The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Cruise

I think Steven Spielberg’s movie, Empire of the Sun, is one of the great films of the eighties. So when it comes to expecting something special from Spielberg I hoped that H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds would be a such a vehicle.
As if you hadn’t noticed Spielberg is preoccupied with alien life forms -- they seem a preferred dramatis personae. If you like -- with ET and Close Encounters in mind -- that’s his market niche. So with a meaty, proven storyline, stolen from Wells, how could a film anckored by Spielberg dealing with an alien invasion of earth possibly fail?
If you want a straight narrative about alien invasion go revisit Independence Day. If you want an ethically nuanced sci fi interface, check out the Star Trek franchise. But if you want a modern invasion metaphor don’t rely on the War of the Worlds. By trying to straddle between contemporary events and an old storyline, Spielberg and his screenwriter, Josh Friedman, seem to have fallen off the high horse that may have prompted the exercise in the first place.
Toted, at least by commentators, as a post 9/11 scenario, The War of the Worlds attempts to turn on an everyman epic. Via good luck rather than through management or intrinsic talent for saving the day, there are no heroes here, just survivors . The film, despite the fact that the invasion fails to consolidate, has an eery bleakness. Gone is the triumphalism of Independence Day or the wonder of ET. Missing too is the comradery of Saving Private Ryan. It’s as though the world has been sentenced to this aberrant occupation through no fault of its own --and despite any investment we mortals may place in our own survival, there’s not one lesson we can learn from the horrible carnage these alien creatures have inexplicably decided to impose upon us.
Just as the science fiction movies of the fifties were rooted in the everyday interface of the Cold War, The War of the Worlds seems unashambly determined to expose us to a new genre of menace for its own sake. Whereas any previous exercise in danger so often sort to blame the government of the day or the nasty commies, here the bad guys aren’t even guys. With them there is no hope of dialogue and no appeasement. Good versus evil is hardly a level playing field when the survival of the species is at stake.
The War of the Worlds is essentially another disaster epic. If it’s not atom bombs or global warming or off course meteors which will try to take us out, the inexplicable savagery of these alien invaders will surely prevail. All we can do in the face of this threat is to grin and bear it and hope that in time it will go away.
Read into that as much of the war on terrorism as you like. For my money, I note an extreme ambivalence on Spielberg’s and his collaborators’ part. While they may accept that global terrorism exists what you do about is not at all self evident.
Unfortunately, the historical irony of this re-interpretation of Well’s novel fails to utilise the salient point the author was trying to make: that it was imperialism itself, invading and destroying indigenous peoples and cultures that spread this carnage. Imperialism (rather than something extra terrestial) was the Number One terrorist. If western powers colonised hither and yon with such dire consequences for native peoples, then that is on par with an Alien invasion such as this. For Wells the attempted genocide of the Tasmanian aborigines exemplified the intrinsic nature of that colonial intent.
Unfortunately, such an analogy being in anyway relevant to the War on Terrorism seems to have escaped Steven Spielberg’s comprehension.