone's blasting "soothing" music through the streets via a series of hastily-installed loudspeakers, but the effect feels forced, way more creepy than comforting. A flock of noisy birds flies overhead, some distant trees shake, and suddenly all that accumulated tension is given an upgrade from if to when.
Obvious answer: any minute now.
Moments later, the family arrives at the ferry. Just before getting onboard, they pause...and then look back over their shoulders, towards the camera. Spielberg holds the shot and pulls away slowly - we're given enough time to get a real good look at just how small Ray and his kids seem set against that swirling mass of refugees - and then he shows us what they're looking at: a Tripod has entered along the horizon. It glides into view on impossibly long legs and stands there, surveying the scene.
And then it bellows.
It's the same great and terrible sound we heard earlier in the movie, during Ray's first Tripod encounter. The noise this thing makes is frightening, the sound of doom itself. It's not just one blaring note, either: its tone changes, which is somehow infinitely more terrifying. The sound thunders off into the distance (presumably summoning any of this Tripod's nearby buddies), and everyone - Ray, his kids, the refugees, you, watching the movie at home - are like, "Oh, shit". And with that, all hell breaks loose: running, screaming, people clawing over each other to get on the ferry before that thing catches up to them.
Never one to refrain from investing his set pieces with a dash of character development (note to action directors: you should try this, it's a killer move), Spielberg continues to ramp up the tension by having Ray's son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin, strong in a largely thankless role), break away from his father and sister to try and save some of the people who've been left behind on the dock. He runs up and down the length of the ship, climbing over things, pulling people to safety. Doing what he can. We're watching this kid become the hero everyone wishes his father would be. We're also watching Ray as he watches it happen, and we know he's thinking the same damn thing. All of this is accomplished without a word.
And then, just as things have settled down (relatively-speaking), the Captain of the ferry spots something odd in the water: a light. The river's surface bulges, and then it breaks, revealing the massive, hateful face of a Tripod, rising from below. If people were losing their shit before, they're full-blown lunatics now: there's nothing to do but scream and run into one another as the Tripod knocks the ferry onto its side, spilling people and cars into the frigid water below. It's total chaos.
It should be noted here, by the way, that Spielberg is killing every moment of this. Nine times out of ten, your average genre-hack director would've accomplished this ferry thing via CGI and been done with it. "Yes, I'd like to order a 'tipping a big boat over on its side' sequence, please," I imagine these directors saying cheerfully, on the phone to their preferred SFX house. "Something that'll reaaaally let the audience know I have nothing but contempt for them." Not Spielberg. He actually got a giant ferry, chopped it into the necessary pieces, and put people on it. Then he dunked these people in a large tank and threw things at them while gigantic fans blew water into the faces for, presumably, hours on end. I love it.
Thus begins a classic series of Spielberg escalations. It begins with Ray and his kids tossed from the boat and into the river. A second ago that seemed like a much safer place to be than the ferry itself, but now the ferry keeps on tipping, raining cars on the people in the water below. Now they're plastered against the front grill of one of them as it sinks to the riverbed below. And now they've gotta get to the surface before they drown. And now they'e got air, but now there's an enormous set of ferry propellers threatening to suck them into oblivion. And now the Tripod is snatching people up into the air with its whiplike appendages, stuffing them into the death cage that's been fitted beneath its domed headpiece. The camera stays with Ray, Robbie, and Rachel (Dakota Fanning) through all of this, all the way up to the moment where they lurch out onto the riverbank, stunned to be alive.
Interesting to note that, originally, this scene played out a bit more viciously. In the final film, people are killed in the river by drowning, or falling cars, or after being harvested by the Tripods. But in David Koepp and Josh Friedman's original screenplay, some of them die an even grislier death:
Yeah, that's Tripods boiling motherfuckers alive, guys. Special thanks to screenwriter Brian Duffield (@BrianDuffield) for pointing this deviation to me, by the way.
The ferry sequence is spectacular for the obvious reasons - the seamless blending of practical and digital effects, the razor-sharp editing, the ominous sound design, the horrifying beauty of the Tripods themselves (which, it's worth noting, Spielberg originally envisioned as "scary ballet dancers"; Nailed it) - but it's also spectacular for that one-of-a-kind magic Spielberg brings to it: the Hitchcockian, clocwkork ratcheting of tension that occurs as the sequence's first few minutes play out; the "show, don't tell" character development he invests the middle portion of the sequence with; the "escalating series of dangers" Ray and his family face as they extricate themselves from an impossible position. And on top of all that, we get at least three shot compositions that would be considered iconic, career highpoints for many other filmmakers.
And that's the thing. You could've asked a bunch of directors to deliver their take on War Of The Worlds' ferry attack sequence, and there's no doubt a few of them would've come back with something cool-looking, or scary, maybe even exciting. But I submit to you that very few directors, if any, could successfully pull off the same combination of tricks Spielberg does here. We forget how easy he makes it look, how effortless, when in actuality it's a singular talent, one no other director has ever come close to matching. And he does it again and again.
Anyway, there's a lot to love about War Of The Worlds. I think the ferry sequence reigns supreme for me on War Of The Worlds highlights (but honestly, it's running neck-and-neck with the initial Tripod reveal and everything that happens in Tim Robbins' basement), but how about you guys? No need to debate the question of War Of The Worlds' greatness, by the way. That matter has already been settled.