Time is relative right now. The jury’s still out on any semblance of a summer movie season. Thus, the Midwest Film Journal is celebrating — at least in the astronomical sense — Endless Summer. In this intermittent series, which will run through the autumnal equinox on Sept. 22, we’ll look back at summer films from seasons past. Big, small, light, heavy, wild successes and weird misfires. Our multiplex is full and open for Endless Summer.
Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a piece of speculative science-fiction that asks all the wrong questions inherent in its premise. It’s a slice of post-9/11 American sleaze that embraces the traumatic imagery of our country’s wounds but doesn’t grapple with the aimless retaliatory atrocities committed against innocent people abroad.
A go-go-go perpetual-motion blockbuster without merit. Spielberg’s hazy-gray visual palette matches the murky, self-satisfied apocalyptic moral relativism presaging the subsequent zombie-apocalypse fad that would follow closely behind and manipulate the same comfortable middle-class anxieties. An ugly, brutal piece of work that lifts liberally from H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 novel as well as the notable 1953 film adaptation without the thoughtfulness of the former or the Christian god-fearing existential angst of the latter. It may be one of Spielberg’s worst works and certainly marks the beginning of Tom Cruise’s decline from a broad-ranged superstar to a plug-and-play character template. It promises the end of all things. So it is.
War of the Worlds is desperate to invoke dust-caked survivors of the World Trade Center attack, so it’s only appropriate to start there — with the central flaw of the premise. Wells’ classic novel is, in part, a work of invasion literature popular at the time in the British Empire. Stories of the comfortable English middle-class losing its place in the pecking order during what was then a pre-World War I era of relative European peace. Other stories featured the Germans or the French making military advances at the Crown. Wells’ story, however, involved Martians firing themselves from their planet to ours for the purpose of colonial subjugation. Rather than fearing real-world adversaries, Wells chose to cast his unnamed human protagonist, a British scientist, as the witness to his country’s own colonial atrocities. Britain was the largest Empire and had become such through the massacre and enslavement of Indigenous populations. What, then, would it look like if a superior race of beings came upon Earth and chose to do the same to us? It’s an allegory that speaks to anxieties that remain in the upper and middle classes in all cultures to this day. It gives Wells’ work philosophical oomph.
The 1953 film adaptation is not as overtly concerned with a social point. It is an entertaining science-fiction movie that over-emphasizes a Christian God’s role in the Martian’s eventual defeat. Like all films it is of its time. Its anxieties are its own. Nonetheless it is a delightful, scary piece of pulp science-fiction that influenced the production side of its genre. The recent Criterion release is a real treat.
Others have adapted Wells’ story in radio, comics and TV over time. Orson Welles famously broadcast his own version on Halloween night in 1938, purportedly terrifying audiences. I recently listened to it while walking around my firework-lit neighborhood on July 4, which was an excellent experience. Marvel Comics’ Killraven character represents a superhero sequel of the original book, telling of a world where the Martians returned to invade Earth having overcome their biological deficiencies. Killraven is campy, 1970s comic-book silliness and a real joy. There was also a DC Comics story in the 1930s where Superman defeats the Martians, an OK read at best. These are a but a few of the stories that borrow and translate Wells’ work into their own contemporary cultural lexicon.
So we return to 2005’s War of the Worlds, the Spielberg-and-Cruise joint I have already slandered in this essay. It deserves it. I was predisposed to love it. The visual design of the Martians matches closely to Wells’ written word, which was notably not the case in the 1953 movie due to visual-effects constraints at the time. There are moments of real terror, here, that outweigh anything in previous translations of the work, too. The Red Weed left behind by the Martians as they terraform is revealed in a terrible, lighting-driven way. Indeed, the first attack by the Martians is graphic, exciting and features that patented Cruise run I so, so love.
So what is wrong?
Instead of focusing on a lone scientist separated from his wife (or, in the case of the 1953 film, a scientist and his love interest), Cruise’s Ray Ferrier is a New York City dockworker trying to get his two estranged children, Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), to the safety of their mother’s house in Boston. Fanning’s youth lends emotional weight to Ray’s journey, particularly as Rachel is loaded with increasing violent traumas. One sequence in which she comes across a river of corpses is chilling. It’s cheaply effective kid-in-danger storytelling in the way Spielberg is known for it. Adding Chatwin, however, challenges Cruise to be an adult figure on contrast with an angsty teen. Unfortunately, being the adult character is just not in late Cruise’s wheelhouse. Maybe it never was. Reportedly a man obsessed to a fault with perfection, Cruise is served well when he’s a film’s center of gravity but that also means he’s not the best actor for an emotionally equal two-hander.
It’s particularly problematic because the allegory Spielberg and company settle on is simply replaying the trauma of 9/11 over and over and over again. The only furtherance of the idea is Robbie’s insistence that he wants to join the military and fight the Martians, a thinly veiled comparison to young kids joining up to fight in Afghanistan or Iraq that is solely used to pare the trio to a duo for the final act. But that muddies the allegory. Are the Martians in this instance analogous to the Middle Eastern groups who successfully attacked the United States once thanks to substantial financial assistance by countries we dare not actually confront? How does a 2005 version of War of the Worlds decide the Americans are the victims here, and not try to make the story about the way in which the very real American army was engaged in a pointless, murderous conflict in the Middle East that remains deadly and unresolved to this day?
It’s a venal, selfish interpretation of Wells’ work made more grating by the ending — which is actually lifted from the book but, like everything else, stripped of the storytelling logic. In the novel, Wells’ protagonist desperately wants to return to his wife but is stopped at all turns by the Martians. Along the way, he learns the town where he had sent her for safety was razed. Once the invasion is over and he returns home, he is surprised to found that she, too, had escaped. They stand together, traumatized, forever changed. In Spielberg’s adaptation, Ray and Rachel make it to Boston, where his ex-wife’s home stands untouched. She and her parents (played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, stars of the ’53 film) are unscathed, as is their lovely town home. Then Robbie comes out, also unscathed, despite having earlier run headlong into a Martian fireball. Morgan Freeman’s narration resumes, reading from Wells’ classic explanation of the way in which the Martians were brought down by bacteria rather than man.
None of Ray and Rachel’s trauma is examined here, and there is nothing to indicate that any of his extended family suffered at all. Throughout the movie, every panicked person the family comes across who wrongs them is killed in some form or another. A hijacker who steals their car is quickly murdered by other rioters; a former coworker who tries to stop them from fleeing is disintegrated by a Martian; a crazed survivor who hides with them in a farmhouse is murdered, off screen, by Ray (also in the novel, but in less melodramatic fashion). Every stranger around Ray and Rachel dies, but they and their family are unscathed. Their wounds are barely explored, and unlike the book, their trauma not even hinted at. I suppose if we take the 9/11 analogy further into a sequel, maybe we would have seen Ray become an ardent supporter of invading Venus. The imagination wanders.
Wells’ work was a standout in his age for writing a piece of invasion fiction that so ardently critiqued his own culture’s crimes against humanity. Most do not. There are plenty of American works that express contrition and awareness of our own ongoing 21st-century colonial expeditions, although the predominant mood has always seemed to be more aligned with War of the Worlds than feels honest. Later American apocalypses like The Walking Dead also present us with an vision of a culture wrought with characters forced to murder and kill to maintain some semblance of societal comfort. That TV series is a fucking joke, but it speaks to the way in which American self-identity has not demonstrably changed in the last 20 years. It’s certainly something to contrast them with the brief moment of euphoria depicted in Independence Day, a riff on The War of the Worlds with no aim but visceral pleasure. The fight for real-world change continues for many, and so much art is valuable and thoughtful that it probably wasn’t worth wasting my time watching War of the Worlds on HBOMax.