Show. Don’t Tell.

One of film’s greatest storytelling strengths is its ability to show rather than tell. Through the use of mise-en-scene, cinematography, and music, a film can convey anything without a single line of dialogue. War of the Worlds, however, seemed to stray from this practice. It instead used a constant stream of dialogue to move along its story. While dialogue can definitely increase a character’s realism, the dialogue in this film, which came across in a very matter-of-fact tone, felt more like narration than genuine conversation. Furthermore, characters were often talking about themselves, their own actions, other characters, other characters’ actions, and the events that occurred before these characters, events, or actions were shown. At times it felt like too much information was being given away. Because of this, I struggled to deeply connect with either the characters or the story.

Take Dr. Clayton Forrester, the main character, for example. As he is on screen for most of the film, I should have been heavily invested in his journey, well-being, and goals. However, I found that I cared little for him. Almost everything I knew about him, other than the fact that he was a renowned scientist who could investigate the meteor, was either superficial or conveyed through dialogue. I did not care that he was on the cover of Time, or that he had been fishing with friends. I really wanted to learn more about his backstory and what motivated him to act the way he did. I wanted to know why the Martians and the war mattered to him. I wanted to see who he really was. After knowing Dr. Forrester for little over a day, Pastor Collins told Sylvia that Dr. Forrester was a good man. I was left wondering if this statement would actually turn out to be true; the only knowledge I had of his morals up until then was that he appeared humble through his dialogue and helpful through his actions. If the film had shown me more about who he was and what he stood for, I most likely would have been more invested in his story.

On the other hand, this film truly shined when there was little to no dialogue. For example, the Martians barely uttered sounds. Other than the fact that they were from Mars, I knew nothing about them, their plans, or their motives. This created a terrifying effect when they would simply appear with no warning and destroy everything in their path. The Martians did not need to tell anyone who they were; the film had already shown through their looks, actions, and characteristics that they were indeed monsters.

The lack of dialogue was further put to good use at the final climax. As Dr. Forrester ran through the empty streets of Las Angeles into every church he came across searching for Sylvia, he spoke very little. He did not need to say anything. The mise-en-scene—empty streets, destroyed buildings, low key lighting, and highly destructive Martian machines—said everything. I began to feel the same hopelessness that he must have felt. When he finally found her, as part of the roof of the church began to cave in, I was frightened. But as the dust receded, revealing a close-up of both of them embracing, I felt relieved. The shot said everything without saying anything at all. When the people in the church walked outside toward the wreckage of the fallen Martian machine, little dialogue was needed. The film, with shots of a crashing ship and a collapsing Martian arm, showed everything I needed to know. Through the use of showing and not telling, the ending was much more engaging than the rest of the film. As a lack of dialogue helped to create a more engaging and emotion-filled ending, why did the filmmakers rely so heavily on dialogue in the rest of the film? Why did they not simply show the story more?


Author: Bailey T.

Hey y'all, I'm Bailey, a writer, director, editor, and all-around storyteller.

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