Monday, June 06, 2005

Spielberg's Wells Preview: We have met the Aliens...Are they Us?

By William S. Kowinski

This is the full version of an article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle "Insight" section on Sunday, June 5. More here on Wells etc. next week.

Now that George Lucas has shattered box office records with a cautionary space opera tale of a democracy transforming itself into the dark side of empire with a war fought on false pretenses, that other reliable colossus of the summer blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, follows with the mother of all space invasion stories. This time the empire is contemporary America, and it is being attacked by its own future.

At least those were subtexts to H.G. Wells novel, '>The War of the Worlds, published at the apex of British power at the end of the nineteenth century. Spielberg's movie reportedly diverges in several important respects: besides the change of time and place, the alien invaders are no longer Martians and they don't arrive in capsules which the population mistakes for meteors.

The central character is not a scientist/philosopher separated from his wife and on his own, as the invaders lay waste to the English countryside and then destroy London. Instead it's Tom Cruise as a previously indifferent urban working class father who must save his children from the pitiless power of the highly advanced, voracious and invulnerable invaders. But in other respects, the film appears to follow Wells' story at least as faithfully as earlier adaptations.

Spielberg's 1970s and 1980s cuddly aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" were in striking contrast to the usual cinematic monsters from space. Though his filmmaking skills will likely still inspire wonder, this movie's intent is to scare the popcorn into the audience.

Wells' story has been reliably scary in previous adaptations, notably the '>1938 Orson Welles Mercury Theatre radio version which transferred the action to New Jersey and caused newsworthy panic in several American cities, when the format of fake newscasts convinced some listeners a real invasion was underway.

The previous big screen version was a Technicolor attack in 1953, effective enough to scare at least the nine year olds (like George Lucas) and seven year olds (like Spielberg and me) who saw it then, or more likely a few years later at a Saturday matinee.

H.G. Wells died in 1946 (the year Spielberg was born) so he was very much alive to hear about the panic caused by the Orson Welles version, and he was furious. He didn't like his work turned into a Halloween prank to scare people (the broadcast was on October 30.) That was not the message he had in mind.

Of course he was still out to scare people--- but for a purpose. He was incensed by the complacency of Edwardian England in a world he knew was about to change radically, and he tried to shock his "The War of the Worlds" readers with intimations of a type of warfare---arriving from the sky, and attacking not just armies but civilian cities---they would start to see in the Great War, but would not fully experience until World War II.

But "The War of the Worlds" was more than a prescient and brilliantly told tale that launched a thousand bug-eyed monster movies. The terrors that Wells imagined resonated with the unconscious foreboding in his readers, already anxious about the ominous arms build-up in Europe. (Later incarnations would do likewise--the 1938 war worries fulfilled at Pearl Harbor, the 1953 Cold War fears.) But Wells elegantly weaved several other related concerns into his novel, which also pertain to our time.

The first is empire. Wells recounted the genesis of his story several times: he was walking with his brother Frank in the peaceful Surrey countryside, when the conversation turned to the native inhabitants of Tasmania, an island south of Australia, who were eradicated when the English transformed the island into a prison colony. What if some beings from another planet suddenly dropped out the sky, his brother wondered, and did the same to England?

Wells' chief narrator refers to the Tasmanians, who "in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"

It is a passage heavily laden with Biblical imagery, hinting at the religious fervor that hypocritically accompanied such genocides. Wells extends the analogy to American Indians (even quoting Chief Joseph's famous "we will fight no more forever" as the Martian invaders lie dying from earth's bacteria, the opposite of the fate suffered by American Indians, nearly wiped out just by the diseases European invaders brought with them.)

But while Wells (along with his friend, Joseph Conrad) was opposed to the rampant European colonialism of their time and its ongoing slaughters in Africa and elsewhere, anti-imperialism wasn't entirely Wells' point.

H.G. Wells was a firm believer in Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, as interpreted by Darwin's friend and Wells' most important teacher, T. H. Huxley. They believed that competitions for dominance will be won by the creatures fittest to dominate in that environment at that specific time. But present dominance does not guarantee future superiority.

Though his complacent countrymen (and their counterparts in America) believed they were naturally superior and would always be, Wells didn't see the evidence in nature for such confidence. "In the case of every other predominant animal the world has ever seen," Wells wrote in an essay, "the hour of its complete ascendancy has been the eve of its entire overthrow." So even though technologically superior England and the West conquered indigenous peoples, they could just as well be conquered by beings technologically superior to them.

There is yet another irony in Wells story. He portrays the aliens as an older and more advanced race, whose planet has turned inhospitable. Their technology is imposing and unconquerable, but when his narrator glimpses an actual Martian, he is as surprised as he is repulsed. The Martians are physically weak, with huge brains and almost no bodies.

In fact, they look very much like what humans will evolve into, the narrator says, at least according to a distant relative of his, named H.G. Wells. This is the fate of humanity when it becomes dependent on technology. Humanity is being conquered by its own future. But only temporarily (although the nature of the aliens' demise is rumored to diverge from Wells.)

Though in his novel Wells several times suggests that we consider the point of view of peoples that Europeans conquered, he never creates sympathy directly for the Martians. We see nothing from their point of view. They always remain utterly and inscrutably alien, with no trace of humanity. They are relentless, coldly efficient, highly coordinated, and utterly rapacious. They collect humans only for their food. Everything on earth is simply for their use.

Some would say this is already a portrait of the present. We have built mighty technologies and ignored the consequences to the physical world that ultimately nourishes us, and is as much a part of our bodies as our individual brains and lungs. Not heeding this will be our undoing, as physical weakness was for the Martians.

The imagery of Spielberg's film may tap into today's fears of terrorism, of aliens with technologies of mass destruction, but ultimately it should show us the shadow of our own complacency, particularly in terms of where our thoughtless dependence on our dominant technologies may lead us.

If we think of these aliens as simply the Other, a throwback to 1950s space monsters or stand-ins for whichever foreigners we fear threaten us, then Wells' point is lost. He is asking us to face ourselves.

Like Huxley, Wells believed that humans could step outside natural evolution by engaging consciousness, ethics and morality. The process of imagining ourselves the victim of our own blind actions is a step that this novel helps us take. Perhaps Spielberg's film will as well.

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