War Of The Worlds

Back to Conditioning and instinct

The Steven Speilberg re-make pays tribute to the 1950s movie Martians. Tho, here the origin of the aliens has to be fudged. Martians have lost credibility since H G Wells chillingly portrayed their surveillance upon this planet, at the end of the 19th century.

Even by the 1950s, you could believe nearly as much as Wells about the planets of the solar system, so little was known about them. C S Lewis said he might have known the Mars canals were sheer fancy but he used them anyway in his fantasy.

My childhood encyclopedia devoted all of one side of a page to photos and info. How my imagination lingered on those few fuzzy blobs taken by earth-bound telescopes, without the sophisticated atmospheric corrections available today. And, of course, there were no satellite probes, taking many months or years to reach their objectives and send back such awe-inspiring technicolor.

However, this movie gives no attention to a world warring with this one. Inter-planetary flight gives way to some mysterious lightning strikes that merely serve to conceive the tripods out of the womb of the earth.
This makes one suspect that what we have here is not only SF but psychological symbolism, rather as C G Jung would look at the UFOs.

The Martian fighting machines, as they are called in the novel, The War of the Worlds, are more than passably realised. Wells uncannily futuristic vision was such that on seeing the special effects, one thinks, yes, that's them: theyve arrived! After all, the robotic legs, the heat rays, the probes, like tentacles, have already been transformed from science fiction to familiarity.

One might hazard a guess that robotics, which has concentrated on human bipedalism, will see the Wellsian wisdom of the tripod, which gives much greater stability (as people find with so much as a walking stick) not to mention the useful redundancy of a third leg for mobile computers.

The novel hasnt much of a plot. The aliens destroy or consume all humanity and their habitations before them. This is familiar disaster movie territory. The denouement is also the same and an eloquent passage from Wels novel is quoted at the end.

The setting has been changed from Victorian England to contemporary USA, as in the Orson Welles radio broadcast, which panicked America. H G Wells was furious with this stunt. But he traveled to America, shortly after, in his old age, when he met Welles on friendly terms.

Wells was a pioneer of the ordinary persons point of view. Dickens wrote about the poor but good fortune depended on establishing some connection with the aristocracy. Walter Scott aspired to aristocracy. Tono-Bungay has Wells novelise the commercial adventurer gate-crashing the old feudal system. In the science fiction, scientific and technical advances typicly take hold of some insignificant mortal, often some Cockney little man like Wells himself, and hurl him, thru cataclysmic changes, across the world (or even off it).

We take for granted that mass man, who funds mass entertainment, will be our kinematic concern. But it wasnt always so. In Britain, the royals once had a mass media monopoly and poor people vicariously looked to these gods for better living in a more gracious world. Now, the field has been opened to competition from the celeb culture.

From the height of royalist imperialism, Wells was an unfashionable English republican. The Martian invasion is imperialism unleashed on the British Empire. For good measure, he includes his radical anti-clericalism, in the form of the cleric that the narrator finds himself with, hiding in the cellar from the invaders, who, unluckily, have decided to set-up base over-head.

This worms eye view is carried-over into the two US movies. In the first, a clergy-man is presented as a saintly but (as the movie fails to appreciate) foolhardy intermediary. The Spielberg film prudently leaves religion out of it.

In Wells novel, the cellar scene is one of the few personal encounters that the narrative on-looker has. So, the movie script takes his idea of its inhabitant going mad and giving them away to the occupiers over-head. The ideas of the artillery-man, near the end of the novel, about an under-ground militia, are also thrown-in, for good measure.

The result is not satisfactory. I dont believe in the character. The cleric, regardless of Wells anti-clericalism, is a psychologicly convincing study of the parasitic personality of an intimidator, whose power complex gradually over-rides even his own survival instinct.

Generally the term SF is earned when applied to Wells, who knew his science. Wells studied the classics of crowd psychology, such as those of Gustave Le Bon, and the scenes of mass panic are more ferocious than those indulged by the movie. Tho, the crowd attack on the narrators car is reasonably savage, in the circumstances.

By the way, the script writers have borrowed an idea from other SF movies, such as The day the world stood still, where virtually all transport is brought to a halt. This is just a plot contrivance for the car attack.

Not for the first time in Spielberg movies, an aircraft is trashed. Here, he really goes to town with a Boeing airliner for a fairly short crash scene, in which a couple of standard Spielberg characters, the savvy survivalists fill-in the narrator, and so the audience, on the progresss of the invasion, with the help of the dismantled planes communications devices, still miraculously intact.

At another point, barriers come down, to let race, past the crowds, an inter-continental train, which is a blazing furnace from end to end. Surely not cremated hardware but CGI! No?

Shortly after, a whole ferry is tipped-over, as if in the interests of some unwritten law of impartiality of transport disruption.
Not to mention all the exploding buildings.

If there is religion in this movie, and countless others, it is the religion of family values. My few encounters with modern novels give me the impression that keeping families together is now the ultimate in human wisdom and endeavor.
It is not altogether New Testament, tho Christian evangelism be ever so strident. Perhaps the religion of the hearth is all that novels, sustained by corporate publishers and committee prizes in the name of literature, can aspire to.

War of the Worlds, about the mass slaughter of mankind, is not exactly family movie material but the Hollywood producer makes it so, by afflicting the plot with cute little girl syndrome. (The aliens are quite terrifying, too. -- Only joking.) Everyone knows that children are Spielbergs strong suit, when it comes to directing. (He doesnt have to act with them.)

The child is confronted by a river of the dead, her gaze, lit by the reflected dazzle, nearly carried away with them, before her eyes are covered.

The son of the central character (actor Tom Cruise) is the dramatic tension, who pulls away from the family. He wants to go with the army and eventually has to be allowed to see their catastrophic set-to with the tripods.

Here then is the films unspoken, unpreachy balance to family values, namely, national service and self-sacrifice. This is not a movie, one would call under-stated. Except perhaps, in this respect: When civilians panic, it is the soldiers, doing their duty, who hold the last line of civility.

Richard Lung,
august 2009.
Uploaded july 2014.

To top

To home page