Over a century ago, H. G. Wells gave the world a new genre of fiction, the alien invasion story, in his novel The War of the Worlds. In a way, Wells’s creative situation mirrored that of his aliens, first-time colonizers taking an unprecedented step in setting out to conquer a new world.
Five decades later, director Byron Haskin, who helmed the first cinematic adaptation of Wells’s classic story in 1953, was in a somewhat similar position. At least, alien invasion cinema was still basically new territory, though Haskin didn’t exactly invent the genre. A number of similarly themed films were released that same year; a few may even have preceded it by a year or so. (If there were any alien invasion films prior to the 1950s, I don’t know what they were.)
In his new rendition of War of the Worlds, both Steven Spielberg and his alien invaders are in a very different position. In this War of the Worlds, it turns out that the aliens aren’t coming to Earth blind. The groundwork for their invasion was laid long ago, by previous generations of aliens who first came to Earth and planted their deadly tripods below the planet’s surface, to await the day when they would return to conquer the Earth.
Similarly, Spielberg himself isn’t approaching this premise blind. By now the territory has been well explored, the possibilities of Wells’s premise extensively hashed out, by generations of storytellers of varying levels of creative skill as well as scientific and military insight.
Novels like Footfall, Ender’s Game and The Forge of God have probed the theoretical possibilities with the penetrating speculation of a Tom Clancy thriller; if aliens ever really did invade, such novels might well wind up looking as prescient as the fiery climax of Debt of Honor looked on September 11, 2001. (Alternatively, a real alien attack might take a form no one could possibly have guessed.)
On the screen, stories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the TV miniseries "V" offered thoughtful takes on the premise. A 1996 film called The Arrival provided one of the smarter cinematic variations, though it was dwarfed that year by the silly popcorn actioner Independence Day. More recently, M. Night Shymalan’s Signs explored the spirituality of alien invasion — though its aliens seemed woefully ill-equipped for the conquest into which they had expended so much effort, and were undone by a preposterous vulnerability that elicited groans of disbelief rather than cheers.
Now, with the new War of the Worlds, it’s amazing how far the aliens haven’t come. Spatially, of course, they’re coming much farther than before; Mars is no longer a credible homeworld for invading aliens, so Spielberg’s attackers have presumably crossed intersteller distances to get to Earth. Technologically, too, the invaders’ weapons are as far beyond those of Haskin’s film as the cutting-edge special effects of today are beyond those of 1953.
Yet the alien invasion makes less sense in this retelling, as does their undoing, though it is the same as in previous versions of the story. As with Shyamalan’s aliens in Signs, it doesn’t make sense that these aliens would be so unprepared for what becomes their downfall. After all, unlike their counterparts in previous versions, these invaders have been to Earth before, perhaps a million years ago or even more.
Think about what this means. For hundreds of millennia, these beings have possessed intersteller travel, not to mention serious planet-conquering military hardware. They’ve had the will and the capability to bring heavy-duty weaponry to other planets in preparation for a conquest far in the future. And now, hundreds of millennia later, they still have the will and the know-how to come here and use it.
Clearly, interplanetary conquest is an immutable part of who these aliens are and what they do. How many other planets must they have visited, explored, conquered since first visiting our planet, or even before? Surely there can be very little about the potential pitfalls and hazards of this kind of work that they don’t know. To be that advanced for that long, to put in that much preparation and time, and then to make a mistake that basic, is more than a plot glitch. It’s a fundamental flaw that all but defies suspension of disbelief.
Why would the aliens even go to all that effort in the first place? How do they benefit? Why not just wait to ship the tripods here until they’re actually ready to invade? What’s the advantage of having them here in advance instead of doing it all in one shot? Suppose in the past century or two we had happened to discover their tripods and somehow disable them or even learn to use them? Or suppose we had blown ourselves, the tripods, and the rest of the planet into oblivion? Then what good would all that elaborate preparation be?
What do the aliens even want? Earth itself? It was theirs for the taking a million years ago; why not just take it then and there? Why bring high-tech weapons to a no-tech planet, then wait around a million years for the natives to develop technology so you need your technology to defeat them? Was it us they wanted? For what? For food? Slaves? Lab rats? How could we possibly be worth all that effort to them?
Perhaps none of these questions would matter if the aliens’ behavior provided the basis for some sort of insightful character drama, shrewd observations about human nature, or at least clever plot twists. But it doesn’t.
That’s not to say the film is boring or uninvolving — far from it. Spielberg is far too accomplished a director to make a really bad movie. He knows how to keep viewers on the edge of their seats, how to play their nerves and emotions like fiddle strings, how to subordinate the most incredible special effects to the narrative so that they feel to viewers like real events, not impressive technical achievements.
Under his efficient, assured direction, this War of the Worlds is consistently gripping, even riveting excitement. Yet it’s rather grim, joyless excitement, and not very satisfying in the end. Other than sheer spectacle, the film is about little more than the experience of desperation and flight in the face of unimaginable crisis.
That Spielberg dresses this up in the trappings of 9/11 imagery — the missing-persons displays, the dust-covered survivors — gives the film some topical cache, but there’s no commentary or catharsis here. Batman Begins, a far better summer film, also played (far more subtly) with 9/11 themes, but at least there the conflict was about something — the bad guys had motives, the hero fought for a principle, and the resolution was earned, not unconvincing or arbitrary. (I don’t mean the obligatory finale from Wells’s book. This War of the Worlds has three "climaxes," one unconvincing, one obligatory, and one arbitrary.)
How do human beings respond to extreme crises? War of the Worlds doesn’t slow down to ask. There’s lots of running around and screaming, a few instances of mob ugliness and general human selfishness, and at least one crackpot. But in real life there’s another side to this coin: Crises bring out the best in humanity as well as the worst. Unfortunately, like James Cameron’s Titanic, Spielberg’s film only highlights the ugly side of human nature under pressure, without managing to celebrate the capacity of ordinary human beings in crisis to put others first and even risk their lives to aid strangers. (There is one brief scene in which a pair of strangers show concern for a seemingly abandoned child — but their efforts, though well-meaning, are misguided, undercutting even this minor moment of uplift. A later scene of cooperation among strangers, coming as it does at a moment when no one has anything to lose, doesn’t quite count either.)
Nor is there any room in this relentless story for any spiritual searching or reflection, another ubiquitous dimension of human response to crises. The aftermath of 9/11 also included overflowing churches and synagogues, but that’s one 9/11 image War of the Worlds has no interest in exploring. (Instead, in the violent manifestations before the first tripod appears, someone cracks that God is angry at the neighborhood — and then the first building demolished by the first tripod is a church. At least the crackpot isn’t a religious nut here, as he is in the book.)
I see I’ve gotten almost all the way through this review without mentioning that the film stars Tom Cruise as an irresponsible, working-class divorcé and deadbeat dad, and Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin as his rather disaffected children, Rachel and Robbie.
Well, there’s not much to tell. Ray (Cruise) is the kind of ex-husband that any responsible ex-wife, such as Miranda Otto, would dread leaving her children with every other weekend — the kind of guy who would have only peanut butter and tabasco sauce in the fridge when the kids show up for their weekend with dad, and who invites his 10-year-old daughter to order out for herself while he takes a nap, leaving her in the care of her older brother Robbie, who’s likely as not to take the car and ditch his sister.
Robbie is such a self-centered jerk that even though he repeatedly accuses his dad of not caring about him or little Rachel and only wanting to ditch them with their mother, and even though Rachel has desperately begged her big brother to stay with her and take care of her during the alien invasion, Robbie is determined to abandon his sister with their father and go off on his own to try to help the armed forces take on the enemy.
I understand why Spielberg wishes to tell his story through the eyes of a few particular characters — just not why he chose these particular characters, who are neither particularly interesting, sympathetic, or important.
The film has taken lumps from critics over the "happy" coda, a character-centered denouement that I found not so much calculated or manipulative as pointless; I would have had to care about the characters more to feel manipulated. Personally, I was more bothered by the improbable, dissonant heroics of the de facto dramatic climax, as opposed to the obligatory narrative climax.
Yet, in spite of the failure of the whole, Spielberg makes the parts work so well that War of the Worlds is almost worth it. Individual set pieces are riveting, and one seldom doubts that if alien tripods were actually wreaking havoc on the Earth, this is indeed very much what it would be like. Afterwards, though, one is left with little more than ashes.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.