Posts Tagged ‘war of the worlds’

War of the Worlds Tripod Attack
 

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creaturesthat swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.  No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise.

Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

–          H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Is it the terrorists?!?”, a doe-eyed Dakota Fanning shrieks (all her lines are delivered at a brain-melting high-pitched keen) to her father (Tom Cruise in unconvincing Joe Six-Pack drag) while, in the rear-view mirror, friends and neighbours disintegrate into dust, filling the air with greasy white ash and settling at the feet of sinister iron colossuses.

Dakota Fanning

Welcome to the Desert of the frigging Real, Dakota Fanning.

Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds comprises the second installment of his 9/11 trilogy.  If Munich considered the need for vengeance, and if Minority Report considered the dangers of the corresponding constriction of civil liberties, then his War of the Worlds is about nothing less, and nothing else, than the raw, incomprehensible horror of those first few hours of the attack on New York City.

“We didn’t set out to play upon the tremendous paranoia and anxiety about terrorism in the environment right now,” Spielberg was quoted as saying in Entertainment Weekly while promoting the film, “but we do live in the shadow of 9/11. And every iteration of this story has occurred during anxious times in history. Orson Welles made his radio play right before World War II. George Pal made his movie in the middle of the Cold War. And now I’m making mine” (Spielberg in Ryan).[1]

WOTW scare

Oh, Orson, you SCAMP.

Wells’ masterpiece has, like Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, become a leitmotif in popular culture, retold and reconfigured freely every few decades by another auteur’s cultural temperature-taking (the word “auteur” is here applied with quantumly vacillating quotation marks).  Whether virtue or defect, however, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is faithful to his source material, indeed is nearly verbatim, in one crucial detail: the opening narration.

But I am not convinced he understands its purpose.

War of the Worlds, in all its incarnations, is about the terrible moment when Judgment comes.  The Other arrives howling from the abyss, without words, without reason, and plunges our world into perdition’s fire.  Zizek, echoing Freud, called the Neighbour “primarily a thing, a traumatic intruder, someone whose way of life…disturbs us, throws the balance of our way of life off the rails” (On Violence 59).  This Spielberg seems to grasp, and it is precisely to this end that he has used Wells’ classic to explore the dreadful eruption (or, perhaps more truly, irruption) of the Real that 9/11 represented (throughout the movie, the image recurs of one of the main characters staring out at us through a pane of shattered glass, as though the film itself pathologically and compulsively duplicates this perforation of “reality’s” fragile lens).  He understands the awful terror in being beheld by the ineffable and found wanting, as the scene (invented for his version) in which the Martian ship’s monstrous eyestalk insinuates itself through the family’s subterranean hiding place, implacably seeking them like an avenging angel of the superego, makes clear.[2]

But Spielberg has not understood one crucial detail: in the mythopoetic pattern of Wells’ War of the Worlds, we are meant to be the Martians.

Spielberg’s version is about the terror, but that is all it is about.  His story is, as usual, one of the indomitable triumph of the family over adversity, culminating in the saccharine Hallmark-card reconciliation at movie’s end.  He describes the film as “a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life” (Spielberg in Reader’s Digest).  The enemy is not just unknown; it is unknowable; Spielberg is governed by the same logic which somehow made George W. Bush’s explanation of the motives of the men who perpetrated the attacks on the World Trade Center – that “they hate us for our freedoms” – an acceptable answer.  To question the motives of the aliens (or the terorrists) is akin to questioning why Gargamel is after the Smurfs: perhaps to kill them, perhaps to eat them (and at least for a while because they are somehow a necessary ingredient in transmuting lead to gold) – the point is that he’s evil; any other motive merely extends from this Aristotelian first premise.

gargamel bin laden

"Gargamel hates us for our freedoms!" For most Americans, the motives of both these figures remains equally unclear - and irrelevant.

Kenneth Miller, in reviewing the film, sings damning alleluias:

Martian death rays and war machines lay waste to civilization — but the bad guys get wiped out by a virus to which humans are immune. Their traits as people give the Earthlings the strength and resilience their enemies lack. That’s the real theme of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: When all hell breaks loose, Cruise’s character, Ray Ferrier, overcomes his shortcomings as a dad and a human being. He’s one man, struggling against evil for the sake of his family. It’s not an entirely happy ending — the title is War of the Worlds, after all. But don’t discount the hidden strength Ferrier has inside — the strength of his humanity (Miller).

The gap in logic which Miller’s review contains (“aliens are destroyed by virus”, therefore “our traits as people – the strength of our humanity – give us resilience enemies lack”) is not his own; it is a cohesive rendering of the film’s message.  We deserve survival, our goodness is identical to our humanity, so God will furnish it.  For Spielberg, the Martian susceptibility to Earth’s diseases is an act of Providence.  For Spielberg, the trust in God that America stamps into its coins has not proven counterfeit.

To this end, Spielberg deploys Wells’ original opening (quoted in full at the beginning of this essay) because it seems to him, of course, to license exactly the reading he wishes to further.  The narration is read in the film at a folksy, leisurely pace by Morgan Freeman, who has made a career playing what Spike Lee called “Super Duper Magical Negroes” – patient, wise engines of exposition and enlightenment,[3] while the opening image, the presumed gaze of this lackadaisical, authoritative/ authorizing/ authorial voice, is of those same bacteria that will eventually kill the Martians, busily going about their business within the dewdrop of a leaf – the tiny saviors about to be implemented in God’s (Morgan Freeman’s?) wonderful salvific plan.

bacteria

Spielberg's film begins with a "zoom-out" from the bacteria which Wells makes the bane of the Martian invaders. For Spielberg, these microscopic foes represent Divine Providence. For Wells, however, they are a symbol of dumb luck and the dangerous risks of colonization.

It is ironic, given this microscopic view, that Spielberg has not looked close enough.

Wells’ beginning is about a terrible conflation: the Martians behave just as we behave; the Martians invade just as we invade.  Like the first dreadful clangs of a requiem, Wells begins his theme of cultural annihilation with a series of metaphors that vector around humanity’s horrfying similarity to the Martians: just like us, just like us but now we are the observed; now we are under the microscope.

Tripod

"I am an allegory for the decadence and imminent collapse of the Victorian Empire! ZORP ZORP!" Alas, critical inquiry cannot fully explain the martians' magnificent pimp-walks.

If Spielberg had read more closely, he would have seen in Wells’ slim novella a parable for the rotting Victorian empire, a creature that had once, too, beheld the world with envious eyes, and now, in its dying anemic spasms, realizes too late that it has spread too fast, too thin, and exposed itself to indigenous pathogens it cannot not hope to metabolize.  He would have seen in the Martians an invader with technologies that outclass the beset “colonized” and hungry for the resources these wretched beasts squat upon, scorching the earth to call it peace.  He would have seen that Wells has very carefully and surely made the eyes that gaze across the gulf of space our own.

With War of the Worlds, Wells in many ways gave birth to science fiction – and in the same moment, made it a vehicle, not merely for imagining the purgative, apocalyptic gaze of the Other, but a tool for reconfiguring ourselves as that Other.  He made it a means of parallax: for beholding the monster, but also for beholding that we are that monster.  The masterstroke is in that first opening movement; the rest merely elaborates the melody.  The true horror of Wells’ War of the Worlds, which has utterly eluded so many of its adapters and interpreters, is that there is nothing alien about its aliens.  We do not just for a moment gaze with their eyes; they gaze, always, with ours.  Behold the Other – ourselves.

Had Spielberg understood this, he would, indeed, have seen an opportunity in adapting War of the Worlds to comment on the aftermath of 9/11, and call, as Wells had done, a civilization to judgment.

And little Dakota Fanning, cowering in the backseat of an SUV as poison-light seared the horizon behind her, would have screeched what she should have screeched: Is it the Americans?!?


[1] How his 2004 film Terminal, which followed Minority Report but preceded both Munich and War, and treats a fumbling buffoon stuck in an airport (played by perennial fumbling buffoon Tom Hanks), links into these three films would require a second viewing I find myself unwilling to extend it.  Perhaps, as in ancient drama, or as Marx so famously observed, tragedy must be followed by farce, and thus the film is a meditation on the horrors of longer wait-times while Homeland Security subjects the more darker-skinned (or, in Hanks’ case, more hilariously accented) of passengers to their perverse, procrustean ministrations.

[2] This moment of the merciless, relentless Real seems to haunt Spielberg’s oeuvre; recall in particular the “pre-crime” cops of Minority Report, who know your sins before you have committed them (yet always arrive just in time to cause maximum drama and collateral damage to all points of ingress in apprehending their targets), or the ludicrous (yet no less terrifying) moment in Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs pursuing the children unlock the door in order to gain access to the kitchen.


[3] While there is no shortage to examples in his career, see especially Shawshank Redemption, Robin Hood, Seven, Driving Miss Daisy, both of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the host of documentaries he narrates, and, at the ultimate zenith of the form,  the two “Almighty” films, in which Freeman literally plays God.