The Jeep Cherokee rushes into the cul-de-sac, roaring down the center of a normally quiet neighborhood - that on this occasion is eerily quiet.
Tom Cruise, playing the role of Ray Ferrier, is behind the wheel, frantic from his race against time and the invasion of aliens that have just destroyed his own home and dreams (filmed in Bayonne, but apparently part of a sequence supposedly depicting an action sequence that occurred in the Iron Bound section of Newark. Cruise plays a Longshoreman - fond of cars, his kids, but a failure at keeping his marriage together. He has rushed from the disaster to his wife's house in this middle class complex of homes - filmed in Howell Township - seeking to find his ex-wife and perhaps place the care of the kids in her hands. Beside him in the vehicle are his two keds, played by Dustin Chatman and Dakota Fanning. They pull up, jump out, run to the door, and find no one home - beginning a sequence of events that includes the inability to restart the jeep and the likely arrival of aliens who possible pursue them through the nearby woods where they come into the equally eerie world of alien red weed, which has spread throughout the swamp.
Although it may be a mistake to assume that sequential shooting for Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds means that scenes will appear in that order in film, descriptions given of the scenes by locals and by film crew seem to point to this as a logical story line for the shoot at Howell Township, which appears to follow on the heals of filming in Newark and Bayonne and represent the next stage in the story from the opening scenes of home life (filmed in Bayonne) disrupted by the landing of invaders from Mars.
The house located on Cranbury Way in Howell is typical Spielberg, one of those odd shaped modern middle class homes with hooded arched-like designs constructed over and doors - examples of which can be found in ET and in Poltergeist.
Joe Guest, one of the location people for Paramount, told the local newspapers that Howell was selected for the movie because the township had the correct mix of suburban landscape and rural farm land within easy reach of each other.
Lyn Pinezich, the location manager for Paramount, told reporters that New Jersey sites were selected because the area fit the geographic profile needed for the film.
Many of the scenes of the film take place along a corridor from Newark and Bayonne to Boston. Spielberg is notorious for supporting his fictional themes with a solid body of realism - flooding scenes with props or filming scenes in actual or near actual locations where they fictionally take place.
Pinezich said the crew had been instructed to find a location that had a new development of homes as well as a nearby wooded area to which the film crew could easily access.
The development chosen is very similar in features to those that are depicted in ET and Poltergeist. In fact, scenes in ET frequently shifted between wooded areas and suburban backdrops during those shoots as well. The wooded area of Howell also appears to fit some of the pine woods images depicted in the H.G. Wells novel upon which the movie is based. Howell is situation at the northern fringe of the Pine Barren region.
As in Bayonne, local residents were thrilled with the filming even though the actually shoot only lasted one day with preparations taking from a week to ten days. Cruise and Spielberg - as in Bayonne - came and went via helicopter. The film crew set up their base of operations at a local inn on nearby Route 524. A huge white tractor trailer with the imprint of Paramount Studio was parked on Cranbury Way for the duration of the set up and breakdown. Local residents alone were allowed on the street, although the film company - as in Bayonne - asked them to keep their cars in garages. Everyone else were confined to areas well beyond the shooting area, held back by police barricades at the far end of the block.
While the crew had prepared the interior of the house for shooting some scenes, the actual shoot on Cranbury Street involved only exterior shots - with whatever interiors planned likely to be done in film studios in Los Angeles later. Because residents and police said a platform lift was also among the film equipment, viewers can expect to see an assortment of rising shots - including one of Spielberg's signature pieces of patterned rooftops and curving streets as shown in both ET and Poltergeist.
The wooded scenes were shot on nearby Merrick Farm, where crews spread fake red weed - to be later enhanced by special effects - along the forest floor and created a marsh as part of the visual effects. In both the scenes filmed on Cranbury Way and Merrick Farm, there were only Cruise and the two child actors, along with about 30 members of the film crew and support staff.