posted to www.marxmail.org on July 5, 2005
Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is a real mess, but an attention-grabbing one nonetheless. With its set pieces involving vast crowds being zapped by extraterrestrial tripods, you find that you can’t take your eyes away from the screen. The film has the same morbid fascination as a large-scale highway crash.
Since Spielberg is a past master at choreographing large-scale action scenes in films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Indiana Jones” and “Jurassic Park,” it is no surprise that his latest satisfies on the most visceral level. When the film takes breaks from the mayhem, it slows down considerably.
Those breaks consist almost exclusively of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) berating his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) as they make their desperate escape out of New York City toward Boston, where their mother–his ex-wife–lives. It seems that the two kids don’t quite get that the Earth has been invaded by space creatures and are more concerned about where they get to sleep or go to the bathroom, and what they eat. Like any spoiled brats, they insist on the best. As such, their whining has the same effect on the audience as a garden rake being scraped across a blackboard.
Ray Ferrier is not much better. He is a completely selfish individual who never expresses one word about the fate of humanity. His only interest is in his own survival and that of his children, who he doesn’t seem to like very much. One assumes that it is only instinct kicking in rather than love when he stands up to a space creature in a climactic scene who is threatening to make a meal of his daughter.
By featuring a dysfunctional family, Spielberg is returning to one of his chief obsessions. In many of his films, you have an absent father and children traumatized by divorce or separation just as was the case in 1966, when his own parents were divorced. As one might suspect, there is very little interest in a Spielberg film about why the American family began to implode in this period. This would require an examination of social institutions that is beyond his grasp.
While one imagines that Tom Cruise was selected for the lead solely on his box-office appeal, it is an interesting coincidence that he was defending Scientology unabashedly during a tour promoting the film. Scientology is a cult that is based on the writings of science fiction novelist L. Ron Hubbard, who often focuses on apocalyptic confrontations in outer space. John Travolta, another Scientologist, made a completely wretched film in 2000 titled “Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000.” Slate.com’s David Edelstein described this clunker as follows:
“A central tenet of Scientology is that humans are manipulated by alien spirits implanted within the species thousands of years ago. What better proof of this than John Travolta’s decision to produce, partially finance, and star in an adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s 1,050-page 1982 science-fiction tome Battlefield Earth? Only alien DNA could account for instincts so paranormally terrible. Here is a picture that will be hailed without controversy as the worst of its kind ever made. It could be renamed Ed Wood’s Planet of the Apes if that title didn’t promise more cheesy fun than the movie actually delivers.”
One wonders if Cruise, after consulting with Travolta, had some input into the script for “War of the Worlds” since the alien tripods were similarly implanted on Earth millions of years before the actual invasion was launched. These are profound questions for our age.
There have been some efforts to wrest deeper socio-political meanings from Spielberg’s film. For example, some interpret as a veiled critique of the war in Iraq with Earthlings as a stand-in for Iraqis. It has been noted, for example, that Robbie Ferrier is working on a term paper about the French war in Algeria when the space aliens attack. In another key scene, Tom Robbins, who plays a deranged survivalist, tells Cruise that all invasions are doomed from the start. People will always resist outsiders. There is also an allusion to September 11th as flyers with photos of missing loved ones, ostensibly victims of the death-dealing tripods, flood building walls.
Perhaps the main message of Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” is that humanity exists in a Hobbesian state. With a leading character who is interested solely in his own survival and that of his offspring, and a climactic scene involving desperate people fighting each other for a seat on a ferry boat that might provide escape from the space invaders, there is very little sense of the sort of solidarity that Spielberg (and collaborator Tom Hanks) were trying to invoke when they got caught up celebrating the allied forces of WWII.
Turning to an earlier production of “War of the Worlds” (and a much better although dated film), the 1953 version dramatized the collective efforts of Americans and their overseas allies to resist the invasion through the same kind of alliance that defeated Nazism. It was obvious to one and all, however, that the space aliens were stand-ins for the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, films such as “War of the Worlds” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” clearly articulated the fear of the alien who would destroy our way of life if not stopped in their tracks. By making the main character a research scientist, the 1953 film puts the emphasis on trying to understand how the aliens operate in order to destroy them. By contrast, Tom Cruise as anti-hero seeks only to take the next step out of harm’s way. When his son decides to join an army attack on the aliens, he practically has to wrestle him to the ground to save him from certain death, even if an ennobling one.
Orson Wells drew upon H.G. Wells’s novel for his 1938 radio production that played on pre-WWII jitters. When people turned on their radio as the show was in progress, many actually believed that the Earth was being invaded. Yes, this was the USA after all.
I don’t want to give away the ending of Spielberg’s film, but I suppose most people realize that the “good guys” win. It seems that the space invaders lack immunity from common viruses and die of what appears to be a bad cold. In the final moment of “War of the Worlds,” one of the creatures is slumped in the doorway of his tripod with a running nose. He bears an odd resemblance to the cuddly E.T., when he too takes sick.
In voice-over narration, Morgan Freeman explains that Homo Sapiens had earned the right to rule earth because it had developed a resistance to disease over the millennia. It struck me that this ending inverted what had happened in the New World, when the invading European exterminated the indigenous peoples with smallpox, measles and other diseases that they had not developed a resistance to.
In looking at H.G. Wells’s novel, I learned that this was something very much on the mind of the author. In chapter one, he writes:
“And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.
“And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, 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?”
Inferior races, indeed. As a member in good standing of the Fabian Society, Wells was susceptible to the social Darwinism that leader Beatrice Webb fostered. She was strongly influenced by Herbert Spencer and came to believe that human progress was determined very much by genetics.
It was only a small step from such a belief to the “science” of eugenics. It was a step that H.G. Wells took enthusiastically and that influenced a number of his novels including “War of the Worlds”. As David Levy and Sandra Peart pointed out in an article that appeared in the March 26, 2002 Reason Magazine (a libertarian publication), H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” tells the story of a future Earth where humanity has evolved into two separate “races.” “Descendants of the working class have become subterranean, ape-like, night creatures who live by eating the decadent descendants of the old upper class. This evolutionary nightmare reflected Victorian ideas about race and hierarchy, and about the undesirable direction that evolution might take if the better sort of people didn’t intervene.”
Wells was very impressed with the work of Francis Galton, a pioneer in eugenics. While Galton entertained ideas about promoting a better human being à la Nazi science, Wells was more concerned about the dangers of mixed breeding. Here is what he had to say about the black/white intermarriage: “The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease. I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live.”
Levy and Peart describe the odd affinity that Wells had for Stalin:
Wells was nothing if not energetic. Late in his life, his discussion with Joseph Stalin about the good society was published with comments by G. B. Shaw, J. M. Keynes and others. Unlike Stalin, who trusted that the Party would bring progress, Wells believed in the Scientific Elite. “Now,” he told Stalin in 1934, ‘there is a superabundance of technical intellectuals, and their mentality has changed very sharply. The skilled man, who would formerly never listen to revolutionary talk, is now greatly interested in it. Recently I was dining with the Royal Society, our great English scientific society. The President’s speech was a speech for social planning and scientific control. To-day, the man at the head of the Royal Society holds revolutionary views, and insists on the scientific reorganisation of human society.”