War of the Worlds
Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by David Koepp and Josh Friedman

Holy oxymoron!  Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a thoughtful summer blockbuster.  While it serves up the obligatory thrills of the school’s-out-let-it-rip subgenre, it also pays surprisingly scrupulous homage to its source, H.G. Wells’ novel.  There are changes, to be sure.  Instead of landing in late-19th-century Woking, England, Wells’ alien invaders now descend upon post-September-11 Bayonne, New Jersey, riding lightning bolts into the urban tarmac, no less.  In a disquieting allusion to the tactics of jihad sleeper cells, they plummet underground to the weapon caches they have buried long ago in preparation for their apocalyptic assault.  By the way, the New Jersey location is surely a nod to Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 radio adaptation of Wells’ novel, in which Bayonne figures as one of the staging areas for the earthlings’ feeble response to the invading Martians.  Given what we know about the relative lifelessness of Mars today, Spielberg says nothing of his aliens’ planetary origins.  As in the novel, however, he depicts them sitting in cowl-shaped control cabins atop 100-foot-high walking tripods from which they blast ululating bass notes to one another as they stride across the countryside.  Just as Wells had imagined, Spielberg’s aliens come equipped with mechanical tentacles that scoop up fleeing humans and deposit them in metal harvest baskets.  Wells’ aliens were vampires, you see, and had to store a ready supply of blood hosts for their sustenance.  Without being disgustingly graphic about it, Spielberg visually implies the same thing.  He has even included the kudzu-like red vine brought by the novel’s invaders and shows it branching over the landscape with arterial tenacity.

Spielberg has not restricted himself to the novel’s physical details.  He has followed Wells’ habit of using the fantastic to comment on the actual.

Wells was never more earnest than when writing what we now call science fiction.  His scientific romances, as he called them, always conveyed implicit warnings to his species.  War of the Worlds is no exception.  In a bid to be taken seriously, the novel’s nameless narrator flaunts his credentials.  “My particular province is speculative philosophy,” he assures us.  This and the fact that he lives in Woking, 25 miles southwest of London, where Wells wrote the novel in 1896, make it a fair bet that he speaks for  his creator when he addresses such issues as imperialism, class struggle, human arrogance, and evolutionary development.  In short, the novel is a parable.  Wells’ Martians have come rudely to awaken human beings, Brits in particular, from their cosmically insular sleep.  The narrator never tires of drawing parallels between Martian treatment of humans and the English habit of bullying wogs around the world.  To rub his readers’ noses in their imperial arrogance, he gives them a taste of what it is like to be at the mercy of those who wield superior technology.  The Brits have no means of resisting the advance of the Martians.  The hardihood cultivated on the playing fields of Eaton hasn’t a chance against the invaders’ “heat ray” and poison gas.  As for Divine Intervention, It seems to have taken a holiday.  There is, however, a Darwinian hope.  Across the millennia, the limeys have developed a resistance to earth’s bacteria that the Martians lack.  “These germs of disease,” the narrator helpfully explains, “have taken a toll of humanity since the beginning of things—taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here.  But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power.”  And so Wells’ Martians are “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, had put on this earth.”  That Wells ascribed this evolutionary defense to God’s wisdom may seem odd, at first.  He was, after all, a committed atheist.  But we must remember that atheists of his time could still harbor—however illogically—hankerings for a universe that exhibits rational design, a sort of mournful after-echo of the defunct belief in a Creator.

Of course, in our more advanced age, such metaphysical fudging will not do.  This was demonstrated just last month when Christoph Schönborn, cardinal-archbishop of Vienna, had the temerity to publish an editorial in the New York Times clarifying the Church’s stand on evolution.  Arguing that the theory of evolution broadly understood is compatible with the Faith, the cardinal flatly rejected its neo-Darwinian version because it insists that life is solely the product of “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection.”  It is the Church’s duty, he asserted, to defend human reason against theories that attempt to “explain away the appearance of design as the result of ‘chance and necessity,’” for they are “not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.”  Two days later, the inevitable response appeared in the Times replete with statements from concerned scientists, all of whom oddly enough raised the same warning: The Church must not interfere in their discipline.  This is not, however, what Cardinal Schönborn had done.  He merely called attention to the irrational position of some neo-Darwinians, philosophically speaking.  Of course, there is a larger issue at stake in the background, and I am sure the cardinal wanted us to reflect on it.  If we acquiesce to the argument that purposeful creation is an inadmissible hypothesis, we are so much farther down the road to installing ourselves as the sole arbiters of design in matters of life and death, an incredibly dangerous stance to adopt in the age of genetic engineering.  What Wells would have thought of all this is anyone’s guess, but I like to think this friend of G.K. Chesterton was himself wise enough to understand the risky implications of blind faith in an entirely random universe.

The issue of natural selection’s design plays a major role in Spielberg’s film.  His opening shot is an extreme close-up of paramecia lazily wriggling about in some lab solution as Morgan Freeman—who else?—intones a slightly updated version of Wells’ chilly introduction to his narrative.

No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s; . . . that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.  With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.

This sets up everything that follows: The paramecia suggest human helplessness under the gaze of an evolutionarily superior species while, at the same time, they forecast the possibility of a bacterium ex machina.  It is also cinematic shorthand, saying that we have all been down this path before, so let’s dispense with lengthy expositions and cut to the chase.  Before the chase begins, however, Spielberg injects a piece of foreshadowing that could itself serve as yet another argument for God’s existence sheerly on the basis of its all-too-evident design.  Child star Dakota Fanning explains to her dimwit father Tom Cruise that he need not worry about the splinter in her finger.  “When my body’s ready, it’ll just push it out.”  Say no more.

What is most successful about this captivating film is the economy with which Spielberg has woven his themes into its hurtling action.  In the opening scene, we meet Ray Ferrier (Cruise in Top Gun mode) sitting 30 feet aloft in the cab of the crane he is operating on a Bayonne pier.  He smiles smugly, the lord of all he surveys, as he works the crane’s control levers to lift a box car into the hold of a container ship.  A few scenes later, this image is reprised by the gigantic alien tripods dropping tentacle-like cables from their control cowls to snatch human beings from the ground.  They are a nightmare version of Ray’s ruthlessness toward others, including his own children.

Ray is an American boy-man whose wife has dumped him because of his reckless self-absorption.  He has never bothered to know his children, played by ten-year-old Fanning and an adolescent Justin Chatwin.  Both look upon him with a barely suppressed mixture of fear and contempt.  When their mother leaves them in his care for the weekend, they know they are at his mercy.  When we learn that his son has to write a paper on the French occupation of Algeria for his political-science course, we realize that Spielberg, like Wells before him, is using his fiction to elucidate the darker nature of human relations in both the personal and political realms.  So, when the aliens begin their attack, we are not surprised to hear Ray’s daughter ask, “Is it the terrorists?”  Yes, it is, but it’s not only jihadists; in this post-September-11 film, it’s also us.  The aliens toppling the Bayonne Bridge may remind us of the downing of the Twin Towers, but, as their attack proceeds with an onslaught of overwhelming firepower, we cannot help but recall images of America’s 2003 “shock and awe” campaign on Iraqi citizens.  Given the appropriate circumstances, we can all be seduced by the temptation to exercise brutal power over others.

Once the film establishes its premise of parallels, the narrative goes into overdrive.  Ray struggles hectically to save his children from the aliens and thereby gets a chance to grow up and learn how to be a father.  What I particularly liked was Spielberg’s decision to stay with the Ferrier family through the ensuing devastation.  The alien attack comes at us in bewildering fragments, just as ordinary citizens have always experienced the horrors wreaked by human wars.  Ray never grasps the whole situation.  He becomes lost in a crowd of frightened, demoralized refugees fleeing across the battered New England landscape, desperately trying to reach his ex-wife in Boston.  At one point, he stands with his children at a railroad crossing with hundreds of others all desperate to escape the alien kill zone.  They hear a train approaching.  The crossing gates descend and a flicker of hope appears in their faces.  The train does not stop, however.  As it whizzes by, the crowd is struck dumb.  Every car is being consumed by fire.  It is a surreal rendering of hopelessness in a world gone mad.  Thereafter, Ray finds he can barely hold on to his kids.  Panicked crowds jostle and threaten the family from every side.  At one point, he quarrels with his son.  The boy wants to join a passing army unit and fight the invaders.  As Ray tries to stop him, he nearly loses track of his daughter.  Meanwhile, off to the side, the soldiers are making a valiant but futile attack on the aliens, with muffled blasts going off just out of sight.  The sense of confusion and unpredictable cross-purposes could not be more palpable.  It is both the bedlam and the valor of battle that have madly punctuated human history from its beginnings.

Spielberg wisely eschews one of the key conventions of this kind of film.  The authorities never show up to explain what is happening.  Instead, we stay with the family caught up in the booming, buzzing confusion of the all-encompassing chaos around them.  This focus allows Spielberg to intensify what has been his central theme since Jaws (1975): how parents save or fail their children in moments of intolerable crisis.  Through a terrifying process that seems like radically foreshortened natural selection, Ray the bankrupt father gets the opportunity to evolve into a paternal savior.  The film’s immediate suspense lies, of course, in the question of Ray’s success or failure.  But the question that lingers after the theater lights come up is this: Did accident or design determine this family’s fate?