War of the Worlds

Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds is, according to Wikipedia, on Cahiers du Cinema's list of the best 10 films of the Noughties. I can't say I agree, but like a lot of later Spielberg, it's an interesting film, if deeply flawed, and does put on show many of Spielberg's ongoing motifs and ideas.

War of the Worlds is the next Spielberg sf film after AI (2001) and Minority Report (2002), and, of course, has the same star as the latter film in Tom Cruise. These three films are significant revisions of the kind of visionary sf Spielberg essayed in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) but continue that film's focus upon deficient fatherhood. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), the boy-man who leaves his family behind and takes to the stars in Close Encounters, escapes censure for his seeming irresponsibility (the cosmological imperative outweighs the familial), but Minority Report's John Anderton (Cruise), a broken man suffering the loss of his young son and subsequently the love of his wife, is redeemed in the course of the narrative. (Pre-Crime, in that film, is explcitly characterised as pathological, predicated on the errant desire to forestall trauma and loss.) The final shots of Minority Report show husband and wife reconciled, with the wife pregnant again, the familial more important than the social.

War of the Worlds has at its centre Ray Ferrier (Cruise), a stevedore from New Jersey who signally fails in his paternal duty when his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) come to stay. His relationship with his teenage son has broken down, and his daughter seems to have more life-skills than he does. When Bayonne, NJ is attacked by electrical storms and then death-dealing tripods, Ray runs (like Anderton), but not back to his children, but to the scene of destruction. Ray, it seems, is a bit dim; he is seen at the edge of the crowd, watching while asphalt cracks wide open and then a huge mechanical tripod emerges from the suburban street. He forms no plan to escape other than returning the children to Boston, and their mother; his route there, in a stolen car, leads to near-disaster at the Hudson Ferry. It's interesting to have a barely-competent protagonist at the centre of the narrative, but ultimately frustrating, particularly later in the film when he gawps at his son's attempts to join battle against the aliens while his daughter is almost snatched away by another (albeit benign) adult couple.

The images of Ray with his back turned, or concentrating his somewhat feeble mental powers on something else while his children wander into, or hurl themselves into danger are recurrent in the film, and are an index of his incapacity as a father. As in Minority Report, however, the narrative is one of redemption for Ray in that he delivers his daughter safely to Boston and is reconciled with his son. In a sense, the film is a rites of passage for another boy-man, just as with Roy Neary, but here the resolution is Earth-bound. Ray finally matches up to the life-skills of 'Tim', his ex-wife's husband, whose new SUV and prestigious house are shown to be in stark contrast to Ray's duplex and classic Ford Mustang. In a time of disaster, economic success is secondary to Ray's survival skills. 'Tim', the economically successful 'other man', is a recurrent figure in contemporary cinema: I was reminded of 'Don', the yuppie businessman in Night at the Museum who threatens Ben Stiller's relationship with his son (which is again redeemed in the course of the narrative - and Stiller plays an econonomically unsuccessful dreamer who takes up the blue-collar position of night guard). More pertinent again is Spielberg's own Hook (1991), in which the protagonist's yuppie 'other', who must be overcome to effect a reconciliation with his son, is actually himself (Peter Banning, who must become Peter Pan again).

Fatherhood, then, is a crucial concern in Spielberg's films, but in War of the Worlds the central conflict between father and son is displaced by the closeness (often physical, when Ray carries Rachel) between father and daughter. And here we can see the vital influence of spectacle and spectatorship in Spielberg's cinema: the narrative switches between Ray's and Rachel's point-of-view (we never see Robbie's: both the stealing of Ray's car, and his joining battle with the tripods, take place off-screen). Robbie is active, leaping onto the gate of the Hudson Ferry to help those trying to clamber aboard: Rachel watches. The film privileges her point-of-view because, of course, this is the cinematic apparatus that Spielberg's cinema is self-consciously a part of. As in Close Encounters, the wonder on the faces of the intra-diegetic spectators is meant to be matched by our own.

In the course of War of the Worlds, Ray is taught to see: at the end, he points out to an army commander that the force-fields are no longer working on a tripod, rendering it vulnerable to attack. Several times in the film the mise-en-scene shows a hole punched through glass - in a window of Ray's home, in a car windshield - through which Ray is seen. This 'tunnel vision', a visual enclosure, must be overcome. Rachel, by contrast, has her visison deliberately blocked on numerous occasions: on leaving Tim's house, destroyed by a falling 747; when she sees bodies floating down a river; when Ray kills the insane Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins) to prevent them being discovered by the aliens.

Looking is even crucial to the active Robbie. When he attempts to run away from his father and join in the battle, he says, 'You've got to let me go. I need to see this'. Seeing, then, is crucial to rites of passage, to becoming an adult: Ray protects his daughter's vision because she is too young to enter this process. When Rachel is snatched up by a tripod and placed in a cage with other humans, Ray deliberately gets caught, to try to save her. When he reaches her, she is blank-faced, unseeing, traumatised: but Ray is soon able to recall her to herself. Considering how important it is to Minority Report (and that this is a definitively post-9/11 film) trauma plays a very small part for the main three characters: Rachel seems undamaged by her experiences, and Ray and Robbie 'grow' during the course of the film.

What remains with me from this film is gawping. Gawping is, of course, the Spielbergian response to spectacle, but here I think it has a rather more political or philosophical dimension. When the people stand around on the streets of Bayonne and watch some huge mechanical monster emerge from below the asphalt, the principle of gawping overcomes basic human motivation to flee (and I find the emotional and psychological motivation throughout this film deeply unconvincing). While a reviewer, Debra Saunders, writes that the message of the film is 'If aliens invade, don't fight back. Run', I think the last word should in fact be 'watch'. People don't run soon enough. They stand around and partake of the spectacle.

This reminds me inescapably of the ending of Robert Altman's Nashville, where an attempted assassination at a political rally is followed not by panic or chaos, but by the crowd standing around while Barbara Harris sings 'It Don't Worry Me.' I find this scene deeply dishonest and psychologically untrue, enforcing as it does Altman's misanthropic point about the affective failures of contemporary America at the expense of proper human motivation and response. This scene simply would not happen. And, in a sense, I feel the same way about War of the Worlds. For a film which draws on the invasion trope of human beings in conflict with alien others, it represents human activity as largely ineffective - and it is the Earth's biological environment which undoes the tripods in the end. While I'm happy to embrace post-human displacement in sf, I think War of the Worlds channels Altman in its depiction of people - especially in crowds - as stupid, and passive, and affectless. Where AI is truly moving in portraying the victims of human emotional failures (the fate of rejected Pinocchios), War of the Worlds is misanthropic and mechanical, and ultimately says about as much about human beings as its recto, the cartoonishly triumphalist Independence Day.


  1. Spielberg has lost his touch a little since he started caring too much for children. He's joined the Home Maker's league for America. He recently said in an interview that now he would change the ending to Close Encounters... He would be unable to allow Neary to abandon his children, which would completely bugger up the dramatic finale. Do you want to go in the mothership? I'd love to (really) but lets be sensible. The problem with the ending of War of the World is that it defies its own logic and rubbishes the most dramatic part of the movie. The sacrifice of the eldest for the youngest is almost Biblical in its unworkable angst, but if the eldest then survives (hey, you have to learn to just let go) it becomes Oprah. The bit of Spielberg that is still there and which you can see all the way from Neary (and before that from Duel) to Tom Cruise, is the genuine subversive love of destruction. That's why he runs towards the destruction. The Spielberg Yin Yang is home maker versus home wrecker. Think of the number of homes wrecked in his films. 1941, ET, Close Encounter, even the boat in Jaws.

  2. I really like your point about home demolition, John. (You could add Poltergeist to that list, which I always count as a Spielberg film rather than a Tobe Hooper one, especially if rumours are to be believed.) Oh, and I see that you've done a review in Film-Philosophy on that theme, too, you cheeky devil. Have downloaded it and will check it out.

    Isn't the point with Neary that he's most suited to ascend in the Mothership (and thereby abandon wife and children) because he IS a child, or inhabits a childlike wonder? His wife and children always have been entirely redundant - he can't 'abandon' them because he already has done. I don't necessarily think 'caring too much for children' suddenly came on Spielberg (with E.T.?) - it's always been there, but not always in the figure of the child itself. And it's not just sentimentality, or a valorisation of 'innocence': there's that sense of unmediated relation to the world/ cosmos/ spectacle that you find in Indy, too. The child is the ideal gawper.

  3. Just read your Film-Philosophy review and see we're thinking on the same lines with Neary. I like the Pinocchio reference - good spot, especially on the Williams phrasing in the end-title score. Is Gepetto-Pinocchio the master-image for the father-son relationships in Spielberg's cinema?


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