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.
At this last juncture Spielberg pulls his punches, refraining from giving us the full taste of human defeat on the scale that Wells proposes. In the novel, after all, it is clear that humanity has been defeated. The movie ends with Morgan Freeman reading an adaptation of the passage where Wells exults briefly in the defeat of the invaders by bacteria to which humans themselves have become immune:
By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.
But this is a passive victory, a triumph of evolutionary biology. And further on, characteristically, Wells’s narrator changes course again. After indulging a reverie about human life “spreading slowly from this little seed bed of the solar system throughout the inanimate vastness of sidereal space,” he brings himself up short: “It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.”
Wells’s narrator follows this with an observation that might be the unspoken epigram of Spielberg’s movie: “I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind.” The doubt and insecurity permeate the film, even if the director acknowledges, with a final scene of the family all safely reunited, that there might be a limit to how much insecurity his audience will tolerate.
In H.G. Wells’s novel the narrator who tells us of the Martian invasion refers to his subject as “the great disillusionment.” Spielberg’s theme will, I suppose, be described by some as the loss of innocence, the American innocence that has been lost so many times only, apparently, to regenerate so that it may be lost yet again. The innocence lost in his film would be a lack of awareness of just how vulnerable we are to destruction by unknown forces. Wells’s “disillusionment” is much broader in its scope, just as his novel contains within it the seeds of a thousand variations, including the 1953 film produced by George Pal with its ambience of nuclear terror, graphic interpretations by artists ranging from Edward Gorey to Lou Cameron (whose comic book version for Classics Illustrated, soon to be reissued, is a model of spareness and restraint),* a rock opera in the Seventies, and the 1938 radio production by Orson Welles, which persuaded a good many unwary listeners that they were hearing live breaking news reports of Martian invasion.
The novel has not been exhausted, being one of those open-ended works that combine infinite suggestiveness with the most rudimentary of narratives. The Martians are more intelligent than we are; they arrive and devastate us as men would tread on an anthill; we would without question be destroyed except for that lucky business of the bacteria the Martians somehow failed to anticipate. Everyone remembers certain instants in Wells’s book—the first sighting of what appears to be a falling star, the discovery of the cylinder, the first encounter with the power of the Martian heat ray—but as far as plot goes the novel is monotonous in the extreme. The monotony comes from the scenes of wartime suffering that from his vantage point Wells could only imagine. Essentially the Martians go from place to place and destroy everything they find. The humans flee or resist in vain, despair, loot, get drunk, die miserably, hide out in coal cellars. One day it ends.
Because the story is so simple that it can be told in a single sentence, Wells tells it again and again, each time from a different angle. His anonymous narrator—a writer with scientific interests, apparently, comfortably settled in suburban Woking, Surrey, with a wife from whom he is separated for most of the book and an equally sketchy brother, inserted none too artfully, whose sole function is to provide eyewitness testimony of events taking place in London—is not so much a character as a mind set adrift by circumstance. What is most striking in rereading The War of the Worlds is how swiftly its moods and angles of vision can lurch from point to point. Adaptations inevitably smooth over the book’s texture, which is the result of thought revising itself, of emotions mutating unpredictably, of viewpoints turned on themselves.
Likewise Wells’s prose can dart from sermonic eloquence to notation as dry as a railroad timetable. The confident assertions of nineteenth-century thought give way to a stammering bluntness as the narrator finds himself unable to tell others what has happened: “I felt foolish and angry. I tried and found I could not tell them what I had seen. They laughed again at my broken sentences.” The book has so often been turned to graphic and cinematic uses that it is easy to forget the changes it works in language alone.
What Wells’s narrator meditates on is a game devised by Wells himself, with a measure of detachment verging on the misanthropic. In his Experiment in Autobiography he described how he “wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians.” The book might then be imagined as the soliloquy of a man who bicycles through the suburbs of 1890s London imagining their devastation, along with the devouring of their inhabitants by blood-drinking aliens. A secret antisocial fantasy is played out with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy moving pins around on a war map. In his private game he becomes complicit with the super-intelligent, all-powerful, casually murderous Martians; he allows some part of himself to go off on a rampage of vicarious massacre overseen by “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic,” a company he might well have preferred to the scared scurrying earthlings of the suburbs who play for the most part such an inglorious role in his novel.
All the same, another part of him contemplates the resulting carnage with horrified awe. A mood of trauma sets in, amplified in various registers by every person he happens to meet, like the “timorous, anemic” curate who complains: “Why are these things permitted?… What are these Martians?” There is no right response because what the Martians perceive is by definition beyond us. They are the devouring Other, superior, pitiless, and unknowable. Malevolence has nothing to do with it. All they can do for human beings, besides annihilating them, is to provide a momentary occasion to look at the human situation in a different light, to reconfigure existing definitions of what humans are.
At the same time, the protagonist’s disordered wanderings take on a visionary flavor. The narrator turns the events over and over, finding upsetting metaphors for the events that have occurred and equally upsetting contradictions in the way he reacts to them, reliving random encounters and insights in the midst of chaos as if they were episodes in some future scripture: “It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless, unprotected, and alone. Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came fear.” Biblical echoes proliferate even as the hero lashes out, for instance, at the curate’s evocation of “the great and terrible day of the Lord”: “What good is religion if it collapses under calamity?… Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent, man.” In its way the book belongs to a characteristic English mode of allegorical, more or less insular peregrination that can be discerned in works as disparate as The Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, John Clare’s hallucinatory account of his journey on foot out of Essex, and The Wind in the Willows. (Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn is a recent addition to that canon.)
All assertions in Wells’s novel are tentative; after the great disillusionment comes the age of permanent doubt. What appears true at a given moment—such as the ability of the human beings to outwit the Martians or defeat them with firepower—is bound to be demolished at some further point in the journey. Any hint of the heroic is invariably darkened, inverted, questioned, notably when the narrator is caught up in the early, optimistic expectation that the Martians, still just crawling out of their cylinders, will be quickly exterminated:
Something very like the war-fever that occasionally runs through a civilized community had got into my blood…. I can best express my state of mind by saying that I wanted to be in at the death.
As a narrative about alienated man picking away at his own motives the novel might be an ancestor of Nausea or The Stranger:
Perhaps I am a man of exceptional moods…. At times I suffer from the strangest sense of detachment from myself and the world about me; I seem to watch it all from the outside, from somewhere inconceivably remote, out of time, out of space, out of the stress and tragedy of it all.
The War of the Worlds is not so much an adventure story or a work of prediction as it is an extended contemplation of human limits and the overall tenuousness of human survival. The conformist life of the lower-middle-class Victorians savagely derided by Wells’s Artilleryman (a character who erupts into the book near the end and is allowed a long and unforgettable rant), the sort of people among whom Wells grew up—
working at businesses they were afraid to take the trouble to understand; skedaddling back for fear they wouldn’t be in time for dinner…and sleeping with the wives they married, not because they wanted them, but because they had a bit of money that would make for safety in their one little miserable skedaddle through the world
—is a thin layer bounded on one side by the uncontrollable world of microbiology and cellular evolution, on the other by the infinite coldness of an outer space that might well spawn an advanced intellect divorced from empathy. It is an impersonal and uncontrollable Darwinian process that sets up the inhabitants of Woking and Weybridge to be the victims of a mechanized warfare waged by beings incapable of pity for them, and leads to a Victorian gentleman being reduced (as we do not quite see Tom Cruise reduced) to gnawing the bones of cats and rabbits for sustenance.
Although Wells’s novel is shot through with satiric humor, the profound anxiety at its center remains palpable. It is the trauma of anticipation, foreseeing already the moment when someone will be forced to admit: “Cities, nations, civilization, progress—it’s all over. That game’s up. We’re beat.” What emerges in response to that fear is a reluctant identification with animals. The hero acquires
a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.
He imagines himself a rabbit returning to his burrow, to find that men have dug it up to lay the foundations of a house. Such images proliferate like hiding places—comfortless hiding places—within the otherwise monotonous accounts of human civilization burned and laid waste.
Wells’s novel remains a much tougher work than any of its offspring, and a richer one. Orson Welles and his scriptwriter Howard Koch took one aspect of the story—the breakdown of modern communications under the stress of the invasion—and translated it into a still exhilarating game in which radio’s means were turned against itself and drama culminated in dead air giving the answer to the question: “Isn’t anyone there?” George Pal’s 1953 film turned the book into an efficiently paranoid cold war entertainment, with tactical nukes failing to stop the invader, civil defense officials politely overseeing mass evacuations, and those left behind piling into churches as a last resort.
With Spielberg, the trauma of anticipation that animated Wells gives way to something like a nostalgia for that trauma. Its legacy of perverse beauties—the by now antique images that he lovingly refurbishes—is after all so much more bearable than the actual disasters that have followed. It is as if, in the face of more pressing terrors, Spielberg sought the comfort of Martians. For all its faithfulness to the demands of blockbuster filmmaking—with all that implies of playing to emotion and steering away, as Wells never does, from the convolutions of thought—his movie is also just faithful enough to Wells to convey what cold comfort that can be.
August 11, 2005