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What's Spielberg up to in War of the Worlds? (1 Viewer)

J.R. MacLean

Senior Member
I have to credit Stephen Spielberg with helping me find my inner suicide bomber. What's more, I think that may have been part of his purpose in his often brilliant retelling of H.G. Wells' War of theWorlds. Even those who did not see the summer blockbuster are likely familiar with the story: Invaders from "Mars" with vastly superior weaponry and technology arrive and begin systematically exterminating mankind while claiming our planet for their own icky uses. H.G. Wells wished to use his writing to enlighten mankind: His narrator/protagonist says: "if nothing else, this war has taught us pity- pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion." Certain scenes from Steven Spielberg's movie convince me that, like Wells, part of Spielberg's purpose is to teach us, if not pity, a certain amount of understanding for the suicide bomber.The episodes in question include one toward the end of the overlong sequence within the dank basement of Timothy McViegh er, I mean the character played by Tim Robbins.

We, along with Robbins and Tom Cruise, see a hapless human hurled to the ground by an alien tripod's tentacle. The poor fellow is then dramatically skewered by a giant syringe which extracts his blood for the greater good of alienkind. This sight causes Tim Robbins' character, whose motives have seemed suspiciously impure, to cross the bridge from fanaticism into psychosis. His deranged babbling precipitates a lethal mano a mano with Cruise. No sooner is Robbins dispatched than the daughter (Dakota Fanning) is frightened upstairs by a seeing-eye tentacle. Tommy follows her screams and emerges into a landscape crawling with alien vegetation fertilized by human blood. Cruise, in pursuit of the daughter, is hoisted by a tentacle into the midst of a gaggle of other unfortunates in a dangling cage under one of the tripods.

It should be emphasized that to this point the human struggle against the invaders has had all the effectiveness of a Neanderthal with a pointed stick battling a Sherman tank. The alien military technology outclasses the humans' by several light years. But here is the point in the movie Spielberg has contrived things to give them a weakness: A hatch has been placed in the body (really the head- as in the book,the aliens and their tripods have disproportionately huge craniums) of the pod just above the basket. The hatch opens. A rubbery sucking sphincter thingy appears. A mini-tentacle emerges and pulls an unlucky victim up to be sucked screaming into parts unknown. Not good. The next victim, grabbed while heroically protecting his daughter, is of course our Ray Ferrier, Cruise's character. But Ray/Cruise has the good sense to grab a couple of grenades he conveniently found moments earlier. He is grabbed and sucked in, but, lead by a brave soldier, his fellow cageites barely pull him out. Grenade pins remain in Tommy's hand. KABOOM. One pod destroyed. Two hundred and sixty thousand to go. Good old formerly selfish Ray was going to blow those grenades whether he was pulled out or not. Noble sacrifice plus some ingenuity equals a higher form of heroism.Yay humans!

The "war" to this point has been a total rout. This is the first time in the movie we have seen humans have any form of success against the aliens. As a human, I, along with, one hopes, every other moviegoer, was rooting for the home side. I was thinking: 'Here's the plan: Everybody gets a grenade.Once you are in, pull the pin. It's our only hope.' Both the logic and the emotional thrust of the movie make this kind of thinking unavoidable. Under those circumstances, I hopefully would have had the courage to do the same thing. The question is: Is Spielberg deliberately trying to give the American people a feeling for what it is like to be a Palestinian. Or an Iraqi? Is this a sly switcheroo on the blood for oil scenario, in order to teach us a thing or two?

Internal evidence from the movie suggests that this could well be the case. Why in the world would the aliens have the sphincter thingy in the first place? Minutes earlier we saw them effortlessly get their vital fluids simply by flinging a human bloodbag on the ground and sucking it dry with a giant hypodermic without so much as a cotton swabbing. No fuss. No muss. It seems to me that the giant anus situation is set up to show us that faced with on overpowering, technologically superior occupying force, suicide bombing might be the only effective option. Or could it be symbolic of an uncaring government out for it's own form of blood (ie: oil) in exchange for the blood of our sons and daughters? And whom or what would the giant asshole represent? A look at Spielberg's source material, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds might help to illuminate these questions.
The book War of the Worlds was published by H.G. Wells in 1898. It is unquestionably a seminal science fiction work, published in an era when society, though still flightless for another decade, was emerging into the modern era: The thought behind the novel is based largely on Darwin's theory of evolution along with well publicized telescopic observations of Mars which had apparently detected the presence of canals on the Red Planet. While unquestionably hoping to entertain his readers, Wells also wrote with a didactic bent. He was a prolific writer of polemics and essays geared towards social reform. Among his contemporaries and friends were Bernard Shaw, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Ben Crane and others.Like those writers, his purpose was as much to educate and enlighten as it was to entertain. I believe Steven Spielberg to some extent shares this motive or mission. One might argue that Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola and others are the Wells, Shaw etc. of our time. They bring to life the myths that help explain ourselves to ourselves. War of the Worlds remains a compelling read one hundred and seven years after it was first published. In both book and movie the invaders represent intellect that has evolved divorced from passion and compassion.Wells portrays the Martians as giant scientific minds that have evolved beyond the need for food. They have no organs of digestion and survive by the much more efficient means of imbibing blood directly. As in the movie, tentacles reach down and collect humans in baskets attached to the tripods for the purpose of using their blood. In the movie the invaders remain nameless; we now know too much to accept that the invaders were shot in capsules from giant guns on Mars- Spielberg leaves it up to us to decide whether they are from a galaxy far far away or the Delta Quadrant) Movie and book equally portray the Martiansas being seamlessly and organically integrated into their machines. The invading machines are virtually alive, so attuned are their operators with them. It is not a stretch to suggest that in both the movie and the book, the invaders have become their machines, without them they would be quite useless. Both sets of invaders are highly technicized, vastly superior, killing and conquering machines.In this, and many other narrative and technical details, from the opening within the drop of water onwards, the movie is faithful to the book.

The main deviation is in the protagonist- in the book he is an intellectual much like Wells himself- rather than being Tom Cruise's portrayal of everyman derelict dad Ray Ferrier. It is of interest, however, that some contemporary reviews of War of the Worlds were critical of it for being too commonplace, for dealing mostly with characters from the lower classes. In fact H.G. Wells himself was born to parents who were working as domestic servants. Of course part of the socialist ethos of the time, which Wells, Shaw and others shared, was the need for dismantling and dissolving of class differences. Spielbergs movie too is rooted very solidly in the working classes. Ray, (ironic name, no?) is a crane operator at the docks, controlling from on high what goes on below, much like the Maritians sealed in their tripods. The task thrust upon him is to safely "ferry" his young son and daughter to their mother in Boston. Similarly, the narrator of the book wishes to find again his "dear wife" so he can once again "hold her hand." But the main thrust of the book is intellectual, whereas in the movie it is emotional. Movies are an emotional medium. Spielberg and his screenwriters did a wonderful job of extracting the single viable thread of emotional truth from the book and adapting it into the core of a mass appeal motion picture. Which brings us back to the grenade thing: the climax and turning point in the movie.

After that sequence, Ray and his daughter are on the outskirts of Boston. The Martian weed, as in the book, is dying. The tripods, as in the book, are reeling. Our good old earthly germs, as in the book, have triumphed. Reviewers have criticized Spielberg for a "cop out" ending; but what would be the alternative? Based on what he had chosen to show us, had the invaders not died, the human race would have had no option but to have gone underground, and, though vastly outgunned, begun a resistance based on suicide bombings. In the book a tripod is brought down by a "lucky shot." In the book an artilleryman talks about possibly commandeering one of the alien machines and using it against them. In the book the unwilling human blood donors are flung from the baskets directly to the ground.There is no sphincter thing. There is no hint or suggestion of bombing the tripods from the inside. The Victorian mind, indeed the mainstream Western mind today views suicide as a transgression. Not so of course, for the Japanese of World War II or the fundamentalist Muslims of today. Spielberg and his screenwriters have gone out of their way to make us feel and understand that sometimes suicidal aggression may be the only viable option for a subjugated populace.

I liked Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Spectacular special effects, fallible, likeable characters that grow through their sufferings, and truly noxious villains. It creatively adapts most core elements of the book while vastly expanding its emotional content. True, the movie sags a bit in the Tim Robbins segment. In the book, the character trapped with the protagonist is a curate. H.G. Wells scores points against the religion of the day, portraying the character as weak defeatist blathering on about judgement day being upon them. It could be argued that Robbins represents certain fringe elements of American society, but this is not brought into focus. He's just a weird loner losing his marbles. And Spielberg let Fanning overact in the penultimate scene in Boston when they were being herded into a tunnel to escape a staggering tripod. Why all the loud histrionics? After what she'd been through, this incident was a walk in the park. These quibbles aside, it was a ripping good movie, with a strong emotional payoff even on second viewing. And, though this feeling might not be shared by all, I admire Spielberg and his team for their efforts in using the medium to enlighten, as well as to entertain. As for my inner suicide bomber, if aliens invade and the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, I'm ready. Otherwise, it's way beyond ugly and just ain't worth it.

Copyright J.R. MacLean 2005​
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Senior Member
Oh, well done. :) Got me sucked in right from the beginning.

Slight nit-pick, sorry!

Tim Robbins character

Needs a possessive apostrophe at the end of s' or s's depending on the style you follow.

Well done though, I quite enjoyed it.

J.R. MacLean

Senior Member
Bryan: thanks for reading!

CZ: thanks for the read and feedback. I fixed the apostrophe thing. You have a sharp eye.


Senior Member
excellent piece of writing and an intriguing, quite plausible hypothesis... bravo!

only suggestion i have to offer is to divide up those overlong paragraphs, for ease of reading...

love and hugs, maia