Invasion Narratives and Spielberg’s Warring Worlds

“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Charlize Theron as Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

Spoiler free!

In my mini review I posted to Twitter the other day I claimed that Mad Max: Fury Road is one of the best action films I’ve ever seen, and, moreover, that director George Miller proves that monuments of cinematic splendor are still possible. This statement involves at least two main suppositions. The first is that few films of late have been spectacular, and second, perhaps the most in need of an explanation, is that this film is spectacular.

As to the first point, I have been worried lately whether I had passed the age of optimistic participation in summer escapist cinema. This summer’s other big blockbuster, Avengers: Age of Ultron, left me decidedly unimpressed, despite its CG-fueled visual spectacle (especially in the way the plot structure borrows liberally from the The Empire Strikes Back, from the downbeat tone, to the continual pursuit of our heroes by a sinister, fascistic overlord, to the none-too-carefully inserted romance–hell, both films even feature a besieged city in the clouds as their climax!). The astounding degree to which I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road, however, confirms for me that though my standards may be demanding, they are not unreachable. Fury Road is that rare entertainment that excites its audience without pandering to it. Unlike a great many films these days, Fury Road seems directed by an individual vision that is staggering in its scope, rather than the consolidated whims of executive meddling and countless focus tests.

The first clue that the film doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewer is with the title itself: Fury Road is double-entendre that even a cursory viewing of the film would reveal. The subtitle hints that the film belongs as much to Max as it does to Charlize Theron’s Furiosa. Perhaps even more so to the latter, since Theron receives a great deal more to do in this film than Hardy’s Max, who isn’t even granted a line until midway into the film, and much of the dramatic heft rests on her more-than-capable shoulders. It is she who often commands both our attention and sympathies in their scenes together. In the process, Theron reminds us of the immeasurable talent that made her such a superstar, and DP John Seale mines her face for all its expressive riches.

Though not an obvious sequel, this film nonetheless continues the themes of myth and legend that had animated the two previous films in the series, and Miller here broadens their scope to a veritable foundation myth of human society, but places the emphasis on the female and the feminine. In so doing, Miller transcends the nihilism of his previous films and dares to hope for a future better the past. The film’s final moments capture Miller’s vision of a true egalitarianism between sexes, creeds, races and class. And yet, because this is Miller telling (and in some ways yelling) the story, he reminds us that this utopia can only be achieved through violent struggle, and through a balance of the masculine and feminine, which are denoted so concisely and repeatedly by Miller through the use of sand and water. In so doing, Miller may have just created the first truly feminist action film.

Perhaps the film’s chief virtue comes from Miller’s singular ability to sustain our attention for chase scenes that extend well past the point of fatigue. That, or the unmistakable fact that it’s all being done for real, in the camera. Don’t let the spectacular CG sandstorm touted so frequently in the trailer mislead you, this film features the most impressive practical stunts of any Mad Max film. (It also even manages to outdo their sustained runtime.) But these films aren’t memorable simply because they have lots of car chases, but rather for way these cars are so uniquely used. In Miller’s films, action is not a mere substitute for dialogue and characterization, it is the skillful deployment of these. In much the same way that a choreographer communicates through dance, Miller speaks through action. Like the Road Warrior, and completely unlike the hyper-edited Furious series, this film features sublimely orchestrated automotive ballet, or, to offer a clunky neologism, automoballet. It’s perhaps ironic that Miller, now pushing 70, seems one of the only directors capable of directing action and editing it together quite so spectacularly, seamlessly, and most important of all, coherently.

But what gives the film its most lasting effect is that Miller goes beyond mere mayhem and uses every texture, object and element of the world to convey multiple layers of meaning. Cars serve as costumes. Costumes serves as identities. A steering wheel is a weapon is a talisman is a relic is a metonym for an entire culture, and all of this conveyed with the simplicity of a dramatic arm raise. More than mere clever prop design, and the desire for a cool but entirely superfluous shot, the raising of the wheel aloft like some mechanic’s Excalibur immediately and unmistakably constructs this world for us within a second of screen time, and the film lasts for thousands. Another instance of this masterful method of world-building again involves a wheel, when Furiosa rubs the steering shaft for axle grease and smears this across her forehead as a tribal marking, or a communicative address, or something else–the two-fingered gesture itself seems symbolic of something richer in meaning and all of which Miller leaves for the audience to deduce.

Miller’s responses in the wonderfully brief pre-screening Q&A I attended perfectly speak to the film’s succinct and evocative construction. After a pitiful attempt from the professional film critic and impromptu questioner to plug his online site and drum up enthusiasm for his credentials, he then tried to corral Miller into answering a few questions. When asked why it had taken thirty years for Max to return, the director only shrugged and said, respectfully and serenely, that he’d been looking for something to say with Max in that time. When asked what that might be, the director only shrugged again and suggested the message was on the screen. “I feel like a kid who’s just finished a drawing, who takes it to his mom and dad and asks them to look at it,” he replied. “Well,” he gestured to the massive AVX screen towering above him about to show his glorious return to the franchise that made him famous, “this is my drawing, I wonder what you think.” The concise response seems fitting for a director whose movie strips itself of language, in which words are irrelevant and, moreover, even what few can be heard are often swallowed up in the clash of metal and the cry of engines and living gods. Mad Max: Fury Road opens May 15, and truly deserves to be remembered for a great while after.

Film Recommendation: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Catherine Deneuve at the train station, begging her lover to stay, promising she would wait for him, knowing it couldn’t possibly be true: Jacques Demy’s fantastically grand musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg broke my heart. An ambitious musical on a limited budget, Cherbourg covers a half-decade span of time in the lives of two young lovers separated by time. Entirely sung, with lyrics that range from the inessential to the unforgettable, Cherbourg is an intimately scaled epic.

Here’s an English version of the song, covered innumerable times by numerous artists, sung here by the gorgeous Connie Francis (Futurama fans might already be familiar with this song from a rather appropriate appropriation). But don’t forget it was Michel Legrand who created its original French incarnation, a devastating duet between a teary-eyed Deneuve and a stoic Nino Castelnuovo in Cherbourg‘s most emotionally climactic scene. Deneuve was never more lovely or more beautiful.

The Narrative Genius of Jaws: Celebrating 39 years of Aquaphobia

 

“It’s a pretty good story, a pretty perfect structure.”

–Steven Spielberg on Jaws, 2012

Steven Spielberg mugs for the camera “on the set” of “Jaws”

Although when asked these days Spielberg seems to attribute a fair deal of the success of Jaws more to luck than anything else, there are several other reasons why Jaws was able to become the first modern blockbuster, the film that ushered in summer movies, and, more importantly, continues to resonate with audiences to this day. Spielberg himself offers a productive means of exploring its success with his self-effacing remarks about the film’s story. I want to examine Spielberg’s claim about the perfection of this film’s structure and offer some evidence to validate his claim.


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Conjuring a lost classic: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer resurrected

For many moviegoers in 1977, it was the most anticipated movie of the summer. Coming as it did from an up-and-coming and internationally renowned wunderkind director whose penchant for verisimilitude marked a radical break with typical Hollywood studio filmmaking, it was undoubtedly destined for greatness. Loaded with action and exceptional special effects, a cast of relative unknowns, and based on the director’s previous hit, the response was expected to be phenomenal. It was not Star Wars, and when it was released only a week after Lucas’ little science-fiction space adventure, William Friedkin’s critically maligned Sorcerer, a remake of Henri Clouzot’s classic French film The Wages of Fear (1955), was out of the zeitgeist faster than the prints were out of the theatres.

The original poster for Sorcerer (1977)

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Watching the Sunrise: A Tribute

By way of introduction to F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise, one can’t do much better than Rachael K Bosley’s remarks in the June 2003 American Cinematographer about the then recent DVD release of the film (which was, of all things, an odd mail-in promotion from 20th Century Fox):

At heart a simple melodrama about a philandering husband (George O’Brien) who rediscovers his love for his wife (Janet Gaynor), Sunrise is a film whose visual complexity was unmatched upon its release in 1927. It was the first American film made by German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau, and at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Sunrise earned the only such award ever bestowed for ”Most Unique and Artistic Production.” It also earned the first Academy Award for cinematography, an honor shared by Charles Rosher, ASC and Karl Struss (whom Rosher successfully nominated for ASC membership following Sunrise‘s release). Cinematographers of all ages continue to cite the film as a favorite. (16)

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When a documentary functions as an artistic credo: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Judge of your natural character by what you do in your dreams.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

(Jiro Dreams of Sushi is available on Netflix.)

When one first learns that the price for a plate at Jiro’s world-renowned sushi restaurant begins at 30,000 yen, or $300, the mind reacts in two ways. Either it balks or it bargains. If it balks, then perhaps it is reminded of similar outrageously expensive food, like that $1,000 pizza in New York. In that case, the rebarbative concoction, loaded as it is with caviar and lobster, wastes its ingredients while it overcharges for them. Nevermind the idiocy of baking truffles in creme fraiche (where the fat from the latter and the heat from the oven overpowers any nuance in the flavour of the former) and serving it on a pan of bread, the whole thing arrives to the customer a greasy, congealed mess fit only for the blind and nouveau riche. Don’t even get me started on the $25,000 sundae. If I wanted to ingest five grams of gold I would just drink a few bottles of Goldschläger in a single sitting (at least that way the alcohol would stand a good chance of blocking out the thought of wasting so much money). Compared to this then, $300 for an actual meal seems like a steal.
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Apocalypse Now (for the uninitiated)

For those who have yet to experience the mind-altering mad genius of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam war pic Apocalypse Now, I figured I’d draft a few notes to hopefully convince the uninitiated to undertake the assignment.

Loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s disturbing novella about colonial conquest in the Congo, Heart of Darkness, Coppola’s film essentially plays out two connected narratives involving a burned-out assassin’s search for a deranged colonel. It seems Colonel Kurtz has gone mad with power out in the jungles of Vietnam and threatens to make more than a few people look very bad indeed if his mental collapse should become known, not to mention what it could do for morale. The first plot then, the premise which initiates the film and the crux of the narrative, is Captain Willard’s mission to assassinate the colonel; the other, abstract and necessarily cerebral, becomes the assassin’s search to understand what drove the colonel mad. A road movie, or rather, a river movie; necessarily episodic yet integrally linked by some hefty and subdued excursions into the nature of the Vietnam conflict and, more impressively, the fundamental human nature that gets us involved in these conflicts in the first place. Most impressive of all, Coppola sinks the hook into our brains in the very first heavily charged shot, that infamous napalm explosion (not-so subtly mocked in the opening to Tropic Thunder) set to Jim Morrison’s near catatonic hum of “The End”, and doesn’t let go. Continue reading

Criterion to release Zatoichi boxset

As if we didn’t  have enough reason to love Criterion already, they go and provide us with a gift like this just in time for Christmas: a 27 disc set of all 25 Zatoichi films. The collection even includes the 14th film in the series, Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage, the rights to which belonged to Miramax for nearly two decades after Tarantino expressed interest in making a similar samurai-themed film. The project was abandoned when they learned Takeshi Kitano was releasing his own Zatoichi film in 2003, The Blind Swordsman, which went on to win people’s choice awards at numerous festivals (Including TIFF and Venice), and which Miramax would eventually help distribute (without much financial success). Curiously, Tarantino’s own samurai epic, Kill Bill would release its first installment stateside just a month after Kitano’s film was released in Japan. At any rate, the rights to Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage languished with the Weinsteins, though now it seems Criterion has managed to get hold of them (for the time being, at any rate). Continue reading

Video: Pacific Rim End Titles

As Through the Shattered Lens notes, Guillermo del Toro doesn’t just give us end credits. He gives us CREDITS! From the incredible effects studio Imaginary Forces (who gave futurists a future worth looking forward to with Spielberg‘s incredible tech display in Minority Report), and fueled by the pulsing thrum of Ramin Djawadi‘s rousing but minimalistic score, watch the credits and get your blood pumping to see the film.

Through the Shattered Lens

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There’s nothing spoilerish in this video that has joined the End Titles sequence of Marvel’s The Avengers as a favorite of mine. Who said end titles for a film has to be the usual text scrawl we’ve been getting for decades. I’m not saying that every film should follow the digital effects used to make the end titles for Pacific Rim and The Avengers, but for summer blockbusters and epic holiday films this is a route that may just become the norm.

The end titles was created by the folks over at Imaginary Forces and all credit goes to these digital artists who made what was already an awesome and fun film even more.

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