War of the Worlds

2 Stars - Weak

Our innate fears of the microscopic, buried threats from within as well as the massive, global threats from without are understandable.  Written upon our souls are the historic experiences of both.  We have experienced numerous plagues which devastated our ancestors from organisms buried within our food and water.  Unknowingly they ingested death until it was too late to be saved.  On the other hand, we have also experienced marauding armies which destroyed our inadequately defended towns and cities.  Advancing upon us with weapons of increasingly massive destruction, we know the devastating experiences that come from being weak and ill-prepared.  These historic and archetypal fears are melded together in Steven Spielberg’s film of H.G. Well’s novel and radio play “War of the Worlds.”

Using the latest in special effects and historic symbols of the “tripod” weapons that confront us, the story is suspenseful if unbelievable.  Reaching into our memories of such defeats as the Trojan Horse of ancient Troy, which willingly took within itself the means of its own destruction, Spielberg creates a future in which an alien force has buried weapons beneath us millions of years ago in order to attack us from within.  When the time comes, this war is begun not from a desire for conquest to establish dominance or control, but rather for preying on our very lives.

This awareness, that there are forces which are beyond human design and purpose and whose only desire is to destroy and devour us, is inherent to many science fiction tales and is often identified as spiritual.  Presented in various ways as a “plague of locusts” which care nothing for human lives, this biblical fear is seen not only in this film but also in “Independence Day” and “The Matrix” as the filmmakers connect with our spiritual fear of the demonic.  This spiritual battle between good and evil is common sci-fi fare, with demonic beings that invade and possess us with disregard or merely to consume our blood in vampirish need.

In this recent telling, Spielberg’s heroic figure is flawed.  A self-absorbed, absent father who cares little for anyone other than himself, Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) has custodial responsibility of his two children for the weekend when the war begins.  His flaws make it difficult not only to identify with him but also to care whether he survives, as he succeeded in alienating even his own children.

 His son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is a teenager struggling with his own identity.  Fighting his own myopic tendencies, Robbie enters the war with a fascination that impairs his journey.

Ray’s daughter is Rachel (Dakota Fanning).  A child with innocence and wisdom wound tightly together, Rachel faces the war with dependent courage as she trusts first her brother and then her father to protect her, though she is unsure of his ability to do so.

Although the resolution to the war is inherent in telling this story, the lack of coherence in the overall tale is unsatisfying.  Suspenseful and dramatic, the tale loses our minds and souls as it focuses on tantalizing our eyes and ears with special effects.  Unlike the radio program which made Well’s story so well known, this film will cause few of us to believe its premise or face our fears.

Discussion:                                   

  1. To be asked to believe that an alien civilization is so plotting and barbaric that they bury weapons beneath us for millions of years and wait until we are populous enough to come and devour us is a difficult stretch.  Different from Well’s original tale, why do you believe Spielberg changed this detail?
  2. The self-centered life that Ray lived makes it difficult to identify with him even as a flawed hero.  How did you find yourself responding to him – as a person, a father, a warrior?  How did you respond to Robbie?  To Rachel?  
  3. Do you spend much time dwelling on the threats of your life – either microscopic or massive?  Why or why not?
  4. The defeat of the alien invaders is inherent in their conquest.  Do you believe that if such beings lived and devoured worlds that they would not be aware of their microscopic threat?  Do you believe such beings could advance intellectually to such a powerful level without advancing morally as well?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 2 STARS, WEAK.