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Why movies aren’t for literalists

Roger Ebert's review of "War of the Worlds"

"There are politics underneath some of the scares, and some of the adventure and some of the fear, but I really wanted to make it suggestive enough so everybody could have their own opinion." -- Steven Spielberg, Reuters interview (June 27, 2005)

Any movie worth its popcorn salt is always a (mixed) metaphor for something else – often several something elses. Maybe these metaphors aren’t fully developed, maybe they’re more like piecemeal allusions or references, but because movies are made up of complex patterns of fluid, intertwined images, they can’t help but suggest something beyond the photographic reality of what is literally captured in the frame. (Which is why the word “literally” doesn’t apply very well to movies, because they continually move and change and transmogrify as they unreel, so they can never quite be nailed down to a fixed meaning. They're movies.)

When it comes to metaphors and allusions, "War of the Worlds" may be the most politically inflammatory movie since "Fahrenheit 9/11" (or, at least "Team America: World Police"), a blood-red Fourth of July cherry bomb lobbed into an America already fragmented over its range of responses to 9/11; strategies for fighting a “war on terrorism”; rationales and plans made (and not made) for invading and occupying Iraq; the uses of torture; the definition of family; and the seemingly eternal epic battles between science and religion, religion and government, Darwinian evolution and neo-Creationism (or “Intelligent Design”).

On the surface of the story, two basic things are going on:

1) A divorced father and dock worker with the vaguely French-sounding name of Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) tries to hold together what’s left of his family when his young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenage son Robbie (Justin Chatwyn) come to visit him for the weekend.

2) Aliens invade the Earth and attempt to wipe out the human species for reasons that (in the movie at least) are never fully explained, because everything is experienced through the eyes of Ray and his kids.

If that's all there was to "War of the Worlds," there wouldn't be much to talk about afterwards. Some, like Roger Ebert, thought the alien tripods were silly and ineffective; others felt the movie suffered from the limitations of the emotionally monochromatic leading man, played by an actor whose always restricted range has in recent years narrowed to nothing but expressions of aggression -- from arrogance to rage to single-minded determination (all of which are expressed through trademark smiles, scowls, or a lot of running).

But no matter what you think of the movie as a whole, there are more ideas and images swirling around in this movie than just those two bare plot threads. Of course, you wouldn’t have to know, going in, that Steven Spielberg has said he would “probably not” have made "War of the Worlds" (even though he’s had it on the back burner for years) if it had not been for the events of September 11, 2001. But you would have to be insensitive to the point of insensibility to miss or dismiss the many overt references to 9/11 that are in the film: the onlookers staring in horror at an unfolding tragedy; the fine gray dust covering everything in the wake of the destruction; the airplane wreckage; the victims’ tattered belongings raining down from above; the home-made flyers inquiring about missing loved ones; the attackers emerging from underground “sleeper cells”… Not to mention the actual fears some of the characters voice about the attacks being the work of “the terrorists.”

"What stands out in my mind the most is everyone in Manhattan walking across the bridge during 9/11," Spielberg said, according to the Scottish newspaper The Daily Record. "That was something that I had in my head. This is partly about the American refugee experience."

As Spielberg has mentioned in several interviews, alien invasion stories tend to express the instability and unease of the times in which they’re made. H.G. Wells’ 1898 book was a Darwinian, anti-imperialist parable that reflected the author’s philosophical, scientific, and political views, and that gave science-fiction shape to Victorian English fears about the expansion of Germany, which less than 20 years later culminated in a real war of the worlds known as the Great War (later labeled World War I).

“Wells' novel has been made into a film several times,” Spielberg told the German magazine Der Spiegel, “notably always in times of international crisis: World War II had just begun when Orson Welles terrified millions of Americans with his legendary radio play version, the headlines were dominated by reports on Hitler's invasion of Poland and Hungary. When the first screen version came into the movie theatres in 1953, the Americans were very afraid of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. And our version also comes at a time when Americans feel deeply vulnerable.”

Special effects supervisor Dennis Muren told the Boston Phoenix: "We studied a lot of combat footage and 9/11 footage to figure out what makes that stuff so real."

Sure enough, Operation: Iraqi Freedom plays a part in this invasion, too -- as when a survivalist with the lumpenproletariat moniker of Harlan Ogilvy, played by Tim Robbins (yes, Tim Robbins), exclaims: “Occupations always fail!”

Teenage Robbie is so filled with blind rage at the enemy that (like an American enlistee after 9/11, or perhaps an Iraqi insurgent, or even a Palestinian member of Hamas) he tries to join the armed resistance to fight the occupying devils -- even though he hasn’t necessarily thought it all through.

"Now think of a plan that doesn't involve your ten-year-old little sister joining the Army!" Ray admonishes his hot-headed boy. (Basically, it's a variation on the scene from John Ford's "The Searchers" where callow Harry Carey Jr. is overcome with anguish and impulsively wants to attack the Comanche tribe who slaughtered his family. Despite John Wayne's and Jeffrey Hunter's admonitions, the impetuous youth charges off to his almost instantaneous doom.)

"To some people, the movie will be about American fear of terrorism,” screenwriter David Koepp told the Boston Phoenix, “and to people elsewhere in the world, it might be about fear of an American invasion.” The images of armored machines patrolling residential neighborhoods with surveillance equipment and breaking down doors and walls in search of fugitives look like Frontline footage from Baghdad – or the West Bank. (One has to wonder, though: Are the aliens and their equipment limited to the same small visual spectrum as human eyesight? Some of our soldiers in Iraq are, at least, equipped with infrared and night-vision technology, even if they had to buy the stuff themselves…)

Wells the anti-imperialist might well have appreciated these touches; in his novel, he went out of his way to draw an explicit comparison between the behavior of mankind and that of the Martians: “And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its 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. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

In the narration, adapted from Wells and spoken by Morgan Freeman at the opening and closing of the film, the word “gulf,” in the novel’s original reference to the invaders who came “across the gulf of space,” takes on a resonance it never had in 1898. And so does the passage that describes the feeling that Earth itself can no longer be seen as “fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space.” Those words certainly echo with a new immediacy in post-9/11 America.

Other images in the film unmistakably evoke the Holocaust (and "Schindler’s List"), such as little blonde Dakota Fanning fleeing for her life (like the little red-tinted girl in Spielberg’s earlier, historical, refugee film), and the pairs of metal mesh pens in which the human victims are imprisoned and transported on their way to liquidation. (Although what you want to make of the cages’ testicular shape and location between the legs of the alien tripods, and the bizarre anus that sucks up humans, extracts their blood, and spits it out – a sort of digestive system in reverse – is up to you. Perhaps it has something to do with that part of the aliens’ mission that apparently involves using human flesh to fertilize and procreate the invasive arterial growth that Wells called their Red Weed.)

(Spoiler alert: Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know how the movie ends.)

"War of the Worlds" provides some fascinating illustrations of Darwinian evolution, too. The movie begins and ends inside the nucleus of single-celled organisms, which turn out to be the heroes of the tale. The invaders (they are not called “aliens,” or “Martians,” as in the novel) are done in by a microscopic form of bacteria (or perhaps a virus) that is toxic because it is so unfamiliar to them. Their immune systems have consequently never developed a natural resistance.

Wells himself was a former conservative Christian who became a passionate proponent of evolution (Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” had been published in 1859), and used unambiguously Darwinian language to describe the conflict of species in "War of the Worlds." The term “natural selection” is used explicitly three times in the book, including this passage, some of which is adapted for Freeman’s closing narration:

“These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things -- taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many -- those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance -- our living frames are altogether immune. But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians ten times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain.”

The way Wells’ language is used in Spielberg’s "War of the Worlds" endorses a view of evolution and natural selection that is not incompatible with belief in God, but instead finds wonder and awe in the workings of nature. (That a church is one of the first buildings we see destroyed is something left open to interpretation.) In a culture that in some ways has slipped backwards in its understanding of science, where some Christians want biblical Creationism taught in schools as an alternative to the empirical sciences that form the foundation for our post-Enlightenment progress as a civilization, this description of the invaders’ destruction strikes an evocative chord:

“And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians – dead! -- slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

Indeed, that’s what makes the speech by Robbins’ survivalist Harlan Ogilvy one of the most hopeful notes in the movie: “This isn’t a war any more than there is a war between men and maggots. This is an extermination!” At that point in the film things are looking pretty dark for humanity, but Harlan makes an excellent point about the adaptability of species. After all, we’ve been trying to eliminate various bugs and maggots for centuries, but we’ve never succeeded. And we never will.

So, although Spielberg’s film acknowledges that untold millions or billions of human beings may have been slaughtered (another echo of the Holocaust), it leaves us with a sense that some of us will survive and persevere to rebuild anew. The scariest thing is: What if some resistant strain of these invaders should develop in the future?

"War of the Worlds" slyly illustrates (intentionally or not) one of the logical fallacies of the newfangled notion of so-called Intelligent Design. Because the filmmakers know how the story ends, they are able to work backwards and forwards to be sure it comes out the right way (i.e., that the characters they've chosen to follow don't wander off, or die off, partway through). They are the Intelligent Designers.

As Ray dodges extermination willy nilly, while those to the left, right, front, and back of him are evaporated by death rays and snatched away by deadly tentacles, we know he’s not going to snuff it because … well, because he’s Tom Cruise.

A plane just happens to crash land on the house in which Ray and his kids are spending the night. He and his kids make it onto a ferry -- and make it off again. A flaming train goes by them. So, those things are interesting. Improbable, sure, but those are the kinds of events you make movies about.

Spectacularly dangerous stuff happens to Ray, and all around Ray(which is what makes him a worthy protagonist; if he just sat at home and trembled it could get pretty dull) -- but he takes a bashing and keeps on dashing toward the predetermined finish line.

And, when you think about it, that’s kind of like the unsupported assumption behind Intelligent Design – that things have turned out the way they have (so far) because it was inevitable that they should; that an overriding, interventionist intelligence guided events so that they would result in the world as we see it today; and that the course of history and biology could not have gone otherwise because it was all planned in advance. The assumption is that evolution has been pointed toward this moment, rather than the present being just another point in a still-ongoing process with no "destination" in sight.

Evolution sees the current state of things as the outcome of the previous forces and conditions that shaped our existence, and that it's possible much or all of it could have turned out another way entirely -- and might yet still. The world as we experience it is result of trial and error, with no fixed goal or destination in mind but natural selection and adaptation to ever-changing circumstances.

Think of Ray and the other characters (including extras) as genes, or inherited characteristics. Imagine, then, if "War of the Worlds" had been about one of those other people, instead. It would have been a lot shorter, for one thing. The only way you would know to follow the character of Ray Ferrier was if you knew in advance that he would have some interesting experiences worth watching and make it to the end of the movie to wrap up the narrative. War stories, after all, can only be told by survivors.

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