“But who shall dwell in these Worlds if they be inhabited? Are we or they Lords of the World? And how are all things made for man?”
–Johannes Kepler, quoted in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), used as the epigraph on H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds
Though anything more than a decade old ought to be fair game, be warned that this analysis contains multiple references to the film’s plot, including its ending. Be ye thus warned, spoilers may lie ahead.
If it is discussed at all, Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is usually written off as a curiosity deeply influenced by the attacks and ensuing panic of 9/11. I’m not looking to dispute its meager legacy, only to suggest that the film is more than a romp through America’s shattered psyche. The film is also about invasions in general, no matter how sudden or prolonged. In this regard, Spielberg honours the source material, which Wells wrote in 1898 as a thinly veiled allegory about colonial decline, ostensibly mapped onto the waning British empire, while also offering some interesting questions about whether to be dominant necessarily requires domination.
The film starts with the main character, Ray, returning home and finding his ex-wife waiting with their two children and her new husband. The children are introduced like an invasive presence in his life. He has no milk in the fridge, he can’t be bothered to make dinner. His son steals his car while he’s sleeping. Ray’s problem is that he doesn’t know how to be a father to his children, of whom he is at best desultory ignorant (forgetting his daughter’s peanut allergy, or his total lack of any appropriate bedtime songs) or at worst aggressively intolerant (using a game of catch to indirectly assault his son). And yet, Ray’s dawning appreciation for his situation is juxtaposed by the utter failure of the aliens to come to terms with theirs. As Ray’s relationship grows healthier with his daughter, the aliens become sicker. These two themes overlap as Ray bonds with his daughter through his repeated attempts to shield her from the horrors of the alien invasion. In this way, the progress of Ray’s character subtly inverts that of the aliens’: his character becomes defined through his efforts to negate the alien presence–to keep, in a sense, his daughter’s mind from being invaded and overtaken.
The connection between the aliens as vectors of memetic transmission and infection is further suggested in the montage of rumours that proliferate amongst the refugees about the alien invasion, as it is in the film’s chilling use of the Red Weed. The shot of a dead cow on a dead farm, both strangled by a tangle of thick red veins, harkens to Wells’ reference of Tasmanian wildlife blighted by British colonisation. The imagery also invokes the modern ecological devastation wrought by factory farms, and the almost total conversion of American farmlands to chemically treated, nutrient-depleting crops to feed increasingly confined livestock. (As it happens, wheat itself is something of an alien occupier on American soil, having been imported from Europe in the 17th century). Moreover, the botanical elements allude to the invasive status of the aliens themselves, for what is a weed if not an aggressive occupier?
Our attention is first drawn to this theme when we are informed that Ray’s son, Robbie, has a paper due on the French Occupation of Algeria. The reference harkens back to Wells’ own novel, which early on reminds the reader of the total extinction of Tasmanian natives within 50 years of European contact in the 19th century. Wells’ sentiment expressed in the novel might well do with repeating: “Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”
While occupations are doomed to failure, as a character later rants in the film, colonisation typically is not, since its success comes through the extinction of the previous inhabitants. In rare cases, the colonized survive as a subjugated people. War of the Worlds concretizes this idea of a hostile colonization with the aliens keeping some humans as cattle to feed their tripods.
The film offers more invasions than the ecological, and often aggressively coopts the familiar for the horrific. Technologies of human progress and ingenuity are chillingly annexed and redeployed as images of apocalyptic destruction. A downed airliner in an upscale suburban burrow unmistakably recalls the terrible results achieved just four years prior with two feats of engineering: the air plane and the skyscraper. Some of it is modestly pitched apocalyptic imagery–a devastated church, a flaming locomotive–but there are other instances where Spielberg ignites explicit references–the walls of the missing and the dust clouds raised by the alien weapons. In the latter reference, Ray returns to his family covered in the ash of the first assault, recalling the hellish cloud of dust, debris and human ash from the immolated World Trade Center as well as the scenes of holocaust from another Spielberg film, Schindler’s List.
Other appropriations include Ray’s entrance onto the Martian-redecorated Earth like a nightmarish entrance into a red-weeded Oz. The most sustained cinematic allusion concerns a protracted (albeit veiled) tribute to 1954’s Godzilla. The first sighting of the titular creature is mirrored in the Tripod’s arrival into the ferry town, with the ensuing ferry destruction echoing Godzilla’s first prey, an ill-fated fishing trawler.
The associations go beyond the cinematic however. The fishing trawler was itself based on a similar instance of American hegemony, in 1954, when the crew of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru ventured too near a Japanese atoll that had been irradiated by American H-bomb testing and was showered with radioactive ash. The fallout was, in every sense, an unfortunate consequence of a Nuclear Age inaugurated by the destruction of Hiroshima, an event of foreign aggression that is itself used in the film to describe the devastating power of the alien attack. The nuclear devastation of Hiroshima is thus annexed from its national and historical connotations and converted, along with the 9/11 imagery, into a measure of inter-species genocide.
Another historical allusion probably more palpable to American audiences is the film’s climax in a war-torn Boston, the site of another insurrection against foreign occupiers and the inception of a similar war (if only between nations rather than worlds) nearly 250 years earlier.
And, in a stunning bout of prescience that probably amounts to luck more than precognition, the aliens first invade Ukraine, a country that would find a considerable portion of its southern territory annexed by Russia within the decade.
The film also juxtaposes the clash of empires with subtle oppositions in colonial ideology, ironically espoused by three members of the same family. Seeing his daughter bothered by a splinter, Ray’s immediate reaction is to forcibly remove the occupying debris immediately. His daughter, however, advises patience: “When it’s ready, my body will just push it out”. This Zen-like tolerance is contrasted with the chauvinist militarism espoused by her brother; “If we had any balls we’d go back and fight one of those things”, Robbie remarks as they flee their immolated homestead, the result of an alien presumably having a similar idea and following through.
These opposing views to occupation, between expulsion and cohabitation, reach some measure of resolution in the film’s penultimate shot. The reunion between Ray and his son, though undiminished in its power to draw groans from audiences to this day for showing the family improbably restored, nonetheless suggests a peaceful cohabitation–if only between humans. The conclusion at least resolves the family turmoil which opened the film, which has Ray’s children decidedly more affectionate towards Tim, the new husband, whom we are told is even subsidizing their education—colonizing Ray’s family to the extreme. This information is delivered as an especially venomous retort from Ray’s son during a heated game of catch. That scene foreshadows the jarring imagery in the conclusion, in that an otherwise familiar space—the family backyard in the opening, Boston in the finale–is coopted into a battleground, albeit of vastly dissimilar proportions. In an abstract way, the conflict between Ray and his children manifests as a literal war between worlds, which perhaps explains their otherwise improbably corresponding resolutions.
The ending also has the added benefit of reversing the callous paternal abandonment of Richard Dreyfus’ character, Roy, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind–an ending Spielberg later claimed he could not condone after he himself became a father. Indeed, War of the Worlds offers an almost parodic inversion of that film’s benevolent (if benign) alien contact, featuring instead ancestral forebears (in this case, entombed, ruthless aliens) that simply refuse to leave even after the kids have long since grown up and wished they would.
These associations notwithstanding, there are still several niggling issues with the film, which builds on some promising scenes and themes but which fail to achieve much of anything substantial. And everyone who is not Tom Cruise acts with the distracting hyperbolic awareness that they’ve been given the good fortune of appearing in a Spielberg film. The distraction is increased by the shots designed to imply without revealing the titular war. The equally implausible though nonetheless real scene of cataclysmic destruction four years earlier probably tempered enthusiasm to see it all depicted again as entertainment this time. But scenes in which the war is fought just on the other side of a conveniently located hill, or when Ray and his daughter hide in the basement of a dilapidated farm, one can never quite shake the feeling that there’s a more interesting (if generically traditional) story to be told on the other side.
Or maybe it’s because what we get instead takes a marginal encounter with a Martian from the book and turns it into an all-too familiar recreation of a scene about raptors in a kitchen from another Spielberg movie. However, the much-derided detour in the basement nonetheless manages to provide the film’s most iconic image when the alien probe comes face to face (so to speak), with its own reflection–Ray, his daughter and Ogilvie barely concealed behind the mirror. What is Spielberg getting at here? Are we meant to draw parallels between the two species–to note the same exaggerated faith in technology and biological superiority? (If so, Morgan Freeman’s narration which bookends the film, largely drawn from the book itself, no longer seems so out of place.) Or perhaps, by turning the alien’s reflection into a protective shield for the characters, does the film mean to suggest an unbreachable divide between the two species? The moment is at least an ironic reversal of the magical energy shield that the aliens use against the human weaponry. But is that all? Could the probe’s failure to see through the mirror be meant to suggest that whatever our failings as a species, we are not like that thing facing us in the mirror? Perhaps we do not war in the same spirit after all, as Wells would have us believe. That’s the hope at least, but not the only source that the film provides. Though it could’ve ended the film on an ambiguous or even nihilistic note, Spielberg leaves no catharsis unfulfilled by the film’s end.
Other curious holdovers from the book are the aliens’ vampiric nature and their radioactive weaponry. Yet the several scenes devoted to their sanguine proclivity seem antithetical to using death rays that reduce everything to atomic ash. Logically, it makes little sense to kill what you need to convert, but then the history of imperialism has always been precisely located in that illogical void. To wit, at the time of the film’s release the US was embroiled in a war with the stated aim of installing democracy. To miss the irony in that is to suggest little hope of catching it in the film.
Even rationalized as a crude borrowing from the book, the aliens’ defeat in this film defies credulity. One would assume that if they weren’t seeking to win the people’s hearts and minds, the aliens would at least account for their basic biology. Though the book was written at a time when germ theory was still incubating, and so an otherwise advanced technological society of the time could be excused for such an omission in their preparations, the film’s ending becomes all the more strange an appropriation since it’s one of the few ideas carried over directly from the book. The defeat also complicates the otherwise clever inversion of invasion narratives in having the aliens already buried in the ground, suggesting that they, and not the humans, are the Earth’s original inhabitants. Or were the pods simply launched aeons before? The film’s exclusive focus on Ray doesn’t offer much room to explore. Or is this yet another instance of Spielberg’s reflection on invasion, offering strained cinematic adaptation as a metonym for colonialization? In that case, the awkward passages heighten rather than foreclose appreciation for what amounts to a more cunning twenty-first century, Hollywood-style appropriation of a Victorian novel than its post 9/11 chronology might suggest.