Tuesday, July 5, 2005

War of the Worlds

We went to see the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds this weekend. I really liked this movie.

H.G. Wells put together an unusual story in this one. In the beginning, life is ordinary and we humans are completely self-involved. Petty stuff seems important, and we go through life sweating the small stuff. Then one day, we come face to face with a force that means to exterminate us, and we are utterly helpless to stop it.

I like Independence Day as well. Same initial idea as War of the Worlds in that the bad-guy aliens show up without any intention of being our friend, as would be the case if aliens were like the folks in the Star Trek Federation of Planets. No, these guys in Independence Day are here to wipe us out and extract all the resources they can from the Earth before moving on to another planet. I don't think of them as evil any more than any other predator. But I'd rather they not come here. In the end, Jeff Goldblum figures out their weakness (hint, they should have downloaded VirusScan before starting their invasion), and we zapped them. Humanity saved by humanity.

But Wells didn't see it that way with War of the World. The story he told didn't end with humanity saving humanity. These bad guys were kicking out butts and we had nothing to stop them (in the 1953 movie, we even used nukes). The Martians were killed by bacteria, viruses and other microbes that we had developed resistance to. Remember that in Wells' time, science was just starting to get a handle on what microbes were and what role they played. I guess you could say that Wells' objective was a to tell a story of undeserved redemption for humanity: no matter what we do, we cannot save ourselves. Or maybe he just wanted to scare the crap out of his contemporaries.

So I read the book as a kid (still have it), and it gave me nightmares then. I saw the 1953 movie when I was not much older, and it scared the crap out of me too. Now I just think it's high camp. But I know very well how the story comes out.

Nonetheless, Spielberg's version still got to me. I felt very stressed from the scene when the machines came up out of the ground until around where Tim Robbins showed up (more on that in a minute). The stress came from imagining a situation where I would have to defend, by any means possible, my family not only from alien bad guys, but also from other humans who were desparate to survive. At that point in the movie I was thinking that I should get my Dad's Winchester lever action rifle and about 1,000 rounds of ammo and put them in the basement -- just in case. Spielberg does a nice job of framing his movies in every day life, and I think the very believable level of friction between the kids and the father helped open up the primal emotions in my mind.

Most of that dissipated when the Tim Robbins character shows up. That was a little too cartoonish. For a while I thought he was a pedophile. Then maybe just a serial killer. I get that Spielberg wanted to create a situation of conflict between the father and another human. But I've got to believe that once the Martians committed all that time and exposure to finding a couple of people in the basement, they would have either have quickly gone back in when Robbins started all that yelling, or they would have just obliterated the house with a ray blast. Maybe Spielberg could have brought in the human-human conflict using a less weird character.

The end comes abruptly. But then that's the way Wells wrote it. The point has been made that we have no defense against a ruthless invader, and there's not much that can be added except more horrific images. So might as well finish the story with our microbes saving the day. REALLY nice touch with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson at the end!

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