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Thursday 30 June 2005

The Monsters Are Due on Merchant Street:
A Review of War of the Worlds

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Screenplay by Josh Friedman & David Koepp; based on the novel by H.G. Wells

Starring Tom Cruise, Justin Chatwin, Dakota Fanning, Tim Robbins

The enormous tripods of the Hollywood film industry are invading again, devastating the media landscape and driving hordes of people out of their homes and into their neighborhood movie theatres. Fortunately, the disruption to everyone's lives will only be temporary, because the juggernaut behind the campaign, like so many of its predecessors, will prove to be surprisingly fragile, as it gradually succumbs to the microbial attacks of thousands of tiny creatures known as reviewers and critics.

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. As Tom Cruise's character Ray Ferrier admits in the film, "I work for a living," and he and everyone else involved in this project are undoubtedly garnering a healthy paycheck for their labors.

Intentionally or not, Wells's implacable Martians (though not identified as Martians in this film) may represent a variety of things. On the most general level they are, as Wells stated in a 1934 preface to an omnibus of his novels, an "assault on human self-satisfaction." His specific intent was to vicariously subject his European readers to the brutal process of colonization that they had arrogantly inflicted upon the rest of the world, while in the 1953 film adaptation the Martians seemed emblems of godless Communism, eventually given their comeuppance by a benevolent God. As if determined to cover all the bases, Friedman and Koepp's script dutifully nods to all these interpretations. The deranged Ogilvy (Tim Robbins, in the worst performance of his career) bitterly announces that humanity is "beat to shit" and likens the invasion to a human "extermination" of "maggots." Ferrier's son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is assigned to write a research paper on the "French occupation of Algeria," reminding the audience about a notorious instance of colonial rule which provoked (as in this film) armed resistance. One of the first buildings destroyed by the tripods is a church, with the camera lingering on images of the building swaying and its steeple toppling, signifying an alien determination to supplant human religion (people's most common reaction to the tripods, repeated at least three times, is to say "My God," acknowledging them as new deities, and one character's explanation for the invasion is that God is "pissed off at the neighborhood"). And the stars of the 1953 film, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, briefly appear as the parents of Ferrier's ex-wife (Miranda Otto).

Yet Spielberg's manifest priority is to impose a new, post-9/11 layer of meaning on Wells's narrative, likening the alien invasion to a terrorist attack. The locale of the featured attack is Newark, right next to New York City, and befuddled residents twice inquire if "terrorists" are behind the event. Early scenes go out of their way to emphasize American ignorance of, and indifference to, the rest of the world. A television anchorwoman reporting on strange weather in the Ukraine identifies it as "a nation of 52 million people," obviously anticipating that her audience has never heard of the country; and characters immediately switch the channel in response to this and the other international news reports, in one case preferring to watch SpongeBob SquarePants (with overheard dialogue — "What do you know? You're a snail!" — clearly directed at its viewers). Ferrier cannot identify the capital of Australia, and when Ferrier says that the invaders are from "someplace else," his son responds, "You mean, like Europe?" — evidently a place that is as distant as outer space to him. And so, as occurred on September 11, 2001, these cloistered, flag-displaying characters are jolted out of their complacency by a sudden, vicious attack, forcing them to realize that there are other countries and other cultures out there which may be hostile to the American Way of Life.

Since terrorists, unlike other invaders, surreptitiously penetrate their targeted countries before unleashing their destructive powers, Spielberg significantly alters Wells's story in one respect: the alien war machines do not fall from the sky, but erupt from under the ground, buried in the distant past in preparation for the invasion. This does lead to visually spectacular scenes of cracks in the ground and whirlpools in the water preceding the emergence of gigantic, metallic tentacles, but it also delivers a body blow to the film's logic. In Wells, it is just barely plausible that an alien race might launch a full-scale invasion of another planet without any preliminary activity which would reveal the planet to be filled with deadly microorganisms. But if Spielberg's aliens had previously visited Earth a million years ago to bury their weaponry, wouldn't they have figured out that Earth was lethal to them? And for that matter, why didn't they just conquer Earth in the past, when they would have faced no opposition, instead of waiting for the development of an intelligent civilization capable of offering some technological resistance? But as I have previously noted, contemporary filmmakers don't worry about such things, knowing that — let's face it — no Hollywood blockbuster has ever bombed because it didn't make any sense.

As a more interesting addition to the story, Spielberg interrogates America's obsessive infatuation with the automobile. When Ferrier's ex-wife and her new husband Tim (David Alan Basche) drop off Ferrier's kids, they display their moral superiority by driving what Ferrier admiringly calls a "safe-looking" car, while he has just displayed his own less-than-safe, reckless style of driving. Food taken from his house is carried in a Pennzoil cardboard box, suggesting that he is a man who spends a lot of time working on cars. Ferrier's dysfunctional relationship with his alienated son is illustrated by having the boy borrow his car without permission and go for a drive; infuriated by the theft of his car, Ferrier tells Robbie that the next time it happens, he will "call the cops." As part of their initial attack, Spielberg's aliens emit radiation which makes all cars inoperative, recognizing that, more than anything else, this will physically and psychologically devastate human civilization, obliging people to employ more primitive forms of transportation — walking, bicycles, skateboards, and horses. But Ferrier, the only one of New York's millions of citizens who figures out that the cars can be fixed by repairing their solenoids, instructs his mechanic to do just that and ends up with the only functioning car in the entire region. (Note the above comments about film logic.) Soon, the victimized residents who have otherwise remained surprisingly calm in the face of an alien invasion naturally turn into a violent, gun-wielding mob when given the chance to obtain a precious automobile, forcing Ferrier and his children to abandon the vehicle. Later, as Ferrier no doubt reflects upon his tragic loss, the only song he can recall to sing as a lullaby to his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is the Beach Boys' paean to a souped-up car, "Little Deuce Coupe." In the initial attack, Ferrier and others hide behind cars for protection against alien death rays; he gets into a car to avoid an alien tentacle but it effortlessly breaks through the window and picks up the entire vehicle; when the ferry that Ferrier and his children are in is capsized by a tripod (a reference to James Cameron's Titanic?), they are briefly imperiled by a falling car. Did western civilization's overdependence on the automobile make its citizens especially vulnerable to alien attack? Or is the problem simply that their crude vehicles were no match for the aliens' vastly superior tripods, which humans apparently need to start manufacturing and driving themselves?

Inevitably, Spielberg additionally feels impelled to transform Wells's chilling "assault on human self-satisfaction" into the family feel-good movie of 2005. The good news is that, unlike the 1953 film, this War of the Worlds does not embroil its protagonist in a contrived romantic subplot. Briefly, it looks like the film might go in that direction, as Ferrier runs into a blonde neighbor and her daughter and they resolve to carry on together, but within five minutes Ferrier and his children find themselves on the departing ferry and the neighbors are being left behind, the rising ramp of the ferry becoming a symbolic wall that blocks Ferrier from any romantic entanglements. Instead, only the love between family members is of interest to Spielberg, who one hopes will someday recover from the childhood trauma of growing up in a divorced family. The result is a movie that could be pitched to the Lifetime Channel with this accurate summary: "a divorced father, alienated from his son and daughter, takes them on a weekend outing that turns into a valuable bonding experience." To knowing veterans of Spielberg movies, the only surprise here is that the family dynamics are so old-fashioned and politically incorrect. One might expect that the spoiled, pampered Rachel would develop some spunk and independence in responding to repeated alien encounters, but she remains shell-shocked and utterly helpless throughout, constantly requiring one of the menfolk for protection. While Robbie first develops and displays appropriate altruism by rushing to assist people desperately trying to climb aboard the ferry, he soon wants to stop running away from the aliens and instead do the manly thing — namely, go kick some alien butt. Eventually, he and Ferrier stand man to man, and the father gives his son permission to go off and effectively join the army as the older man stays behind to take care of the womenfolk. (In the heart-warming conclusion, though, Robbie shows up at his grandparents' house with his mother, his presumably heroic exploits left unrecorded.)

All the awkward pauses devoted to family values in an otherwise fast-paced narrative make it hard to take the story seriously, as is also reflected in the film's frequent references to games. An opening montage includes scenes of playing baseball, and Ferrier clumsily tries to bond with Robbie by playing catch — their hostility symbolized by Ferrier's New York Yankees baseball cap in contrast to the cap of their hated rival, the Boston Red Sox, worn by his son — though Robbie brings the charade to an end by throwing the baseball through a window. In one instance of speeded-up footage, Ferrier runs like a track star to avoid the deadly tripods. A large magnet shaped like a football is on Ferrier's refrigerator. Nervously trying to feed his children after the attack, Ferrier deals out slices of bread like playing cards and jokes about teaching them to play poker and blackjack. When people from the ferry fall into the water, the tripods go fishing for human bodies; when an alien membrane is trying to suck up a human victim, people play tug-of-war with the alien over his body. And, in an interminably tedious sequence, Ferrier, Rachel, and Ogilvy play hide-and-seek with first a probing tentacle and then some actual aliens, who obviously are already going blind and deaf from bacterial infections as demonstrated by their inability to notice the humans crouching a few feet away from them. (Note the above comments about film logic.)

Also, the film occasionally exhibits a spirit of playfulness, sometimes to good effect. When one alien spins the wheel of an old bicycle in the basement, it cleverly brings to mind Spielberg's nicer alien visitor to Earth and his memorable flight on a bicycle. Ferrier's ex-wife is pregnant, and at the film's beginning she is going to Boston to visit her parents; somebody involved with the film remembers that "she's on the road to Boston" was once a euphemism for "she's pregnant." Less memorable are the film's ham-fisted efforts to deploy popular songs for ironic effect: Leslie Bricusse and Cyril Ordanel's "If I Ruled the World" ("If I ruled the world / Every day would be / The first day of Spring") and Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman's "Hushabye Mountain" ("So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain / Wave goodbye to the cares of the day").

If told that his film was distorting and trivializing Wells's classic novel, Spielberg might vehemently object, and with a certain amount of justice — for, despite all the changes and infelicities, War of the Worlds can also be regarded as a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel. Its tripods are rendered almost precisely as Wells described them, as is the evocative red weed that spreads over the landscape to mark the triumph of the Martians. If handsome Tom Cruise does not seem the best choice to portray Wells's bland everyman, he does remain, like Wells's narrator, basically a helpless refugee and passive observer, as Friedman, Koepp, and Spielberg resist the impulse to make him more of a heroic figure. Except for a brief encounter with television journalists (who slam a van door in his face), Ferrier and the others are completely cut off from mass media coverage during the crisis, properly leaving them confused and uninformed like the people in Wells's novel (and unlike the incessant television viewers of M. Night Shyamalan's risible Signs [2002]). The film mirrors the two disparate parts of Wells's novel, first dominated by scenes of mass destruction and later focusing on a saga of individual survival (though Spielberg combines the characters of the frightened curate and the artilleryman contemplating underground resistance into the unsatisfactory Ogilvy). Repeated references to the need for a "plan" against the aliens are derived from the novel; the scene of aliens engaged in grisly abuse of a human body is much like a similar sequence in the novel; and the opening and closing narrations (masterfully intoned by Morgan Freeman) are based on, though not identical to, Wells's own language. In the context of the generally dire filmography of Wells adaptations, War of the Worlds must be regarded as one of the better efforts.

Of course, this does not negate the fact that, as noted, the film invites consideration more as a product designed to make a quick profit than as an artistic achievement for the ages. Still, while it can be fittingly denigrated for innumerable flaws, War of the Worlds does not entirely disregard its brilliant source material and fitfully offers tidbits for thought amidst its otherwise mindless thrills, traits that rarely distinguish the summer blockbusters lined up to herd each weekend's audience into theatres. In an era of lowered expectations, then, one might appreciate the mediocrity on display as a heartening contrast to the atrocity that might have been.

— Gary Westfahl

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