No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were being scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
At the beginning of Steven Spielberg’s version of War Of The Worlds Morgan Freeman gives a reading of these famous words that is so shoddy and tone-deaf that I immediately knew I was in trouble. This was only confirmed when we cut to Tom Cruise stacking crates down the docks before being told that he is not any old crate stacker but the best damn one in Jersey (with an awesome car to boot.) There is an interesting twist to this working class hero schtick; Cruise is actually a jerk and both his kids are dicks. This makes the inevitable Spielbergian family drama rather spiker and more involving than usual.
Then Spielberg hits an insurmountable barrier: the plot of the novel. You know, the aliens, the invasion, the tripods; you simply can’t tell this story in this day and age because none of it makes sense. It is not even vaguely plausible and putting it on screen in a big budget, modern day re-make makes this abundantly clear. To his credit, though, Spielberg does manages to add plenty of fresh idiocy of his own so even if you can get passed the fact that this interstellar civilisation has decided to expend untold resources to cross the gulf of space and pointlessly slurp human blood then there are still plenty of opportunities to sit back and say: “well, that was dumb.”
Todd Alcott takes the probably wise view that we should ignore the fact it is a load of old cobblers and instead focus on the symbolism:
So if War of the Worlds is an allegory, who are the humans and who are the aliens? A straight-ahead reading suggests that the humans are decent, working-class Americans and the aliens are the creepy, unknowable members of whatever International Islamic Jihad conservatives would have us believe waits and plots to take over the US (through their Manchurian Candidate Obama, of course — how sneaky, how diabolically clever, to have your inside man have the middle name “Hussein” — excellent work, International Islamic Jihad!) Read this way, the movie suggests that the Jihad may attack America, and they may try to turn us all into Muslims, but ultimately they will fail and die — because we’re American, damn it, and our blood is poison to them. In this reading, the mini-drama in the basement of the country house pits Decent Blue-Stater Tom Cruise against Rabid Red-Stater Tim Robbins in the battle of how best to respond to the threat.
Alcott puts himself in the mind of a conservative but you could also do a liberal version of the same reading. The aliens are terrorists attacking the major cities of the US causing panic. The humans are repeatedly depicted as being ignorant of the events that are unfolding around them. The army has no interest in protecting civilians because they are in such a rush to attack the enemy but despite all the firepower they pour at the terrorists it has no effect. Cruise’s son still joins up immediately even though it is clear he can make no difference and is directing his energy towards the wrong goal. However, the shock and awe of the terrorist attack cannot be sustained, it only lasts a short while before the organisation starts to rot from the inside. As it does so Cruise (a civilian) shows the army how to finish it off. Then he is re-united with his son and ex-wife and he can rebuild his family (ie America.)
In this reading Red Stater Robbins is an honourable man with an honourable job (ambulance driver) who is nonetheless unhinged by a psychic wound (Vietnam) and the resultant paranoid fantasies threaten everyone’s safety. Which gives Cruise no option but to settle his political argument with Robbins by going with him into a small room and – more in sorrow than in anger – beat him to death. A lesson for Democrats, I’m sure.
But another way to read the movie is that the humans in War of the Worlds are the Iraqis and the aliens are the American Army. It’s the Americans who invaded a country for no good reason, destroying the societal fabric and the physical infrastructure, provoking a civil war between factions of the population. In this reading, Cruise becomes the Regular Iraqi Citizen and Robbins becomes the Wild-Eyed Insurgent. In both readings, the regular-man protagonist becomes increasingly radicalized as the threat comes closer and closer to destroying the only social structure that matters — the family.
This is actually a reading I was thinking about whilst watching the film but for the opposite reasons. Cruise is hiding out with Robbins in the ruins of his house. They have been attacked indiscriminately by machines of war bring death from above. Now, for the first time, they see the invaders face to face. And what I was thinking was how much less scary and alien these aliens were compared to US troops. The aliens are merely fish-headed auditors having a dispassionate look around. They are calm, silent and uniform. Their presense is non-radicalising. Unlike Alcott I don’t see that Cruise is radicalised by this encountered and this is where his reading breaks down.
A third way to read the movie, of course, is that the humans are the United States and the aliens are the Neo-Conservatives, who have been lying in wait for many years, waiting for their chance to pounce and take over the world, eliminating all their competition for the sake of total dominance, turning the population into quivering masses or digesting them outright. In this reading, the movie turns prophetic, suggesting that the hubris of the Neo-Conservatives and their “Permanent Republican Majority” is as ridiculous a notion as the English empire that inspired H.G. Wells to write the novel in the first place, the Nazis who inspired Orson Welles’s version of the story, or the Communist Menace who inspired the 1953 George Pal version.
Who says science fiction isn’t prophetic? Spielberg got this one right!
Elsewhere, my old friend Gary Westfahl suggests no, the tripods are the makers of the film:
It is difficult to determine whether the creative forces behind War of the Worlds — director Steven Spielberg and writers Josh Friedman and David Koepp — ever saw themselves in the insidious aliens and machines of their story, but arguably there are telling signs. The tripods in this film, unlike those in H. G. Wells’s novel, are equipped with spotlights, the iconic symbol of the Hollywood premiere, and the very first tripod emerges in the middle of Merchant Street. Perhaps this is only an allusion to one of New York City’s most famous disasters, the Great Fire of 1835, which started in a warehouse on Merchant Street, but this may also signal that everyone involved in this alien invasion approached it primarily as a marketable product: you spend 200 million dollars making and publicizing a movie with sure-fire appeal, and you earn 400 million dollars at the box office.
I’ll admit to a soft spot for this reading because watching War Of The Worlds I did often feel like I was under assault from a vast and unsympathetic entity. It is a dire film notable only for some brilliant visual images and some surprisingly direct stealing from Spielberg’s own Minority Report.