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Cold Comfort

War of the Worlds

a film directed by Steven Spielberg


Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a movie at once authentically unsettling and deeply nostalgic. The nostalgia is for scary, long-cherished fantasias concerning alien invasions and men from Mars as filtered through boyhood comic books and drive-in movies and tattered paperbacks, a whole century of cheap thrills summed up and transfigured in a return to their primal source, H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel. But Spielberg doesn’t try to reproduce the camp goofiness of Mars Attacks! or the video game hijinks of Independence Day: he wants us to care about what is happening in front of us, as if we were contemplating this scenario for the first time.

That would require a return to childhood, a return to the childhood of the genre to which he has devoted so much of his energy and to whose historical permutations he can (and in this movie does) allude almost reflexively. (In passing I registered fleeting, virtually subliminal hints of The Birds, Alien, Night of the Living Dead, The Day of the Triffids, Panic in Year Zero, Quartermass and the Pit, and The Poseidon Adventure, not to mention Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park, whose raptor in the kitchen is paralleled here by aliens in the basement.) We would need to feel again how much our nostalgia is imbued with real terror, even if it was a terror at one remove, just distant enough that we were able to play inside it. War of the Worlds aspires to be a compendium of Wells and all that sprang from Wells, an all-in-one package that might serve as something like a child’s introduction to cosmic fear. It feels inevitable that the movie should come to revolve around the haunted face of a child, the inscrutably traumatized ten-year-old played (with an intensity in itself rather disturbing) by Dakota Fanning.

The world seems particularly expendable in Spielberg’s opening scenes when we see it from the vantage point of Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, a New Jersey dockworker living in disordered solitude since his wife left him, and brimming with hostility at the prospect of being dumped with the kids while his ex goes off for the weekend with her new partner. (Cruise, in a performance more restrained than he has been giving on television lately, manages capably his character’s journey out of sullenness into the sustained urgency that the rest of the picture requires of him, but it is not a role that calls on much range.) Spielberg’s foray into kitchen-sink realism conjures up a mood of dead ends, of life as a continual round of taunting and bickering in prefab houses. Imagine the movie continuing in this vein without the arrival of the aliens. In the event—no surprise—the extraterrestrial invasion will provide a chance for some real quality time enabling Ray to discover that he does actually care whether his children live or die.

This family drama seems too calculated an interpolation, fulfilling too neatly the Hollywood requirement that all movies must involve the “redemption” of at least one central character. The H.G. Wells novel followed a more austere and solitary course, as its anonymous hero mostly hid out and watched from the sidelines while the disaster unfolded. He was there as an observer; it was the fate of the race that was in question. Here we are often distracted from the magnitude of the catastrophe by worrying about what will happen to Ray, his teenage son, and his ten-year-old daughter, as if—with inescapable movie logic—the fate of the rest of humanity took second place to Ray’s need to establish a good relationship with his kids and get them safely back to their mother in Boston.

It is hard to work up much interest in a redemption that is a foregone conclusion; but it doesn’t matter much since the overwhelming speed and scale of the events that overtake this family unit leave them blessedly little time for extended conversation. After the son runs off to join up with the soldiers who are counterattacking the aliens—the dialogue suggests a floating analogy with the Iraq war—we are down to father and daughter, with Cruise hoarsely singing the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” as a consoling lullaby in the face of ultimate horror, and Fanning beginning to take on the aura of a designated martyr for humanity in general in a world where the worst suffering is to survive.

The personal drama, such as it is, reaches its peak with a very effective scene that works a variation on Wells. In the novel, the hero is finally forced to knock senseless the curate with whom he has taken shelter, and whose gathering hysteria endangers both of them. It is left ambiguous whether he has killed him or knocked him out, but the narrator notes by way of apologia:

Those who have escaped the dark and terrible aspects of life will find my brutality, my flash of rage in our final tragedy, easy enough to blame…. But those who have been under the shadow, who have gone down at last to elemental things, will have a wider charity.

Spielberg enacts a comparable scene in which Ray is forced to kill the raving survivalist (played rather hammily by Tim Robbins) who has offered them refuge, and must blindfold his daughter so that she catches no glimpse of the act. The blindfolded eyes serve to underscore the recurring image of Dakota Fanning’s wide-open eyes elsewhere in the film, while the matter-of-fact bluntness of the offscreen killing weighs more heavily than the explosions, fireballs, and flying debris that accompany the advancing aliens. It’s a bleak and rigorous moment that offsets the impulse, here and there indulged, to unleash the special effects for the full summer blockbuster joyride.

War of the Worlds is scary in all the places where it’s supposed to be: in the splitting apart of the pavement as the aliens—planted underground long ago—first emerge, in their attack in their giant tripods on the ferry boat trying to cross the Hudson to evade them; in the exploratory twisting of the aliens’ extensible observation arm through the basement where the humans cower silently. Spielberg does this sort of thing as well as any director ever has, and still seems to enjoy it. The catastrophe is delivered as promised: as it must be, to fulfill the promise of an adrenaline-fueled theme park ride to keep the American summer—not to mention the American movie business—alive. Some of the most efficiently scary scenes—that arm in the basement, for instance, which is milked for all it’s worth—serve as something like comfort food, reassuring us that we’ve seen this sort of thing before but that this time it’s going to be better than ever.

Yet the movie is full of indications that Spielberg wants if not to spoil the fun then at least to complicate it, to lace it with a dash of what might even be anguish. He wants to let something of the real world in, most markedly through visual echoes of September 11 and its aftermath. On one hand the movie is a game, a conscious display (if we needed it at this stage) of Spielberg’s technical mastery; on the other it reaches toward what might be prophecy, or passionate allegory, or exhortation to mindfulness of real human suffering. This is where the unsettling part comes in, because for all his deliberateness as a filmmaker Spielberg cannot altogether control the undertones of despair and gnawing anxiety that his images elicit.

The reminders of September 11 interwoven here—panicked dust-covered people running through the streets, handmade wall posters for missing loved ones, stunned bystanders wandering through airplane wreckage—evoke a dread that spills over into everything else, until the movie itself begins to seem an entertainment played out on the site of a disaster, like the street performances that sprang up in the ruins of bombed Japanese cities. Contemplating the face of the little girl who appears genuinely traumatized by all those corpses floating down the river, some lines of Emily Dickinson drift into mind:

Would not the fun

Look too expensive!

Would not the jest—

Have crawled too far!

The war going on here seems to be a war over where exactly the fun starts or stops.

That conflict between uncomplicated fun and real-world grief can hardly be resolved in Spielberg’s movie, but the pressure it creates finds its outlet in certain images of exceptional beauty. It’s in the scenes of the Martians themselves, and the devastation they wreak, that Spielberg finds a way out of his dilemma in vistas that have the solemnity of one of John Martin’s Victorian tableaux of the Day of Judgment. He plants the alien tripod machines, with their annihilating heat rays and their spindly legs that flex like tendrils—with a dedicated fidelity to the descriptions of H.G. Wells that make them look positively antique—into a world just drab and wounded enough to pass for real.

The aura of virtual historical reality that Spielberg labored to create for the ghetto takeover in Schindler’s List or the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan is here imparted to an invasion that might as well be historical: the devastation of twenty-first-century New Jersey by illustrations from a Victorian scientific romance. These almost fussily perfect vistas, like the extraordinary moment when the alien machines are seen from a distance standing knee-deep in the Hudson to feed on their human prey, evoke a peculiar kind of history painting: Landscape with Tripods, perhaps, an exercise in the Spielbergian sublime, where what devastates us does, from a certain angle, possess an undeniable abstract beauty. These spacious set-ups have a gaudy splendor far removed from the cramped dullness of the ordinary world on which the aliens intruded, a world in which the sole note of aesthetic liveliness was provided by a children’s cartoon show.

The effect is of reliving scenes we experienced in the novel, in Orson Welles’s notorious radio play, in the comic book, and in the 1953 movie version, but with the suggestion that this time they’re really at hand. We have arrived at that apocalypse so assiduously imagined in all its variations for the last hundred years: the foundering of the everyday and its shockingly abrupt replacement by a different order of things, an order from which there can apparently be no more than a temporary escape. Earth is overgrown with red alien weeds.

The movie fulfills itself in such images, even if it cannot sustain their mood into the final scenes. Spielberg is faithful to the rough outline of the novel—the sudden collapse of the aliens and the revelation that they have died from exposure to Earth’s bacteria—but he cannot give it the solemnity of Wells’s last pages. Here the wrap-up seems almost as perfunctory as one of those Fifties sci-fi movies where the air force discovers, say, that the flying saucers are susceptible to high-frequency noises and saves the planet in the last five minutes. The difference is that in Wells the protagonist walks through a dead and emptied London—“The windows in the white houses were like the eye sockets of skulls”—and is utterly alone when he hears the wailing of the dying Martians: “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla.” The scene, like many in the novel, has an uncanny poetry that in Spielberg’s version is crowded out by the mob of onlookers and soldiers who make nonsense of the idea that the human race has come close to extinction.

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