War of the Worlds

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Screenplay by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on the novel by H.G. Wells

Starring Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin, Tim Robbins, Miranda Otto

Rated PG-13; 116 minutes

I’ve been trying to parse out the political meanings — if any — in the most recent version of War of the Worlds, a.k.a. Aliens Invade so Tom Cruise Can Become a Better Parent. The film is a cinematically mind-blowing thrill ride, courtesy of one of the strongest visual storytellers working today, Steven Spielberg. Some of the sequences — the first alien ships rising from beneath the suddenly cracking streets of Bayonne, N.J., the ferryboat disaster, the close call in the farmhouse basement — will be studied for years by those who want to learn how to use CGI for maximum dramatic effect rather than simply to show off its possibilities.

Unfortunately, these sequences stand out from the rest of the film not only because of their cinematic brilliance but because the narrative containing them is so bland. Spielberg and his screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp have made a smart but difficult choice in focusing almost exclusively on the travels and travails of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) and his two children, resentful teenager Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and 10-year-old Rachel (Dakota Fanning). If all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, their way is fairly dull. And there’s precious little else in terms of story or subplot, with one exception (more on that later).

As several commentators have pointed out, the film’s creators dispense with all the usual sci-fi alien invasion tropes: the worried president and the steely, determined generals (sometimes it’s the other way around); the prescient, ignored-until-too-late scientists; the military’s ultimately fruitless attempts to vanquish the alien foes; scenes of the devastation worldwide to indicate the global scope of the disaster, etc. The few authority figures seen are some local cops and National Guardsmen, and they seem about as well-informed as anyone else onscreen.

This strategy works to the extent that it makes the story both more personal and much scarier for the audience (there’s no reassuring authority figure above Tom’s feckless divorced dad). By only letting us see what Tom sees, Spielberg reinforces his character as an Everyman and also makes us wonder how well we would do given so little information.

The Tom-as-Everyman strategy also has the effect of neutralizing, to a certain extent, the jealousy, bewilderment and all-around heebie-jeebies that Tom Cruise, Movie Star engenders in me. I’m jealous because his nutty theories on everything from mental health to religion are endlessly discussed, dissected and bandied about, while mine are broadcast solely to the select group of Grin without a Cat readers. I don’t think I need to explain the heebie-jeebies; if Tom Cruise isn’t yet Michael Jackson, he’s definitely following in the Wacko’s footsteps.

The forced identification with Tom’s character (he’s in virtually every scene, front and center), however, also makes it a bit harder to figure out what Spielberg may be trying to say with this version of H.G. Wells’ novel (which I admit I haven’t read). It’s become a commonplace to note that the various media versions of this story reflect the particular anxieties of their times: Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast, done in a faux-documentary style convincing enough to engender panic in unaware listeners, was an expression of Depression-era troubles and the looming Nazi menace. The 1953 film reflected the country’s fears of an aggressive, atomically armed Soviet Union. This WOTW plays on our terrorism-inspired jitters, with its alien sleeper cells lying unnoticed beneath the earth until they’re activated by a skyborne storm. Rachel even asks “Is it the terrorists?” — unfortunately a reasonable question when things start blowing up.

It’s not that simple, of course: part of the horror of 9/11 was that anti-modernism zealots used our own technology against us. In this film, it’s the aliens’ overwhelming technology that’s activated for no apparent reason, on some millennial, galactic timetable. Hmmm, what does that sound like? Sounds like Iraq to me, and possibly to Spielberg. The one subplot involves Tim Robbins’ survivalist/kook Harlan Ogilvy, whose basement shelters Cruise and Fanning for a few tense minutes in the middle of the film. Robbins talks about creating a resistance to the aliens, and even says lines on the order of “Invasions never work. History has shown it.”

So in this reading of the film, Tom and his family (and by extension the thousands of fleeing refugees they encounter) are Iraqi civilians, devastated by the aliens’ “shock and awe” but attempting to fight back against the invaders. This, of course, puts a whole new light on the insurgency in Iraq (and think how much more reasonable the insurgency would seem if it were called a “resistance,” which would bring up memories of brave Frenchmen outwitting the occupying Nazis in World War II). And who better to suggest this radical rethinking than reliably liberal, outspoken Tim Robbins?

Or is Spielberg actually undercutting this reading by casting Robbins? One could argue that putting this viewpoint — that the U.S. is the scary invader, not the scared invadee — in the mouth of an actor despised by Red-Staters as an icon of Blame America First justifies their ignoring this interpretation as more liberal hogwash. And Spielberg goes out of his way to make Robbins’ character as unappealing as possible (his panic almost gives away their location to the aliens, and there are creepy intimations that he’s a child molester).

Which still doesn’t quite explain to me why Ray finds it necessary to kill Harlan (couldn’t he just knock him unconscious?). Unless it’s to reassert that Tom, the American Everyman, is always right. And note that this is just before Tom finally stops running and does something heroic, helping to blow up one of the alien ships from the inside after being sucked into its killing hole.

Perhaps Spielberg’s real message is that when trouble strikes, it brings out both the best and the worst in people. There are scary scenes of mob violence in WOTW, the implication being that frightened people can be as dangerous as alien death rays.

There’s a further irony, which is courtesy of Wells, not Spielberg: it’s not man’s military might or his scientific know-how that defeats the aliens but the tiniest microbes, which humans have built up immunity to over the eons but which attack and petrify the aliens. The narration, in the sonorous tones of Morgan Freeman, attributes this to a benevolent God’s design, but it happens so suddenly that it mainly looks like a lucky break for humans. Whether we deserve this lucky break is a matter for further discussion.

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