Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Spielberg Spectacle: War of the Worlds Movie Reviewed

by William S. Kowinski

Steven Spielberg grew up in the 1950s: the era of Cold War cinema, bug-eyed monster movies and the first golden age of science fiction film. If he saw George Pal's "'>The War of the Worlds" when it first came out, he would have been no older than the little girl played by Dakota Fanning in his version, with the title shortened to "'>War of the Worlds." Or he might have seen it a little later, at a Saturday afternoon matinee, where generations-from Gene Roddenberry's childhood through Leonard Nimoy's to Spielberg's---first fell in love with the movies.

Some suggest that Spielberg wanted to make an alien invasion film in the 1970s but took it in a different direction in "'>Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Then he thought about it again, but decided to make his alien angelic for '>"E.T." and save the demons for "'>Poltergeist," which hit theatres the same year.

This time there's no question: the aliens are bad, and bent on destruction and domination. We know it must be true, because the lowest register Morgan Freeman can reach has told us this.

The central human relationship in the novel was a man alone trying to get back to his generic wife. In the film it was the love story, that paradigm of 50's sci-fi films, the Scientist and the Girl (sometimes the Beautiful Daughter of the Elder Scientist, sometimes a scientist herself, but in this case the preacher's daughter.)

But Spielberg already used a variation on this relationship for "Close Encounters," and virtually stole from the Pal film the key scene where the lovers (Richard Dreyfus and Melinda Dillon) fight through a crowd to reunite. This time the key relationship is a father and his children, principally his young daughter. The arc of the film is less about aliens than a man becoming a good father. He isn't actually any less lonely at the end (even though he's watched by his ex-wife's father, played by the scientist-hero of the Pal film, Gene Barry) but he's proven himself.

That seems to be the chief reason the aliens invaded. None other is really given. The Wells book is dripping with evolutionary and political metaphors and explanations. In the 50s it wasn't necessary: the aliens were the Soviets and Godless Communism, and everybody knew they were out to destroy and dominate us. In this film, we are supposed to believe that aliens from an unnamed place---but given the realities of the early 21st century, somewhere way outside our solar system---had planned this invasion for millions of years, had deliberately buried their fighting machines (I can almost hear the crewcut astronaut types in "'>2001" chuckling over their sandwiches on the moon, checking out the monoliths: "Deliberately buried, eh?") and shown up to be delivered into them in lightning bolts.

These aliens are shown to be insect-like beings who look a lot like, well, "'>Alien" aliens, but where is Ridley when you need her? They don't seem to talk to each other (telepathy perhaps), and they don't appear very bright. Still, they've managed to build these fantastic machines and travel interstellar space. And somehow they knew millions of years ago that they would need this planet. Maybe they could figure out that they were going to pollute their planet completely but couldn't figure out how to prevent it, which I suppose makes them a lot like us.

And having mastered space travel they neglected their studies in fundamental biology (yes, after months of hot air about how this one wasn't going to end the same old way, with the aliens killed by earth bacteria, the little things "which God in his wisdom put upon the earth," that's exactly the ending, with the crowding around the dying fighting machines very similar to the 1953 movie.) They made the mistakes timid tourists to Mexico avoid: they drank the water.
(The additional writing for the final Freeman voiceover was excellent, though.)

This being a Spielberg movie, the effects are terrific and the action is completely believable. You don't want to think too hard about the Tripods, how those long tentacle-like legs actually work (or why other aspects of them seem very machine-like but the tentacles don't), but they are great to look at. They, and especially the viewing devices, pay equal homage to the 1953 movie and to Wells. And the specific disasters have never quite been done like this---even the cars popping into the air, a la '>Superman and '>Independence Day, etc.--- seem a fresh well-integrated part of the action.

Besides the Wellsian tripods (although had Wells believed heavier-than-air flight was possible---he only let his Martians experiment with it---he probably would have made them fly), this movie conflates two minor characters in Wells' novel, and merges them in Tim Robbins. In the novel, the narrator shares a harrowing confinement surrounded by Martians, as in the film, with a semi-hysterical clergyman, and has a separate encounter with a character called the Artilleryman, who talks about resistance and rebellion but doesn't especially want to do anything about it. In a strong performance, Robbins combines them, and comes across predictably schizoid.

As for the politics of this movie, there are a couple of references to terrorists (both by children) and Robbins comment that occupiers never win (but he's crazy), so if you're keeping score on pro-Bush or anti-Bush it's kind of a wash. The scene in which people captured in giant scoops, to be turned apparently into fertilizer (Wells' Martians literally drank human blood; he had a thing about cannibalism), form a human chain to prevent Tom Cruise from being sucked up, was deftly done, with an understated "working together" message. But maybe it was all too understated. The screenwriter has earnestly announces he wrote an anti-war film, and specifically an anti-Iraq war film, but, well...

The Pal film had a lot of religious symbolism, which is part of what made it frightening to people in the 50s: at first it seemed not even God could stop the Martians. Churches were prominent in the final sequence. But in this film, the first machine erupts from under the street, and the first building it topples appears to be a church, but that's about it.

The Pal film showed us real people endangered, even if they happened to be scientists, but more of the bigger picture: governments, military strategies, etc. Wells' novel follows two fairly interchangeable narrators (brothers in different places) but his narrator thinks in scientific terms, so he has theories about what he's seeing. This movie is about a working class guy who loves cars more than people, going through an ordeal, pursued by monsters that keep reminding him of his internal and behavioral inadequacies, i.e. he was a lousy parent, and probably a lousy husband (although his ex-wife clearly married up, jumping from a crane operator to what looks like Old Money, and lots of it.)

It was a nice ironic touch, though, to have the hot-rodding Cruise character mock his wife's new husband's SUV as looking "safe," and then have him steal a similar vehicle for his escape.

Some viewers and reviewers felt that deaths were more realistic and meaningful in this film than in most. Maybe they get to know people faster than I do, but I didn't see it. You saw people disintegrate a touch more clearly than in similar films, but the early scenes of Tom Cruise running untouched while almost everyone around him is killed, and every building seems to immediately blow up or fall down just after he passes it, his invulnerability is emphasized. You know he's going to survive to the end.

One of the more frightening scenes in the Pal film is the riot in the streets of LA that stops the scientists from getting to safety, where they could work on a way to stop the Martians. There was a similar scene in this film, but the stakes were only personal. And that's really the difference, it seems to me: the monsters are just special effects, they could be any persistent, horrific danger that tests the Tom Cruise character. There are a few shots with that hallucinatory look of the celebrated D-Day landing in '>Saving Private Ryan, but the horror is so focused on Cruise and his forward momentum that the general slaughter seems less important.

After seeing this movie, I couldn't help thinking about its younger audience---kids the age I was when I saw the Pal film. Although I was a pre-teen when I saw that first version (being almost exactly Spielberg's age), I identified with the hero-scientist and carefully watched his relationship with the Girl, how they acted, how they treated each other, etc. When they were separated I felt the personal merging with the larger disaster, and with doom seemingly certain, it seemed right for people to try to be with someone they loved.

In this film, I wonder who young viewers are going to identify with. Will they really identify with the daughter, the son? Can they possibly identify with the father? I would love to know the answer to this. Maybe the emotions in this film are more authentic, and people can put themselves in the place of these ordinary people on the run.

Then again, maybe kids weaned on video games don't need to identify with any characters to enjoy the action; maybe that's Saturday Matinee era thinking.

It was suggested that this would be a more faithful adaptation of Wells' novel, and in some respects it is. But like many movie versions, it loses the meaning and the elegance of the concepts worked out in action and images. Wells basic point was that the Martians were what humans could very well evolve into---huge-brained beings totally dependent on their machines---if evolution proceded on strictly Darwinian lines, without intervention by human ethical or other higher order feelings and thinking. In behavior, the Martians were what Europeans were to Indigenous peoples in America, Africa and other places they invaded and colonized, in the name of progress. All of that is lost. This movie seldom strays from the level of sensation.

In recent interviews, Spielberg kept emphasizing that all he was trying to do was make an exciting movie for the 4th of July weekend. His first idea for The War of the Worlds was as a thrill ride at an amusement park. Maybe we should take him at his word. I'm not sure I'd even call this a science fiction movie. Maybe a kind of domestic disaster film. In any case, a great spectacle.


Barry C said...

You commented that "The screenwriter has earnestly announce[d] he wrote an anti-war film, and specifically an anti-Iraq war film, but, well..."

The analogy is obvious. So obvious that it's hard to see how critics of the film could miss it.

The aliens are to Earth as America is to Iraq. War of the Worlds shows us what it is like to have one's country invaded by strangers with vastly superior technology who are bent on conquest, destruction and/or extermination.

Captain Future said...

I'm glad you saw that in this film. Wells intended his novel to convey that idea, of a homeland invaded by technologically superior strangers--in some ways that was the genesis of the story, as Wells himself said. He had his narrator talk about it, and there are lots of associations made in the writing.

I didn't see the same kind of reinforcement of the idea in this movie, but I'm curious to know if it came through to others.

Thanks for your comment.