War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds July 14, 2005

Saw "War of the Worlds" over the weekend, then went and checked out some of the kvetching on the right-wing blogs. The common complaint seems to be that Steven Spielberg's film is some kind of anti-American, anti-war tract.

Their complaint (see, for instance, here) is not really with Spielberg, but with H.G. Wells, whose book, written more than a century ago, the film follows quite faithfully. None of them seems to realize this, as none of them seems to have read — or even to be more than dimly aware of — the original book.

It's not surprising they don't like Wells' story. "War of the Worlds" is a political book. As Jim Emerson notes at RogerEbert.com, Wells explicitly compared the alien invasion of his book with the British imperialism of his time, including incidents like the decimation of the original people of Tasmania.

The book is an exercise in empathy — what would it feel like to be on the receiving end of such imperial force.

The alien invaders arrive. We cannot understand them. Our best technology cannot harm them. They are inscrutable and unstoppable. There is nothing we can do.

That's what makes the book so enduringly creepy. Spielberg often captures this sense of inevitable doom, and the scenes in which he does are as unsettling as Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast of this same story in 1938. Right-wing critics of the film complain that Spielberg's hero, played by Tom Cruise, spends most of the movie running away and hiding. But that's the point — there's nothing else he can do.

Empathy with the victim — with the Tasmanians, or with the Mahdi at Omdurman, or the Wampanoag — is not a favorite sentiment of the right wing. But there are other reasons they wouldn't like Wells' book.

These conservative film critic wannabes want a story to follow the moral outline of the old comics code or of Job's foolish friend Bildad. They want the good guys to be rewarded for their virtue and the bad guys to be punished for their vice. But Wells' story isn't about morality, it's about power. His Martian invaders have bigger, better weapons so they win and we lose. Period.

This, I think, is what the rightwing critics find most threatening in Wells' story and Spielberg's film. It vividly illustrates that might and right are not the same thing, that military superiority is not evidence of superior virtue. If the illustration of such a basic truth can now be interpreted as an "anti-American" political statement, that is neither Wells' nor Spielberg's fault.

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