Friday, July 08, 2005

Review of War of the Worlds

I gathered some unexpected inertia for an article I'm working on, so I decided to reward myself with a trip to the movies. Here follows my review of War of the Worlds ... but first, a rant.

I was waiting for the film to start when a couple and their child sat down immediately behind me. The child was maybe, maybe 3 years old ... but I'd guess closer to two. First of all, no one has any business bringing a two-year-old to a movie theatre for any film not involving animated animals going on a quest. Second, no one has any business taking a two-year-old to a PG13 rating. Third, no one has any business taking a two-year-old out for a film that begins at 9:30 PM. Finally, after about the hundredth on-camera death, it's time to take the kid out of the theatre. Later in life, when I see that this child is grown up and has gone on a multi-state killing spree, I'll know why.

Anyway, enough with the rant. On with the review.

Glen Gill has made the case that War of the Worlds is modeled on the Revelation in the Bible. I think this is close, but not quite right. Gill himself seems to sense that this reading is off by about 5 degrees when he writes,

"As I say above, War of the Worlds closes his Biblical meditation with recasting of Revelations. I think there is a hell of a book in this extended interpretation. But I wonder what Spielberg himself would make of it, particularly my suggestion of Christian influence (since he is, obviously, Jewish). He'd probably concede that the narrative DNA of the New Testament can and does find its way into the consciousness of any American storyteller, regardless of their religion, simply as a matter of cultural geography"

I would argue that the leap into consciousness he talks about is because War of the Worlds is not part of the Biblical apocalyptic tradition, but is rather informed by the popular apocaylptic tradition. The Biblical apocalyptic tradition, from Daniel to Revelation, uses symbolic imagery to express truths that were too difficult or dangerous to express explicitly. The images that I saw were not Biblical images at all, but rather part of the Christian folklore that has grown around the End Times. After the initial lightning strikes (which someone in the film glibly comments are God's wrath on their neighborhood), the very first images of disruption we see are cars out in the street, unable to move because of EM pulse. No, this is not Biblical, but is instead a common Rapture image. For some reason, the popular Christian imagination of the Rapture (a doctrine I disagree with, BTW) is fixated on cars without drivers, and planes falling from the sky because the pilots have been taken up into Heaven. Without going too spoilerish, again and again the images are more reminiscent of older End Times films (like Thief in the Night) than of Biblical imagery. We have the stalled out cars, planes falling from the sky, two different Deluge sequences, and even an Anti-Christ figure who tries to supplant Ray (Tom Cruise) as savior of his daughter.

On another level, the film is about Ray learning to become a father. In apocalyptic terms, that's what the film is really "about" -- the revelation of how to be a good father. In the beginning, he is irresponsible, the kind of dad who other kids think is "cool" but no kid wants to be stuck with. The children don't even call him "dad." They call him what he is: "Ray," a destructive force in their lives just as the alien rays will be. In the course of the film, he transforms into the father he should be: laying down the law, sacrificing for his kids, protecting when they are young, letting go when they are older, ad libbing parenting skills he doesn't have, etc. Ray's final transformation comes relatively near the end of the film (I think it needed to be earlier, but it's a quibble) in a sequence of resurrection as an inversion of birth -- essentially, Ray has to be sucked back into a womb of death in apparent sacrifice before he can resurrect into the father he is supposed to be.

All in all, the film was quite good, though I wasn't affected by it as deeply as other viewers. Rather than being inspirational, the ending (of Ray's interpersonal relations, not the aliens) fell flat for me. I rolled my eyes at the last scene before the voiceover at the end. It's certainly one of Spielberg's better films, and is possibly his best science fiction film (though the much-underestimated Minority Report might be better). All-in-all, I actually think H.G. Wells' source material is difficult to work with if one is making a blockbuster. His book War of the Worlds isn't as ham-fisted in its propaganda as some of his other books (the dreadful In the Days of the Comet comes to mind), but it doesn't have a nice Aristotlian arc to it that makes for a good blockbuster film. Since Wells' socialism doesn't quite have the same appeal it did before the collapse of the Soviet Union, an adapter can't rely on the original polyvalence of his writing. Transforming it into a revelation about fatherhood is a pretty good choice, I think.

1 comment:

  1. I see your point about how War of the Worlds is derivative of the popular as opposed to the Biblical apocalyptic tradition, and to some extent you are right. But there are at least three reasons why I read the film in a specifically scriptural context: the first is that much of the strongest apocalyptic imagery in the film, as I say in my review, is directly allusive of the signs of apocalypse as found in Revelations (horns, bloodied waters, etc), rather than the popular tradition. Secondly, the popular or folkloric apocalyptic tradition usually propogates imagery that is metaphorically consistent with the Biblical tradition, and so tends to be illuminated just as well by being read in relation to it. This is, admittedly, an archetypal critic's bias, which tends to privilege attribution to the mythic rather than folkloric sources. But while there is an ambiguating risk in such reading,I have never found it to be an unwarranted one. Thirdly, my ultimate object was to negotiate War of the Worlds into a larger reading of the Spielbergian canon as modelled loosely on the structure of the Christian Bible, and this larger aim requires reading them adjacent to specific books of the Bible rather than in relation general popular strains emergent from them (and since the popular tradition tends to lack the cogent overall structure of Bible itself, such reading wouldn't be very productive). So I can't agree that War of the Worlds is informed more by popular versus the specifically scriptural eschatology. But I would concede that I might perhaps have marked out some of the folkloric or popular motifs as such.