JULY 6, 2005
With Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" emerging as the blockbuster of the summer, conservative pundits feel torn--on the one hand, they admire the technical virtuosity and artistic power of the film; on the other hand, it comes from Hollywood, so the pundits feel they must engage in a bit of ritualistic bashing.
John Podhoretz, writing in the July 1 New York Post, says he has detected a "profound and troubling" difference between the fictitious reaction of Americans to an alien attack and their real-life reaction to 9/11 (in the film scenario, some Americans turn on their neighbors savagely; in the historical event, we united with firm resolve for a few months). The implication is that Hollywood liberals are so cynical that they cannot begin to comprehend the depths of patriotism residing in the breasts of the hard-working citizens of Grover's Mill, N.J.
Podhoretz has it all wrong. Spielberg's film is not about 9/11--it's about an invasion from outer space based on the one depicted in H. G. Wells' late Victorian (1898) novel. In Wells' book, the attackers (unlike the 9/11 terrorists with their box cutters) have total technological superiority over those they are attacking. Wells depicts a hopeless battle by human civilization that it cannot possibly win on its own. The panicky response of civilians under those circumstances (as shown in Spielberg's film) is faithful to the letter of Wells' book, in which mass panic of civilian refugees is also portrayed. More important, Spielberg's mass hysteria scene is faithful to the spirit and artistic integrity of Wells' book--the insertion of an "Independence Day" style story line would have undermined the necessary sense of horror and hopelessness. (However, the depiction of the American response is not entirely negative--soldiers and airmen fight heroically, if futilely, as did the British troops in Wells' book.)
Bill O'Reilly goes to the opposite extreme, and professes to see a growing Red State tendency in the mind of Spielberg. "A rather populist political subtext takes shape that is somewhat surprising coming from a Hollywood insider," writes O'Reilly (who apparently has forgotten "Independence Day") in the July 2 New York Post. O'Reilly paraphrases Morgan Freeman's opening narration: "forces with 'envious' eyes have targeted earthlings for destruction...No one is safe, no target off-limits." O'Reilly sees this as a reference to Osama bin Laden. In fact, Freeman's lines are a direct quotation from Wells, clearly referring to Martians, not Arabs.
O'Reilly goes on to state: "The actual first wave alien attack comes from the sky, just as 9/11 did." Yes, well the "actual" Martians in the original text came down from the sky also, although in Spielberg's film the Martian fighting force comes from underground, having been activated by signals from outer space. (One might as well argue at this point that Spielberg was inspired by the FIRST attempt to destroy the World Trade Center--the one involving a bomb planted in an underground garage.) But sticking to O'Reilly's inaccurate description of an initial "attack" from the sky, one could easily compare such an onslaught to any of dozens of famous military events since Wells' time: the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the U.S. attack on Hiroshima, the Inchon landing, the first Gulf War. Indeed, Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" bears the strongest resemblance to the 2003 invasion of Iraq (the shock-and-awe light show over Baghdad). So is this film a slyly concealed form of MoveOn.org propaganda? Not at all--it's simply that aliens, if they want to attack Earth, have to travel through space, and then down through the air, to get here, just as in Wells' book and countless pulp imitations over the years. (And if they want to kill us humanoid cockroaches as efficiently as possible, they will go first, as in "Independence Day," to where we congregate in the largest numbers--big cities with tall buildings.)
O'Reilly thinks the film is in tune with Red State sentiment, because the hero's teenage son "desperately wants to confront the aliens and kill them. The boy seethes with anger throughout the film because of the alien barbarity." Again, O'Reilly has it wrong. The kid seethes with anger at his father for breaking up with his mother--and runs off to get a close-up look at the shock and awe, thus forcing his father to run after him and leave the little sister in the lurch. When father and daughter subsequently hole up with a gun nut who wants to launch a suicide attack on the aliens, the father kills this individual rather than letting him place them in jeopardy. So is Spielberg advocating some kind of leftwing Hollywood treason against the Minute Men? No--the father does what any common sense National Rifle Association parent would have done to survive under the particular circumstances.
"In the end," O'Reilly states, "the aliens are actually confronted by God, if you can believe it." This supposedly shows that the film "reflects the view of everyday Americans rather than a few Beverly Hills pinheads." Again, O'Reilly, you are wrong. Spielberg's aliens are confronted and defeated (as in Wells' book) by germs, not God. In fact, the book is an exercise in taking Darwinian survival of the fittest to its extreme in a Godless universe of biological determinism. Wells shows his genius in the final ironic twist--the seemingly all-powerful aliens in their giant war machines are conquered by microscopic life forms that are equally remorseless in their struggle for survival.
Oh, and lest the Christian right start fulminating that the book or film is propaganda for the theory of evolution, H. G. Wells was too intelligent to be a mere propagandist. The book is, among other things, a satire on evolutionary theory and a cautionary tale about human hubris (the latter aspect could easily be cited to good effect in any Sunday morning sermon).
It is true that American science-fiction, both in print and film, has a long history of expressing or satirizing political views. But often there is NO discernable political message. In the case of Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," the intent seems to have been to mix contemporary family issues (the effect of divorce on children), parental rescue fantasies and violent special effects for sheer entertainment while remaining faithful to the artistic vision of H. G. Wells. If there is greatness in this film it comes from Wells' masterpiece and Spielberg's fidelity to it, not from any contemporary political message.