SPOILER WARNING: This writeup discusses the 2005 movie -- it is not a review or a synopsis -- thus contains direct reference to points of the film that will likely "spoil" the story if you haven't seen it already.
It is hard to believe that in setting himself the task of filming the classic -- some might say the original1 -- "aliens attack" science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, that Steven Spielberg so clearly read the book, but apparently failed to read any commentary on the work whatsoever.
It is also difficult to swallow that someone with Spielberg's resources both on set and off would fail so appallingly in the critical tasks of (on set) continuity and (off set) research into the story he proposes to tell.
The fact that, upon watching the film, you cannot escape the conclusion that Spielberg fails at all three of the above tasks, leads inevitably to a greater conclusion: what we see in War of the Worlds is a failure of imagination. Spielberg has come up hard against the extents of his creativity.
Firstly, the original work: Wells' novel of invasion by a vastly more powerful alien force is an allegory about Europe's all-conquering (at the time of writing) colonial take over of the world. This is not a latter-day "interpretation" -- Wells is on record saying this is what he intended. One parallel for the novel, then, is the contemporaneous "taming" of Tasmania,2 and the genius of Wells' novel is that "we" -- the human race -- take the part of the original Tasmanians. In this specific example, a policy of "removal" was initiated to make the island "safe" for farming. The spears, boomerangs, and, nearby in the Pacific, outrigger canoes of the "primitive"3 peoples were largely ineffective against the cannon, muskets, and frigates of the European colonising powers.
Knowing the nature of the more general allegory, certain prurient features of the novel/film come into breathtakingly sharp focus. The aliens suck up human blood and use it to fertilise their fields. From the shores of Africa slave ships took -- without mercy or respite -- whole families, whole villages, and used their "blood" -- their lives -- to "fertilise" the cotton fields. One of the more popular "apologies" for the behaviour of the colonial powers was, at the time, "might makes right". God had destined the white man to rule over the "savages". Wells' inversion of this -- must not, then, a more technologically advanced alien race then have the right to rule us -- is genius.
So, to be generous, we must conclude that Spielberg was simply unaware of the nature of Wells' novel. But this is, in fact, what Wells' novel was about. For a filmmaker in Spielberg's position to somehow miss this clear allegory beggars the imagination, as the preface to the novel itself makes it abundantly clear. To make War of the Worlds, in the modern era -- having the aliens do to "us" what we have done to others -- we must ask what the powerful countries spend their time doing these days in the less "advanced" parts of the world. We don't have to look too far to get that answer. A modern War of the Worlds, then, starts with the premise that Earth has some resource that the aliens want -- and they employ exactly the same tactics we have employed here on our own planet (well, in the "third world" part of it) to get hold of resources that we want. Or, perhaps the alien economy depends on war production, and their government convinces them that, sooner or later, those nasty warlike humans with their wacky death-focused religions will come gunning. I mean, look at the religious books those dirty humans read! They're almost a catalogue of war! And so it's far better, my fellow aliens, to make a pre-emptive strike.
Secondly, continuity: as the aliens attack, huge pulses of EMP4 take out electrical circuits, dramatically stopping cars, lights, watches. Talk about Shock and Awe! And yet failing, somehow, to fritz the camcorder in the hands of the first person to get vaporized. Just a few minutes into the film, this obvious glitch should alert us to the path we're heading down, and yet as we've paid good money to be sitting in the dark watching the flickering lights, we hope that it will be an isolated incident. Alas, our hopes are smashed within seconds, as it seems that only the garage directly outside the hero's house takes the deus ex machina step of replacing the solenoid. The film largely continues in this vein -- continuity error heaped on movie illogic with a hearty side-serving of pseudo-science bullshit. So the alien tripods have shields? Ok men, let's keep pointlessly attacking their shields! Or, as any soldier in the world would have done, do we try to figure a way around the problem? 5
The "it's just a movie" excuse doesn't work here, and if we're to be honest that excuse never works. Narratives must be internally consistant to allow the suspension of disbelief essential to all storytelling. To direct a movie that so comprehensively fails in this department goes beyond carelessness or "not caring any more" as some have suggested of Spielberg. To fail to think as any five-year-old would -- "But why, mommy?" -- is simply a failure of imagination.
Finally, research: when Wells wrote his novel, penicillin had not been invented, so the very real threat of even a minor wound festering and causing death was an ever-present worry. Even so, there was a very real sense of "mastery" over the natural world. It had been some time since the last pandemic (the next was immediately to follow WWI), and the sense that humanity had "earned" its hard-knocks empire over the whole world (the age of "discovery" having well and truly ended) was very real. Add to that the growing awareness that many native peoples had, in fact, been decimated by the bugs and diseases that the colonial powers brought with them.
And so the "aliens die from the 'flu" ending of Wells' novel makes perfect sense in 1898, and is, in fact, a masterful and delicious irony. Western "civilisation" -- in the allegory -- pays the price for its rapacity in the very coin which it used to buy its victory. And in fact, historically, this actually happened, albeit on a smaller scale. Troops sent to tropical regions died, in large numbers, from diseases to which the "natives" were often immune. But Spielberg doesn't see this, oh no. In being "faithful" to the original ending he makes a mockery of his own telling of the story. "Intelligences greater than our own" -- oh really? We quarantined astronauts coming back from the irradiated lifeless rock that is our moon -- and yet the aliens launch an interplanetary invasion and haven't thought through the same issues? They can bury their undetectable attack craft just below the surface of our world for a million years, undiscovered by mining or radar mapping of the Earth's sub-surface and yet have no bio-filters? Oh, and of course, the ultimate indignity, when the aliens get sick their impenetrable shields switch off. Kind of like a dead man brake but in reverse; the engineer has a heart attack and the train accelerates immediately to full speed. Those crazy aliens!6
The conclusion is as inescapable as it is regrettable. Steven Spielberg is now operating well beyond his capabilities as a filmmaker, and quite simply the imagination well has run dry. It could be argued -- and has been by some critics -- that by continually referencing 9/11 in the film's imagery, that Spielberg has not only failed in his imagineering, but has produced a deeply offensive film in the light of the work on which it is so "faithfully" yet ignorantly based. Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and Tim Robbins give their all, but one cannot polish a turd, Mr Kubrick, no, not even if one freezes it.7
- I am very aware that the works of Jules Verne predate those of H.G. Wells by some thirty years. However, only a generous view of what constitutes science fiction would include Verne's work. His are stories of fantastic adventure -- we travel to the moon and find it just like an undiscovered part of the Earth -- whereas Wells' novels are specifically un-fantastic, except for the central "scientific" conceit. This makes them among the very first of their kind. Wells is truly the father of science fiction, hyphenated or not.
- Wells himself, from the preface to his novel: "We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals such as the vanished bison and dodo, but also upon its own 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."
- I use the word in its 18th century sense.
- Actually, the stupid-yet-logical-sounding explanations that various people have for this phenomenon are a high point of the script -- one can only conclude unintentionally.
- Land mines? Booby traps on dead (yet full of blood) bodies? The tripping-up trick like in the Battle of Hoth? Humans may be stupid compared to these alien "intelligences greater than our own", but we are great at war.
- Not to mention the fact that we've ALREADY SEEN THIS FILM. It was called ID4 and instead of a "real" virus, the all-powerful aliens were defeated by a computer virus. Oh, the humanity.
- Thank you, Jerry Lewis, RIP.