Erik Jaccard, one of 10YA’s A-listers, returns from a re-view hiatus (those dang dissertations!) with Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, addressing European colonialism, the theory of evolution, and the challenges of adapting H.G. Wells for modern times.
War of the Worlds
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Before I’d even started this re-view I was already patting myself on the back. I’d decided that after my first rather scathing re-view of a poorly adapted H.G. Wells novel (see my March 2012 piece on Simon Wells’ The Time Machine), I was going to let my current offering—Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds—breathe more freely and be itself. And by that I meant mostly that I wasn’t going to hammer it for straying too far from its source material, which I’d been unable to do on the prior occasion. This time around, to my surprise, I found myself wishing the film had strayed from the original material, tied as I believe that material is to its original historical and intellectual contexts. So now I find myself with a hand frozen in mid-back pat because I’m not sure whether I accomplished what I set out to do. By the end of this re-view the answer will be clearer, but that hand will also be firmly back in my pocket.
I kind of wish I had a cool personal story to relate about the time I first saw War of the Worlds, but I don’t. When the film was released in the summer of 2005 I was living in Prague and I have a distinct memory of the film’s poster plastered around the city’s many metro stations: Tom Cruise holding a terrified Dakota Fanning, both of whom are set against the an ominous scorched earth in the clasp of an insidious alien claw. In fact, more than anything I remember the Czech title for the film—Válka Svĕtů—because it produced, as all foreign posters for Hollywood films tend to do, a kind of uncanniness in my linguistic receptors. Here was an international symbol in Tom Cruise translated into the local vernacular, and the disjunction seemed amusing. Also, I recall noting the Czech phrase’s brevity: Czech doesn’t have articles, so everything is boiled down to two words: war and worlds. Anyway, I’m rambling to make up for the fact that I don’t really have anything to say. I didn’t see it then and only first watched on DVD later in the fall. As I recall, I was distinctly underwhelmed at first viewing, mostly because nearly everything about it seemed at best passable, aside from maybe the visual effects, which had clearly been one of the production’s biggest expenditures. [It was later nominated for all those sound and visual effects editing Academy Awards that no one really cares about and it lost all three to King Kong]. I was bored by the personal drama between the Cruise character and his children and, having seen the 1953 adaptation, I mostly waited for the part where the humans get melted by alien heat rays, as that’s the bit which had stuck with me as a kid. Aside from that, the entire affair was fairly forgettable and I honestly didn’t think much about it afterward.
I can see now that this was a little unfair of me. At that point in my life I’d decided that I didn’t appreciate Steven Spielberg’s consistent need to deflect darkness in the name of syrupy sentimentality and I think my reaction to War of the Worlds was immediately colored by an expectation that this film would also conform to that model. It did—it does—but it’s actually significantly darker than most Spielberg films not called Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan and it admits of little heroism and scant opportunities for resolution or redemption. On one level at least, this adaptation then wants to move away from the stupidly enduring optimism of the alien invasion genre, which Wells essentially invented, and which would insist that humans always find a way to defeat their seemingly invincible attackers. War of the Worlds doesn’t really hold out hope that humans will save the day. Instead, the dominant emotional registers in which its larger drama operates are confusion, bewilderment, and numb trauma. No one knows what is going on and no one is going to fix anything. As is the case with most catastrophe narrative, all you can do is stay alive. If you maintain a sense of decency along the way, all the better (most don’t). I also remember thinking back then that I didn’t find the film’s visual effects impressive in comparison to the ongoing parade of summer blockbusters currently on offer. Watching it this time around I realized that this wasn’t so much the issue as that the best of the visual work is confined to the film’s first hour or so, after which the plot slows considerably to accommodate some of Wells’ original exposition and character development. While the fact that the second half of the film drags may have something to do with my perception that the whole hadn’t been much good, I’m quite certain that the finale did. I’m going to say more about it below and thus won’t get into it in too much detail here, but I’ll simply say that the deus ex machina invoked in order to bring War of the Worlds to a close beggars belief and seems far too much like contrived narrative closure intended to help us feel just a little bit better in a darkened world. I think I blamed Spielberg for this in 2005, not understanding that it was actually Wells who had conspired to bring down the aliens by such obvious means.
Rather than continuing to grasp at reasons for my initial disdain, however, I’d like to think through my reaction to the film this time add a great deal more context and analysis that I probably wouldn’t or simply couldn’t have undertaken in 2005. In doing so I feel like I have to start with that first re-view of The Time Machine, which I argued wastes a number of profitable opportunities to engage with the socio-political critique embedded in its source material, and thus to deliver on the narrative and critical possibilities of an adaptation to twenty-first century circumstances. This was particularly relevant given the film’s shift in location from England to the USA, where a surging gap in the distribution of wealth was beginning to create conditions similar in ways to those seen in late Victorian and Edwardian eras. As I said then, I wished that the film had been able to balance both the romantic and scientific elements that make up its generic coding and that it could then have done more with the critique implied by the ‘science’ part. In other words, I wanted less romantic schmaltz, less showy digital effects, and more contact with the book. With War of the Worlds, however, I had the opposite reaction: nearly everything about the film seems dated or dysfunctional to me now, and I think a large part of the problem is that it sticks too closely to the book. WhereasThe Time Machine supplies an elastic model for critiquing class relations which I thought could use updating, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remains trapped in the specificity of its late nineteenth century intellectual and historical contexts of its source material.
Two of these—Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and the emergence of large-scale European colonialism—are especially important for understanding Wells’ War of the Worlds. It’s common knowledge that the theory of evolution revolutionized how Europeans perceived their role in the world. No longer could humans—and in a colonial context ‘humans’ means Europeans—assume that their place atop a global pecking order had occurred because they were special or favored by a higher power. Rather, evolution relativizes and subverts social hierarchy insofar as it links the entire species to a common point of origin, thereby making us different effects of the same initial cause. This has the power to undermine colonial power relations because it makes the domination of one group of humans by another a blatantly immoral exercise in arrogance. Yet, the theoretical flattening out of the human ‘races’ by virtue of a shared biological origin did not stop Europeans from attempting to dominate other human beings. Instead, it just provoked a major adjustment in ideology: because they were, by the nineteenth century, clearly more developed in material terms, Europeans came to think of themselves as the most highly evolved of the humans, a notion which then worked to justify the de facto enslavement of ‘inferior races.’ On the one hand, structuring the world as such meant that land could be expropriated, resources could be extracted, and free labor could be acquired; on the other, Europeans could tell themselves that they were doing this for the good of those inferior races. After all, being lowlier, so-called savage peoples required lifting up into the light of the civilized world and Europeans were the ones who, as they told it themselves, had been handed this heavy burden.
However, one of the most problematic things about the theory of evolution is that it creates a sliding scale along which species/peoples can rise or fall depending on their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. This implication provoked considerable anxiety among metropolitan Europeans in the Victorian era, accustomed as they were to thinking of history in terms of the eighteenth century’s notion of progressive enlightenment. Suddenly, the new scientific dispensation implied that being at the top of the pecking order didn’t mean you would stay there permanently. Evolution didn’t just mean ‘progress,’ as it could also signify digression, devolution, and especially degeneration, which was a particularly vexing concern in fin de séicle Britain. To the late Victorian world the very existence of ‘inferior’ indigenous peoples proved this troubling suggestion and opened up the possibility that those atop the current power structure (in this case, the British) could either fall back into an earlier state of savagery (the premise behind The Time Machine) or have their own position usurped by a more highly evolved species. Enter Wells’ Martians, who capitalize on the latter anxiety precisely by tipping the scales and ironically transforming the mighty British ‘race’ into a textbook colonial victim.
The very idea of a Martian invasion of Earth purposefully inverts the scenario of the European colonial encounter, situating the Europeans as natives and the Martians as their technologically advanced natural superiors. Wells’ scenario makes this clear in nearly every way. The Martians have a more complex and developed intelligence precisely because they have been evolving for longer. His writer protagonist describes Martian anatomy in intimate detail, noting that their bodies have atrophied at the expense of their much larger brains (another trope repeated from The Time Machine). While this makes them vulnerable physically it makes them imposing technologically, and their prowess in this arena far outstrips that of their human counterparts. The Martian war-machines (the infamous ‘tripods’) tower over human armaments and reduce them to smithereens either by crushing them or blowing them to bits with a near-invincible heat ray. The desire of the lowly Europeans not to be extinguished is reduced to the image of a wooden spear bouncing meekly off the reinforced armor of a tank. In the novel Wells makes direct reference to this context when he draws the reader’s attention to the similarity between the brutal violence of the Martian colonial invasion and that of Britain’s extermination of indigenous Tasmanians earlier in the century:
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…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?
The critique of colonialism outlined here in the form of the Golden Rule—don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you—forms the backbone of Wells’ critique of the social and political status quo of late nineteenth century Britain. By inverting the relationship we are meant to imagine what it would be like on the receiving end the colonial brutality, a turn in perspective which would seemingly rebut facile ideological arguments for European domination and tacitly admit to the same conclusion reached by Joseph Conrad’s Marlow inHeart of Darkness: Under their darker skin and beyond their seemingly strange customs, the ‘savages’ are the same as us. Therefore, so the logic goes, in killing and exploiting them, we are essentially killing and exploiting ourselves.
The main point of this digression is to suggest that the entire story carries the weight of this contextual baggage and, no matter what you do with the bare bones of the idea, the outline of the original context will always be there because it’s built into the narrative fabric: the seemingly unstoppable invasion of a technologically superior species; the symbolic transformation of the conquerors into the conquered; the breakdown of civilized order into barbaric chaos; the threatened degeneration or extinction of the human species. This narrative shape is tied to the historical context in which it emerged. The aliens invade as a giant land army because they are modeled after nineteenth century military models; they lust after our resources the way they do (nakedly, cruelly, and openly) because they are essentially the inverse representation of European greed in the nineteenth century; they come bearing superior technology because in 1900 it was thought that all you needed to ‘win’ a war was better soldiers and bigger guns. But while the story has stayed the same, the framework in which we receive it has evolved. Capitalism works differently now, as does colonialism and racism. Science is light years beyond where it was at the turn of the twentieth century. We haven’t moved beyond any of these things, of course, but they aren’t the same either. This means that any successful adaptation of the story made more than a hundred years later will need to provide new contexts in which to understand the form, new anxieties and fears which can drive motivations and lend a Martian invasion significance in the twenty-first century.
My problem with Spielberg’s film is that because it lacks the guts and bravado to take on this challenge, the end result is uneven and oftentimes frustrating. Rather than creating, or at least referencing, a new context in which an alien invasion might be made meaningful, it A) retains the shape of the story without fulling committing to a frame of reference such that it can only B) play up the sentimental family drama in the film’s foreground. For clarity, I’ll discuss these things in order.
First, the story. While scriptwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp change a little here and a little there, mostly in terms of updating the setting and background to the twenty-first century, they retain the majority of the earlier story’s basic plot. Like Wells’ novel, the story opens with a narrator (Morgan Freeman, in full God/Father Time mode) who offers a prologue to the attack: hundreds of thousands of miles away aliens have been patiently watching us and coveting our green and bountiful planet, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and take it for themselves (the notion that these aliens might be Martians is left out of the new account, probably because we now know that there isn’t much life on Mars). One ordinary day a series of freak lightning storms strike across the globe, acting as de facto electromagnetic pulses and shutting down terrestrial communication networks and all electric machinery. At first humans—and in this case, a working-class neighborhood in the greater NYC area—are nonplussed by the seeming regularity of the lightning: it strikes over and over in the same spot, spread over hundreds of different spots. Curiosity and awe soon turn to horror as the lightning strikes activate massive metallic fighting machines piloted by—we learn later—alien beings intent on either destroying or enslaving (though mostly destroying) all of humankind. Naturally, faced with the blunt terror of the alien attack, in which hundreds are vaporized by seemingly invincible alien heat-rays and highways, houses, and cars are destroyed as though they were toys—human societies descend into chaos. The military is called in and their attempts to repel the attack prove fruitless—the alien technology is far superior. Chased over hill and dale and slaughtered wherever they try to flee or hide, humans are reduced to cowering sub-creatures at the mercy of their new alien overlords. Finally, after days of slaughter, during which time humans also witness the aliens beginning to terraform the planet with human blood and tissue, the alien crafts mysteriously weaken and become strangely vulnerable. At this point the narrator concludes the tale with the underwhelming simple explanation that, while the invaders were prepared to handle us, they were not prepared for the earth’s myriad microorganisms, which make them sick, allowing us to shoot them with our previously useless rocket launchers and ultimately save the day. Humanity escapes to live another day, hopefully chastened and unwilling to return to their erstwhile state of complacency.
As I have explained above, this general outline makes a lot of sense when read in a specific context and it still resonates most vividly within a particular historical conjuncture. However, this does not mean it couldn’t work actively in others. The filmmakers have stated publically that part of their intention with the film was to express a certain sense of exhaustion and helplessness in the traumatized years following the attacks of September 11, 2001. I see this operating at a distance in the film’s script, which has Cruise’s son ask confusedly whether what’s happening is the fault of ‘the terrorists.’ The change of location to New York City also reinforces this potential resonance, as does, I suppose, a general sense of confusion in the wake of catastrophe. But these scattered indicators are really all we have to go on and I don’t think I’d be alone in suggesting that, if 9/11 is meant to be primary historical reference point, there is too little in the film to make this clear or purposeful as an interpretive tool. What we’re left with, then, is a whole lot of destruction and despair that doesn’t seem to be grounded in anything. The disaster thus becomes curiously empty and incomplete, an effect without an acknowledged source code to which we can trace its form, and in reference to which we might hear that form speak meaningfully. A lot of large-scale alien invasion narratives also suffer from this problem, but some of these tend to deflect the emptiness at the center of their premise by playing up both the adventurous and comical potential of their story.Independence Day, for example, features an invasion scenario that is generally the same as Wells’ but does so with the added bonus of enigmatic characters, splashy acts of unlikely heroism and intelligence, and silly but tension-draining one-liners. War of the Worlds does what many would consider the admirable thing by going out of its way to break the Independence Day mold; no major landmarks are destroyed, there is no comic relief or romantic sub-plot; it isn’t made immediately clear that the humans will likely triumph. However, while it evades these clichés, it doesn’t fully commit to the darkness either.
This has two noticeable effects as far as I could tell this time around. The first is that it puts far too much pressure on the foregrounded interpersonal dimension of the story, which follows a divorced, working-class man’s attempt to reconnect with his kids and develop into a responsible person and father. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a longshoreman working on the docks in the greater New York City area. As we learn, he is somewhat estranged from his children, who live with their mother (Miranda ‘Don’t call me Eowyn’ Otto) and her new husband, some hedge fund manager who seems responsible and respectable and level-headed; in other words, all the things that Ray is supposedly not. We’re mostly left to fend for ourselves in determining why the kids are put off by him, though it’s implied that he’s selfish and irresponsible and therefore not a good father or husband.. He has clearly alienated his teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwin), who gets to rehearse all of the ‘why weren’t you there?!?’ anger requisite for the jilted son role. His daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is more forgiving but seems written mostly to be rescue bait, precocious child, or close-up shot fodder for moments when we’re all supposed to be really, really scared. The gravitas of this more private situation hinges on Ray’s ability to be there for, and ultimately connect with both in the face of tragedy. As Robby notices, Ray’s attitude for much of the story seems to be a mix between ‘Oh my god, I want to save myself but I have these kids to take care of!’ and ‘Oh my god, if I don’t get these kids back to their mom alive, she’s gonna kill me!’ And I suppose the point of this is for Ray to realize that he is connected to the kids in a fundamental way, that they aren’t just little weird objects who get dropped off with him every few weeks. His assumed complacency about them is then mirrored in the larger complacency of the society at large, which was too consumed with itself to notice disaster looming. Thus, the personal dimension actually becomes the missing grounding for the attack, which, severed from any other identifiable context, ends up as a metaphor for one character’s redemption. So, even though millions die and this massive military metaphor runs rampant across the world, Ray proves his worth to this kids and all is forgiven. As in so many of Spielberg’s films, something worthwhile prevails, but at the expense of turning the darkness into a means to an end.
This leads to my second (and final) argument, which is that, because the film makes the metaphorical layer of the macro scale stuff (the invasion, etc) subsidiary to the character drama, it loses out on the ability to say something interesting about both. And this is where I come back around to the tone of my earlier re-view of The Time Machine. I don’t wish thatWar of the Worlds had been closer to the book necessarily, but I wish it had been closer to the world. The form of Wells’ story, which it consents to reproduce, has immense potential to comment on global concerns, which it can other ignore or engage. In 2005 the United States, where the producers choose to set the film, was in the second year of the War in Iraq and the fourth year of the ongoing ‘War on Terror.’ As much as ideologues and apologists would like us to believe that both of these conflicts are/were about defending or promoting democracy or freedom, it seems clear now that we’ve had a decade to think it over that what democracy and freedom mean in the context of a massive invasion and occupation is never cut and dried. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was, as many have noted, a land and wealth grab on a massive scale [though the land part was temporary]. While it didn’t follow the same route as nineteenth century colonialism, it produced some of the same effects: mass civilian deaths, the shifting of power from one group to another, the extraction of resources, and particularly the freeing up of capital. This latter effect is what freedom and democracy mean in the contemporary world; if individuals become free to open a business or worship as they please or decide between MacDonald’s and Burger King, this is a secondary effect of the fact that capital has been freed first. However, the freeing of capital tends to be a tremendously disruptive process, particularly for societies which see older, established cultural forms and traditions upended by the new movement of ideas and products and paradigms across formerly solid border. Predictably, many resist, and must then be forced to comply.
In her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the journalist Naomi Klein argues that what happened in Iraq was the perfection of a model of social ‘shock therapy’ which had been deployed strategically in a variety of locations since at least the 1970s. The premise, borrowed from Cold War-era experiments in brainwashing and personality disintegration, was that shocking a population sufficiently can induce a kind of traumatized paralysis. While in such a state, people are liable to agree to or ignore a variety of things, not the least of which is the fact that the fundamental reality of their world is being changed under their feet. If some resist, and some always do, you brand them enemies, capture them, and shock them some more in the form of torture. By the time you’re done the world they see is the world you want them to see.
The fact that War of the Worlds consciously ignores the world which it otherwise accepts as a default reality only says to me that it was not willing to take a risk. It’s not as though Wells’ scenario wouldn’t work in this new context. The very fact that the filmmakers acknowledge that they’re dealing with catastrophe and trauma only makes it clearer to me that one could combine the colonial critique inherent in the original with a new colonial context by way or producing a filmic document that was at least more specific. If the film forces us to occupy another position—that of the object of mass violence—then it seems logical that we occupy something more direct and relevant to our experience than a faded historical analogy (Wells’ Tasmanians) or a complete abstraction. It’s very difficult for me to look at human beings in the film running away from violence in frightened chaos and see Wells’ exterminated Tasmanians. At best I get a muddied picture of ‘natives’ doing the same, probably culled from depictions I’ve seen in other films. However, somehow it’s much easier for me to put myself in the shoes of someone similar cowering in a Baghdad doorway while American fighter jets scream by overhead, dropping bombs in their wake. If the film is about shock and awe and terror, specifically the terror of being the lowly hunted, it makes sense to me to give that shape some shade and outline, rather than reducing it a vague shadow because we simply don’t want to acknowledge that we’re the aliens and that we’re still invading, that we’ve always been invading. Ultimately, when the alien hand reaches out from its destroyed war machine at film’s end, grimacing and evil and monstrous, we’re supposed to catch a glimpse not of a real creature from another world, but rather of some form of ourselves, of the anxiety and irony of our existence. Spielberg’s film leaves that out, which perhaps produces a final irony: when we cheer the death of the alien and breathe a sigh of relief, we don’t even know that the alien is us.