Us and Them
Leo Goldsmith on War of the Worlds

"And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?"
—H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)

Upon its release in 2005, War of the Worlds was widely heralded as Spielberg’s return to the alien-encounter narrative, his first such effort since E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Of course, there’s something a little redundant about adapting—once again—H. G. Wells’s novel, the ur-text of nearly every alien sci-fi narrative from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Independence Day to John Carter. For Spielberg, who had already directed two redoubtable variations on the subgenre and produced a handful more, the choice seemed especially perfunctory. But this War—which even drops the The to get to the War a little more quickly—promised not only a bold new take on Wells’s narrative but also a striking reconfiguration of Spielberg’s usual approach to the subject matter. This time, the foreign visitors were something to be feared, not fed with Reese’s Pieces. This was a War for wartime, reconfigured for a post-9/11 world marked by political, if not yet interplanetary, terror.

As such, the film comes as a welcome departure from Spielberg's rather docile 2004 Homeland Security dramedy The Terminal—indeed, it sometimes plays as a nasty rejoinder to it. Even if we accept the film as one of Spielberg's entertainments—according to the common reading of the director's career as a bipolar swing between the serious and the spectacular—War of the Worlds is an exceedingly grim adventure, one that's both dazzling and harrowing in equal measures. Carefully balancing his trademark roller-coaster set-pieces with a persistent undercurrent of menace, each image of the aliens' enormous, jellyfish-like tripods floating through city streets and vaporizing humans into a fine powder is at once an eye-popping feat of CG artistry, rendered with deeply visceral heft and crunch, and a deeply unsettling image of mass-slaughter, infused with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's eerily ashen hue.

Luckily for Spielberg and screenwriter David Koepp, Wells's novel has only rarely been adapted faithfully, even though it comes prepackaged with easily cinematic terror aplenty—they had little to do but bring it closer to home and freshen some of the details. Of course, the notion that Mars is the home-planet of a highly evolved species of malicious, slithery reptilians—Wells’s extrapolations of the musings of amateur 19th-century astronomer Percival Lowell—had to be dispensed with in favor of a vaguer Ancient Aliens–style provenance. (In this way, the film has a curious coherence with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull [2008].) But the basic structure of the novel remains intact: an on-the-ground account of carnage and devastation on a massive scale, a series of increasingly explosive and deadly skirmishes with the alien invaders told from the narrow point-of view of an average (if extremely lucky) fellow caught in the fray. Only, in place of Wells’s solitary gentleman-scientist narrator, Spielberg and Koepp give us Ray, a blue-collar crane operator and deadbeat dad played by Tom Cruise, who must drag his two extremely reluctant children in tow. And instead of rural Surrey at the turn of the last century, Spielberg begins his story in present-day working-class Staten Island with a Lower Manhattan skyline conspicuously devoid of two of its most famous towers.

This towerless skyline, among the very first images we see in Worlds, is actually one of the subtler allusions to 9/11 in a film chock full of them. Talk of sleeper cells, humans reduced to clouds of dust and singed shreds of clothing, ad hoc bulletin boards plastered with missing-persons posters, the Red Cross announcing that it has more blood than it can use: details like these draw upon the fears and traumas of the recent past in a manner that struck many as tacky, or at least a bit opportunistic. Others, like Bill O’Reilly, rather warmed to the film's “populist political subtext,” conceding that “this isn’t the usual Hollywood cheap shot leftist propaganda.” O’Reilly, ever carrying the standard for regular folks against the elitism of Hollywood liberals, was surprised to note that the film "actually reflects the view of everyday Americans, rather than a few Beverly Hills pinheads."

But oddly, War of the Worlds offers glimpses of another, seemingly contrary reading too, one that might just as easily suggest an allegory of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Alien invasion interrupts Robbie’s work on a history paper on the French occupation of Algeria (who says high school teaches no practical skills?) and, late in the film, a crackpot basement-dweller played by Tim Robbins prophesies, “Occupations always fail.” Such references of both varieties are far too numerous, too relentless, to be ignored, but their irresolvable nature leaves them at once blatantly obvious and difficult to read. Is it, as Cruise remarks while gazing at the alien-manufactured electrical storm that signals the invasion, “like the 4th of July”? Or the fifth of November? Or the nineteenth of March?

In interviews around the time of the film’s release, Spielberg himself was cautious about allowing any too obviously political reading of it. End-credit thank-yous to the Department of Defense aside, Spielberg was adamant that his film be seen as a work of fantasy, emphasizing the practicality of those not-so-subtle references in his film to terrorists and 9/11. Regarding perhaps the shrillest of young Dakota’s famous squeals—“Is it the terrorists?!”—Spielberg and Koepp liked to point out that it’s natural that an eleven-year-old in 2005 would ask such a question. Fair enough, but just to muddy the waters, Spielberg declared to Reader’s Digest that the film was also “a wake-up call to face our fears as we confront a force intent on destroying our way of life.”

Precisely what fears these sinewy tripods are intended to represent—or, indeed, whose way of life is being threatened—remains ambiguous, even as it seems clear that Spielberg wants us to think something important about our lives during wartime. For H. G. Wells, however, there was no such ambiguity. An avowed socialist and advocate of ethnic and regional self-determinism, Wells deployed his novel at the twilight of a long and bloody century of British imperial expansion. Wells’s novel supplies a grim, detailed account of occupation at a time when the British Empire was engaged in violent insurgency management around the globe (especially in Africa, where resistance raged from Egypt to South Africa, and a half-dozen places in between). Wells’s unnamed narrator, who’s rather more reflective than Ray, frequently ponders what he calls a sense of humanity’s “dethronement,” “a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away.” Wells’s story has a Darwinist bent that is social as well as natural—humanity’s complacent masses find themselves crushed and enslaved, reduced to livestock by the alien occupiers, and the microbes that ultimately prove the most effective weapons against this occupation suggest an inevitable, if unexpected insurgency at the smallest level.

Spielberg foreshadows this eventual victory over the occupiers in the film’s opening image: a strange CG collage of our planet contained in a droplet of rain upon a leaf, more a kind of icon of pro-Earth patriotism than an index of earthly fragility. Against a bizarre Koyaanisqatsian montage, featuring seventies-era stock footage of a bustling Manhattan, Morgan Freeman reads the ominous prologue of Wells’s novel, emphasizing the “envious eyes” with which the alien enemy regards our world, and omitting Wells’s line about “the great disillusionment” in store for humanity. Just like the novel, Spielberg’s film suggests that a massive alien invasion would serve as the ultimate leveler, putting all of humanity, for once, on the same plane. But where it departs from the novel is in its call for a reconsideration of what really matters, what’s really important when the intergalactic shit hits the fan. For Wells, it’s an adjustment of values, a reevaluation of humanity’s place in the universe and perhaps even within the ecosystem. For Spielberg, it’s almost the opposite—a reaffirmation that, once again, the only thing that really matters is one’s own family, one’s own people.

Bill O’Reilly, that shrewd analyst of “populist political subtexts,” has it right: “There is no left-wing, right-wing thing going on. Tom Cruise cruises along without much point-of-view other than to save his kids from the alien killers.” Spielberg immediately sets the stakes a little higher for Cruise’s character by making this family yet another portrait of divorce, sketching with remarkable economy the precariousness of this particular family unit in the opening scenes. Ray's ex-wife Mary Ann (played briefly but memorably by Miranda Otto) shows up at her ex-husband’s doorstep on her way out of town with her bourgie new husband, fatefully leaving Ray, the clueless absentee dad, in charge of their two kids—Dakota Fanning's chirpy tween Rachel and Justin Chatwin's mopey teenager Robbie. Each kid expresses resistance to the arrangement—and enmity toward their estranged father—in their own way and with varying degrees of credibility: Fanning's performance, at least initially, falls in with a long line of quirky, but plucky little girls, while Chatwin is mostly left with a chip on his shoulder and curt dialogue telegraphing teen angst.

But soon their beef with Ray’s questionable parenting, along with all of humanity's trivial squabbles, takes a backseat to the cosmic onslaught. Faced with invasion and extermination at the squishy, little hands of the alien hordes, the petty divisions of society—rich and poor, suburbanite and proletarian, Yankee fan and Red Sox fan—mean nothing; all that matters is the preservation of oneself and one’s family. Whether or not we take the film as a 9/11 allegory, the alien invasion certainly demands a similar reaction on the part of the Americans we see here, who react by circling the wagons, segmenting the universe into its most basic and element teams of “us” and “them.” But not by uniting under any patriotic banner—here, “us” is Tom Cruise and the people he loves, and “them” is everyone else. “Them” is not only an extraterrestrial menace, but also the weak and the envious in all of their manifestations—those who would rip apart a broken windscreen with bare hands or kill someone for a car or even, like those hapless acquaintances whom Ray leaves by the wayside, be simply too slow or too clueless to catch up. We accept as finally necessary the sacrifice of others for Ray and his tribe, just as we understand that Ray must (reluctantly) beat Tim Robbins’s raving paranoiac to death just to shut him up. It's not quite survival of the fittest, but survival of you and me and those closest to us.

Seen in this light, then, War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s most misanthropic film, his most hateful rejection of human society as a collective endeavor. Instead, it positions the family unit as the only safe place from which to defend against what is ultimately a chaotic and malicious universe. This sort of primitive tribalist mentality seems like a strange place to arrive at, especially considering Spielberg’s track record with apparently enlightened, universalist alien encounters. But indeed, while most Hollywood films assert a worldview in which the individual and the family unit stand in for faceless multitudes, serving as the center of all activity, as the device through which all narratives and audience sympathies must be organized, Spielberg’s work often suggests that these central characters and their families are actually more important. The metonymy at work in the saving of Private Ryan or the sparing of Schindler's Jews—that “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”—is by no means unambiguous; if anything, it often feels like the sort of truism that one uses to reassure oneself about our moral character, that assuages our inability to do more for the world. But around this time in Spielberg’s career such wider affiliations, like nation, religion, or even humanity as a whole, become increasingly unimportant, even a little suspicious. Munich, made the same year as War of the Worlds, suggests this steady narrowing of allegiances: eventually, neither Israel nor even Judaism as a whole is more important than the family. Such affiliations might serve as useful backdrop to the hero’s journey, but they are at best formative, at worst distracting.

It’s fitting, then, that Spielberg puts Cruise, an outsized megastar, in the unlikely place of an average working-class Joe. The role doesn't serve to emphasize the actor’s local, Jersey Boy roots—Cruise's own father, as many pointed out at the time, was a similar absent father; in fact it rejects them, demonstrating not his salt-of-the-earth Americanness so much as his exceptionalism. Throughout the film, Cruise’s Ray isn’t just some hapless deadbeat dad caught up in the alien mayhem; he’s the first responder at every encounter with the aliens—on the front lines to witness the alien tripods attack, and seemingly the only one among these to live. Using an uncanny (and largely unexplained) knowledge of popular mechanics, he immediately solves the problem of the aliens’ techno-terrorist disabling of all electrical and mechanical devices, requisitions the only functioning automobile in the world, and escapes with his unscathed kids. All the while, Cruise and his family serve as the center of mass around which Spielberg’s elaborately realized, hybrid CG-celluloid cinematography orbits, as they speed along a refugee-strewn highway, literally leaving the rest of humanity in the dust.

Thus, even when Spielberg tries to offer something more hopeful and humanistic, he forces himself into a curious double-bind, typified by the film’s infamous “happy” ending, perhaps the most widely derided deus ex machina in what seemed like a string of such gestures at this stage in his career. Robbie’s 180-degree turn from apathetic, whatever-dude teenager to rabid, humanist-patriot freedom-fighter, while barely motivated by the rest of the film, seems to represent the film's only true moment of self-sacrifice for the common good. And almost immediately, Spielberg lets us appreciate the nobility of this gesture by suggesting the Robbie is killed, consumed in a fireball in a last-ditch effort to combat the advancing tripods alongside those brave U.S. servicemen willing to give their lives for the freedom of humanity. So, why does he reappear at the end, standing at the doorway of Mary Ann’s parents’ utterly pristine Boston townhouse without a word of explanation, only a reconciliatory hug for his father? And why hasn't he at least washed off a little bit or changed his clothes?

Spielberg seems left with a quandary at the end of War of the Worlds that he’s at pains to resolve. Saving Private Ryan dealt with a similar question—does the family defend the nation, or the other way around? But in that conflict, there was a clearly reciprocal struggle, a collective effort to defend a way of life under siege. Here, with his characters defending humanity’s very existence, Spielberg finds himself strangely incapable of providing so definitive an answer. Faced with the Darwinian conclusion of Wells’s novel, Spielberg seems uncertain about whether humanity actually can save itself, or if it is entirely at the mercy of universal chaos. Ultimately, despite Robbie’s uncharacteristically selfless act, Spielberg seems to want to reassure us that we can have it both ways, that despite our fractured way of life, despite racial, political divisions, we can find a way forward without sacrificing ourselves or our loved ones. It’s not in any way a plausible resolution, but for Spielberg this fantasy may be the only possible reassurance.