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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  • Steve

    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.
    Touche. Well put.
    Reminds me of the crowds of people in Iron Jawed Angels rioting as the women seeking the right to vote simply stood in front of the White House with banners quoting the President. The point was President Wilson’s statements of promoting freedom and liberty abroad were being ignored at home. But people couldn’t handle this truth so they tore them down and called the women traitors in a time of war. I glad that doesn’t happen anymore.

  • Alex

    Cruise’s character isn’t smart, or sneaky, or anything else. He’s not James Bond. He’s a crane operator. He’s a regular person and is scared shitless most of the time. Also, it’s hard to be sneaky when you’ve got an Idiot Teenager (the way things resolve with his character is one of my few problems with the movie), and a small girl with you.
    As for two, yes.
    For three? They’re aliens. Who knows. I’m sure it makes sense to them.
    The ending is pretty faithful to the book, minus some character things (which is where my problem lay, I found the last 3 minutes or so a bit cheesy). Hell, I think the Morgan Freeman monologues are very slightly reworded versions of the intro and outro of the radio play. One thing you can’t really bash on too much is this movie’s faithfulness to the history of that particular story. There are differences, but they’re not huge ones, and didn’t violate the “tone” of the story, in my opinion.
    The other thing about calling the ending cliche is that … Well. I can’t tell what you mean, but there’s a decent chance that what you’re calling cliche is a cliche created by the book itself.
    It’s not just the USA. Anything that they can shoehorn into an anti-right allegory gets ripped on. Recall that the Emperor didn’t take over America, he took over the galaxy in all its wookie-filled glory.

  • Mabus

    I actually hadn’t seen any such criticism–except for a seemingly left-wing essay on Beliefnet, which accused Spielberg of exploiting hysteria about terrorist attacks. Granted, I can probably be accurately accused of being out of touch.
    Even though this sort of criticism is ignorant of Wells, and thus wrong-headed, the blog Fred links to did mention one thing that made me uneasy about the film (and of quite a few movies over the last few years). Namely, the notion that “fighting back” is foolish, or even crazy.
    There are times when that’s true–including, as in this film, when you’re badly overmatched. And, of course, there are plenty of circumstances when the right thing to do is turn the other cheek. But even in those times, you need to have a clear head about how your enemy will respond–quite often by wiping you out without mercy.
    It looks to me as though that’s what this particular blog is objecting to–Mark Noonan believes Spielberg is saying “Stick your heads in the sand and wait for the terrorists to go away of their own accord.” If I didn’t know how the original book ended, I might be right there with him.

  • R. Mildred

    Look if you realy wanna over examine the possible political angles to look at it from, how about we start out with the slightly more plausible realisation that the martians are symbols of isreali military force, and the humans are the palestinians.
    Now the plaestinians are faced off against isreal, which has in the past used mass reprisals against large sections of the palestinian populace, wiping them out with unbeatable (for the palestinians) technology, tanks, attack helicopters, air strikes etc…
    Now my given understanding of the isreali/palestine equation is that the civil jihad pacifist prostesting movement is the only form of protest the palestinians can do without it being used against them politically, the concept that not retaliating with violence will solve their problems therefore makes perfect sense in this context, if you hold that palestinians retaliating like with like (but on a smaller scale, obviously) when faced with isreali atrocities damages them politically and loses them a lot of support oversees where a trade bargo or some form of political sanctions on isreal might force them to find a solution that doesn’t involve the our right leveling of the west bank.
    And of course, if there wasn’t a palestine/isreal issue, al qaeda wouldn’t exist also, but peace in the middle east will only happen when both sides stop blowing the shit out of each other.
    Gosh, pacifism does work in defeating terrorism, it’s just so hard for us US citizens to see a complex geopolitical issue that isn’t centered purely on our sweet nation that the gut reaction to blow the shit out of anyone to make it all about US was followed as soon as we finally became members of the elite group “victims of terrorism” on 9/11 and started inviting oursleves to all the best pity parties we could find.
    Of course I doubt that was Speilberg or Well’s intention to make the movie a parallel of the Isreali palestine conflict, it’s just that the british were doing to the fuzzy wuzzies what isreal is doing to the palestinians, America is doing to Iraqis (except Iraqis have been intentionally chucking Bio weapons at the martians in that case) and the romans to the Gauls too for that matter, imperialism and subjegation by force are old tales, older than you’ll ever be.

  • David Lee Ingersoll

    There is a tendency to assume that because a character does x it means that the filmmaker/novelist/storyteller is saying that x is the right thing to do. Cruise’s characters actions are all centered around taking care of his family. At one point he acts to prevent someone from striking back against the invaders. He does this to keep his daughter safe. At another point he strikes back again the invaders – also to keep his daughter safe (or, perhaps more accurately, because he has nothing left to lose by taking those actions). Cruise’s character isn’t a Hero. He’s just the protagonist.
    WotW is a lousy movie to make points about Spielberg’s patriotism. 1941 would be a better example of his supposed anti-Americanism. But in order to use that example his critics would have to have an awareness of history (any history) outside their own hysterics.

  • Beth

    R. Mildred,
    Some of your facts are incorrect.
    1. The name of the country is Israel, not Isreal.
    2. Israel has never used mass reprisals which wiped out large sections of the Palestinian populace. Israel has used mass reprisals and strikes against militants which have killed innocent Palestinians, but nothing on the scale you suggest. Indeed, if you compare Israel’s response to Palestinian militancy with America’s response to Iraqi militancy, the former looks like a model of restraint.
    3. Al Qaeda does not exist because of the Israeli/Palestinian issue. It was created in response to US military bases in Saudi Arabia (placed there during the first Iraq war) and was dedicated to fighting American intervention in the Middle East. I/P was barely even on al Qaeda’s radar until 9/11 gave the group the opportunity to position itself as a pan-Muslim movement. Ending the Israeli occupation would be a step in the right direction, but it would certainly not end the jihad against Western imperialism.

  • R. Mildred

    Why don’t you cite specific examples of Bush’s might equals right foreign or domestic policy?
    RFLOL! The iraq war does not exist dammit! and anyone who suggest it does is a liar and a liberal intelligensia commie!
    ick, put your victim mentality down for two minutes and enjoy the sunshine, the world is beautiful place to live in you should seriously visit us some time.
    though you’re are right aobut one of your fears blog commenters sharing their personal interpretations of an artistic piece will surely bring down the Bush admin though, have no fear aobut that, mwahahaha! (exits with a swirl of cloak into the dense Fog)
    Mwahahahaha!

  • Ray

    Well, as long as you’re making the effort, I’m sure that’s what’s really important.

  • none

    Marc: ” Cruise’s grenade tactic was pretty suicidal, even if he was saved.”
    Thought I’d repeat it, seeing as how we’re in a designated spoiler zone. At least, we must be. By now anyway. I mean, I haven’t seen the movie, but now I don’t have to. :(
    Rick is right, Fred. You shouldn’t have called the right wing “dummies.” Well, you didn’t — but you shouldn’t have made it so easy for Rick to pretend that you did. By not doing it.

  • Grumpy

    Thanks, Garnet. For a moment, I was worried I’d be the only one guilty of posting a non-reply reply. Great minds, as they say.

  • Manson’s Cellmate

    Why would creationists kvetch at this movie? In the book and the movie, God saves the frigging day. (A horrible sop to 19th century sensibilities by both Wells and Spielberg, if you ask me).

  • R. Mildred

    In the other war of hte worlds movie, form like the 50’s or 60’s or something, there was this big church prayer scene with everyone praying for a miracle just before we see the martian ships start falling over and one of the martians staggering out of their craft and dying at the end of the giant wheel chair ramps they had.
    It was not subtle, even when I was little I was amazed by how over the top and overtly religious the ending was.
    and there’s the question of what happened to the alien space crafts, all these utterly ravished and destroyed nations and people’s suddenly have their hands on unstoppable killing machine that even nukes can’t slow down.
    That can’t have ended well.