Too Close for Comfort
by Elbert Ventura
War of the Worlds
Dir. Steven Spielberg, U.S., DreamWorks/Paramount
Two mere months ago—ages it seems—War of the Worlds touched down amid a perfect storm that all but guaranteed critical myopia. Tom Cruise’s fall from grace, a season of box-office discontent, the Scientology angle, the Spielberg pedigree, a short lead-in time for reviews, the shadow of 9/11: these were circumstances that pushed the movie into event status and, at the same time, spawned conditions that discouraged the sober reckoning it deserved. War of the Worlds induced snap judgments and instant gratification, when what it really needed was time, distance, and reflection. Too close to the zeitgeist, the movie could well look a lot different to the culture years from now.
Not to say that our responses today are invalid. The absence of consensus and the diversity of opinion—ranging from knee-jerk canonization to clueless cries of exploitation—in some way echo the movie’s own snapshot of a society scrambling to make sense of things. Contributing to the confusion is the movie’s own paradoxical nature. Boasting aliens, state-of-the-art special effects, a marquee star, and the greatest director of action the cinema has produced, War of the Worlds superficially fits the mold of the cinematic thrill ride. But if this is a roller coaster, then it should come with an eight-foot height restriction. Planting itself squarely in the collective consciousness, War of the Worlds is a rare pop culture artifact: a summer movie that discourages escapism. Spielberg takes that most hermetic of places—the multiplex—and lets reality burst in and spoil our fun. The metaphor of a theme-park ride for the summer blockbuster implies catharsis and relief at the end. In that regard, Spielberg’s newest hit is a welcome failure—a sci-fi spectacle inflected by trauma that leaves scars and bruises.
The fireworks come early in War of the Worlds. Fifteen minutes in, the denizens of a New Jersey port city stare up at the sky to watch storm clouds gather above. “Wanna see something cool?” says Tom Cruise’s Ray, beckoning his daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), outside to gape at the eerily timed lightning strikes. The terrified girl senses trouble, but Dad can only stare in awe at the pyrotechnics: “It’s fun, isn’t it?” Running to the center of town to see what’s going on, Ray joins a crowd gathered around a crater created by the lightning. Even as the ground rumbles, there’s a dumb smile on Ray’s face—the kind that may be plastered on our own. But as the ground gives way to the monstrous machines underneath, and buildings crumble and people turn to dust, all hint of levity disappears. In the first of many bravura sequences, Spielberg follows Ray running through a city that, in the blink of an eye, has dissolved into chaos. By the time he gets home, covered in the ash of the incinerated, puerile excitement has given way to unadulterated terror.
The title is misleading, of course. War of the Worlds depicts less a war than an extermination. The scene in Ray’s hometown is repeated in cities around the world, though their fates are left unknown—the storms that seem to arrive everywhere at once end up knocking dead every electronic device in their radius. Saddled with his daughter and son (Robbie, played by Justin Chatwin) for the weekend, Ray commandeers the only working vehicle in the city and hits the highway. For the better part of this most primal of summer movies, flight is the main action. Save for the pro forma family drama and Ray’s own journey of personal growth, War of the Worlds is remarkably unconcerned with the subplots that bloat most genre films. Nothing more—and nothing less—than the will to survive impels its lean narrative.
The movie represents the fusion of two filmmakers: Spielberg, master showman, and St. Steven, conscience of a nation. The Spielberg of Jaws, Jurassic Park, and the Indiana Jones movies is in fine form here, orchestrating mayhem with the kind of virtuosity that we’ve come to take for granted. (An unbroken tracking shot around the family’s speeding minivan is almost too slick—my horror gave way to “How’d they do that?”) But casting a pall on the proceedings is the other Spielberg. Of all the director’s popcorn opuses, War of the Worlds is the most harrowing and least pleasant. Risking audience wrath (of which there is a lot, if message boards are anything to go by), the movie even has the temerity to deny its audience a climactic final showdown, petering to a close with a deus ex machina lifted from H.G. Wells’s novel. The greatest heroic act, it turns out, is merely staying alive.
Like other depictions of the end of the world, War of the Worlds is about the idea of catastrophe. There is something to Scott Foundas’s contention that the movie reaches beyond the obvious 9/11 references to become a comprehensive catalog of modern terrors: a river of corpses evokes Rwanda, mob scenes recall the urban riots of the tumultuous last century, the march of zombified survivors an echo of the Holocaust. At the end of the day, all movies about the apocalypse show essentially the same thing—the collapse of social order, the unmasking of the civilized human. In War of the Worlds, two of the most harrowing scenes involve no aliens. In the first, a rabid mob hijacks the family minivan, a confrontation that peaks with the shot of a desperate hand clawing away at a bloodied bullet hole on the windshield. In the second, Ray is forced to dispatch a crazed fellow survivor (Tim Robbins), who risks giving away his and Rachel’s hideout. As a critique of brutish humans, these sequences creep under your skin, but can only go so far. It’s a limitation anyone taking on the genre faces: there is hardly anything new to say about Armageddon.
But if a generalist reading of War of the Worlds doesn’t do it any favors, a particularist approach enriches it. As he did with Saving Private Ryan and the war movie, Spielberg injects a genre we take for granted—the disaster epic—with the revivifying power of moral seriousness. Unabashedly of its time, War of the Worlds intentionally alludes to our own brush with the apocalypse. Reminders of 9/11 abound: full-blown panic on city streets, a downed airplane, posters of the missing, allusions to sleeper cells. Fleeing in their minivan, Rachel shrieks: “Is it the terrorists?” It’s a line that could only make sense to a post-9/11 audience, which itself is poised to ask the same question whenever a blackout occurs, a plane goes down, or the Capitol is evacuated. Already derided by so many, the anticlimactic ending and the absence of heroics are of a piece with the movie. In Independence Day, the last big alien-invasion picture, the death of millions is really nothing more than a prelude for lump-in-your-throat exploits by can-do American optimists. No such bluster in War of the Worlds. In their complete helplessness in the face of the aliens, Spielberg’s survivors conjure up nothing so much as present day feelings of utter vulnerability.
Of course, what may seem relevant to one person could easily be construed as exploitative by another. Jonathan Rosenbaum can only see the calculation behind the 9/11 allusions, and Michael Atkinson reads a presumptuousness about our returned “appetite for destruction.” In her unsparing pan, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek blasts the movie for mining “real-life tragedy for the sake of movie magic.” That dismissive “movie magic” seems particularly misguided—what barrel of laughs did she see? Indeed, such criticisms seem to lose sight of the unsavory flipside—do they really want a popular medium devoid of context, removed from history, and untroubled by moral questions? Zacharek really can’t stand War of the Worlds’ pretensions to seriousness, calling it “blockbuster hell.” Very well then—I’ll take Spielberg’s movie, and she can keep Independence Day.
An about-face from the awed stargazing of Close Encounters and E.T., War of the Worlds can also be understood in the context of its maker’s career. A pop artist through and through, Spielberg, with his earlier popcorn pictures, evinced a willingness to indulge in pure escapism and nostalgia. That’s changed. Jurassic Park was firmly grounded in its source novel’s Shelley-esque skepticism of human progress; Minority Report was a prescient dystopian vision of fascism and corporatism run amok. War of the Worlds is only the latest Spielberg blockbuster that infuses, seamlessly, serious themes into an ostensibly genre work. In addition, the movie also functions as a response to earlier movies. As in A.I. , there is in War of the Worlds a critique of our fascination with things that go boom (“It’s fun, isn’t it?”). In plunging a child into the horrors of war, Spielberg treads the same ground as in Empire of the Sun—but this time, the childlike wonder at the destruction, the grandeur of war, are nowhere to be found. Only the horror of the world’s collapse is registered.
After 9/11, critics wondered out loud whether mass destruction on celluloid would ever be permissible again. For a business that hasn’t had qualms about depicting the vilest crimes in human history, such a question seemed ludicrous; of course disaster would return to our screens—just give it time and separation. Spielberg’s movie gives a principled dimension to Hollywood’s resilience (or shamelessness, depending on where you stand). OK, he seems to be saying, movies like this have always been and will always be made. But let’s not make them in a vacuum—let’s not make them disposable. Fully recognizing that the movies, at their most relevant, can absorb and reflect the audience’s deepest anxieties, its darkest fears, Spielberg has made a movie that will explain something of what we feel and who we are to our children’s children. Far from exploitation, this is the work of an artist deeply attuned not only to that slippery thing called the national mood, but to his art form’s indispensability to the culture as well.