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Fear made visible

Spoiler alert: There are some plot details revealed. You may want to see the movie first. In 1898, H.G. Wells wrote the world's first first-contact science-fiction novel, War of the Worlds. It described a sudden invasion of London by hostile Martians in massive three-legged war machines, vaporizing humans with heat-rays. This is a story that resurges in popularity when the Other is perceived as an unknown threat; a previous film version was made in 1953 during the height of the Cold War, and this one comes to us four years into the “War on Terror.”

Spielberg's film version stays remarkably close to Well's original, although it probably shouldn't have; our current knowledge of technology and space travel, limited though they are, give us a much better view of some of the prerequisites of colonization than the Victorians had (such as making sure a planet is habitable before trying to conquer it). However, he does offer some unique twists, the most obvious one of which is that the tripods come up from the ground instead of down from above. The alien war machines seem to have been here for a long time, at least before New York became a city. One character later claims that they've been here for millions of years, and no one offers a different explanation. This begs the question “why not attack Earth when the inhabitants still thought sticks were high technology?” It's a completely illogical twist, yet the image of the tripods exploding from the ground is unforgettable.

The eruption of the alien machines from the ground plays on the anxiety of our times, namely that underground groups, which have perhaps been in our midst for some time, can rise up and cause untold havoc upon our way of life. This is clearly a reference to the widespread fear resulting from the 9/11 attacks. Dakota Fanning, playing Rachael Ferrier, the protagonist's young daughter, even asks "is it the terrorists?" at the beginning of the attack.

Fear still repressed

In his novel, Wells repeatedly reflected that there was little difference between the actions of the Martians, and the actions of the British Empire in invading and conquering other kingdoms around the world. He seemed to sense that the external enemy is a reflection of our interior shadow, the evil and destructive force within. But Spielberg's version is without any sort of moral reflection. And as in Threshold, there is no mystery about the aliens' intent; they obviously mean to either vaporize us or use our blood as fertilizer for their red vegetation, xenoforming Earth into their idea of a suitable home. Thus, it's either us or them in a nightmare scenario of having to face an implacable enemy with vastly superior technology.

I find this troubling because this nightmare scenario echoes so closely the persistent presentation of nightmare scenarios by this Administration that led Congress into approving the Iraq war. Paranoia is as pernicious a cause of violence as resentment and greed. When the ego feels threatened, its instinctive reaction is to respond fearfully with what it perceives as the outside danger, whether real or not.

Spiritually, the emotion we project onto the Other is the reflection of our own internal psychology. When we are love, we love the Other, and see them as loving us. When we are fearful, we see the Other as bent on destroying us. Because most of us are mixtures of loving awareness and fearful repression, we generally love some, but hate or fear others. Universal love eludes us because we are ignorant of our own darkness. For this reason, spiritual teachers have urged us for millennia to “get the log out of our own eyes first”, before trying to “fix” the world.

As a popcorn thriller, however, War of the Worlds mostly succeeds. And at $136 million dollars (one of the most expensive films in history), it certainly should. I was fairly glued to the edge of my seat most of the time, despite that as with his earlier war movie, Saving Private Ryan, this felt oddly backwards, beginning with an astonishing climax early on, followed by two hours of less-compelling material.

But its greatest weakness is simply that hardly any scene makes sense. This may not matter when first watching it, but when I remembered any scene after seeing it, I was shocked by how nonsensical they were:

  • A digital camera shown to be working seconds after pains are taken to shown that nothing electronic works.
  • A crashed airliner is completely devoid of bodies or even a drop of blood.
  • Ferrier easily escapes the tripods by driving on a freeway choked with stalled cars.
  • A mob later attacks him for having the only working car in the area, when a ferry a few yards away is loaded with cars that have driven onto it.
  • A tense scene of avoiding aliens in a basement is repeated three times before the story moves on.
  • Birds flock to perch on a wildly swaying tripod as soon as its shields are down. (Have you ever had birds perch on your car when it's moving?)
  • The ending. Oh, please. For once, Steven, let us feel the loss of an important character.

I would've expected better from even a novice filmmaker, but the fact the Spielberg created such a shoddy mess was surprising. For superb effects, I give WOTW three frims. Yet WOTW is a catalogue of missed opportunities; from avoiding questions of how Empire today tramples the less-powerful to impose its ideals by force, or honestly looking at the grief a family might experience in such a disaster, WOTW disappoints.

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Introduction | Surface | Invasion | Threshold | War of the Worlds
Movie stills © 2005 Paramount Pictures.