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Revisiting 2005’s War of the Worlds

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You know how it is.

You see a movie in the theater, like it, and buy the DVD. You notice a film in the $5.50 bin that stars someone you like, and though you've never heard of the movie, you buy it. You win a movie-themed gift, including a DVD of a recent successful film, at a baby shower or the office Christmas party. You get DVDs in your Christmas stocking or as a birthday present. You discover a childhood favorite available for just $7.50 at Wal-Mart. You buy it, too.

Then you file them on a shelf somewhere, where they keep each other company as they collect ever-growing layers of dust, some still suffocating in security plastic, while you repeatedly choose to watch one of a handful of favorites. Many of your DVDs wait in vain, never to be viewed as you work through your Netflix queue and rent movies from Blockbuster. Even during the writers' strike, when three hours of reruns and mediocre reality television shows effectively tempered your interest in watching TV, your trusty DVD shelf remained mostly untouched.

Or maybe it's just me. Other than a few reliable stand-bys, the members of my DVD collection – including many well-liked movies – get passed over again and again. They never seem to correspond to my movie mood. Often I feel time-strapped and prefer something bite-sized that doesn't require a time commitment of an hour and a half or more. I used to wonder at people's interest in watching TV shows on DVD; now The Office is my number one go-to resource for relaxing entertainment.

I have felt bad about not watching those other DVDs, though. Why spend money and shelf space on something I like to have around but never use? I started to think more practically about what DVDs I wanted. I liked several summer movies from last year, but only one made it to my DVD shelves (Live Free or Die Hard). I can always rent the others if the mood strikes, which for most it hasn't.

And as for the films that have already claimed a space on my overcrowded DVD shelves, the time has come to stop neglecting them. With this new series of columns, appropriately if obviously called "Off the Shelf", I plan to force myself to watch those movies, the popular handful and the overlooked many, review them and summarize our relationship. I hope you'll join me in this journey.

Up first: 2005's Steven Spielberg-directed War of the Worlds

Have I seen it before? Yes, in the theater. I liked it so well I kept planning to go back to see it again, but never made it.

How the DVD got to my shelf: I apparently purchased a pre-viewed copy from Blockbuster, judging from the sale sticker.

The DVD viewing experience: Enjoyable.

War of the Worlds (which drops the “The” from the book title) was perhaps marred for some moviegoers by its unfortunate timing. Here is a short chronology of significant public events in the life of star Tom Cruise in 2005: jumps on Oprah's couch, May 23; disses Brooke Shields, May 26; proposes to Katie Holmes in Paris, June 17; defensively calls Matt Lauer “glib” in a Today Show interview, June 24. War of the Worlds opened in the U.S. on June 29.

People were getting sick of Cruise by the time the movie was released. Dating Holmes and espousing Scientology made him seem pretty weird. Some people opted to avoid his new movie altogether, having already seen enough of him for the year. (The movie did alright at the box office, bringing in a total U.S. gross of $234,280,354 and a worldwide gross of $591,745,532, according to The Numbers. By comparison, other big June 2005 films included Batman Begins, which brought home a total U.S. gross of $205,343,774 and a worldwide gross of $371,824,647, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which made $186,336,279 in the U.S. and $468,336,279 worldwide.)

It is indeed difficult to avoid him while watching the movie. Cruise takes on the role of the protagonist, who in the H.G. Welles book experiences the world-changing invasion of extraterrestrial life mostly in a solo journey that finds him occasionally sharing space with other humans. In the newest film version of the story, Cruise plays a messy, unlikable dad named Ray whose children, Robbie and Rachel, aren't particularly close to or fond of him.

The film is marred most, perhaps, by the heavily apparent domestic dynamic. Science fiction is ripe for metaphor, a trait that endears it to fans (along with all the cool creatures and technology and stuff). In this case the father-children relationship might be a little distracting, but it doesn't ruin the movie. Ray doesn't become Super Dad, but he does eventually transfer his eye from himself to, most notably, his daughter as the alien invasion creates a ripple of dangerous situations.

War of the Worlds is by no means limited to metaphors about family, though. Like other works of science fiction, it reflects in otherworldly circumstances the realities of human nature and culture that generations of audiences can recognize. It's no wonder that science fiction and stories about alien life remain popular, or that The War of the Worlds alone has been retold many times as a radio drama, a musical, a TV series and a few films.

I read the book, listened to the Orson Welles radio broadcast, and watched the Spielberg film all around the same time in 2005. Each stands on its own as an interesting and entertaining part of the War of the Worlds universe. I recommend the book, which is still easily readable after 110 years, and the radio play that moved the action from Welles' England to New Jersey (which also serves as the backdrop for some of the 2005 film).

Of the three, the film is likely to be remembered least as a landmark in The War of the Worlds history. The book, obviously, is where the story first unfolded and is the basis for all other versions. The Welles show sent some members of the public into a panic with its newscast-like execution that begins with bulletins interrupting musical numbers with ever-growing alarm. (You can buy the broadcast on CD, or download it from Amazon.com for 89 cents as a “music download” from the album The Ultimate Orson Welles.)

The movie doesn't claim an influence like the book or the broadcast, but it is a notable retelling and updating of the enduring story. One of my favorite parts of this newer version is that the aliens' deadly tripod machines have been buried beneath Earth's surface for years, waiting for the moment when humanity would be primed for the slaughter. It's an interesting juxtaposition of alien life – which, by nature, is foreign and strange to our world – coming from within our own planet, so to speak. (According to the DVD's lone special feature about creating the aliens, Spielberg is the mind behind that from-underneath-they-come idea.)

I also appreciated the retention of Welles' general storyline, the unfolding of the alien arrival and demise, and the author's words at the beginning and end of the film, most notably this line: “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter.” Many science fiction stories address this tendency of man to become complacent in our daily routine, unaware of its consequences or of something beyond that routine that awaits, be it benevolent or malicious. You can see in the story an indictment of mankind's complacency, and an expression of the ills and needs of both individuals and the masses when ripped from comfort and thrust into a pressure cooker of uncertainty and danger.

In the film we find a believable, incompetent response to unforeseeable disaster. The alien enemy, with its impressively massive machines and death rays, is not the only peril humans face during the war of the worlds. The human response, the panic, the desperate self-oriented struggle for survival, the encumbered protectors whose weapons cannot penetrate the alien shields, the cars rendered useless by an electromagnetic pulse, the pantries with little food – all are elements that threaten the characters as they try to survive, burdened by the consequences of their own shortcomings and let down by the flaws of society. The characters rush through situations with little awareness of what exactly is going on, their modern world now reduced to a “go-survive-go-survive” mentality with little dissemination of information.

And, in the end, it isn't humanity that beats the seemingly unconquerable aliens. As in the book, the enemy is felled by bacteria from the world they aimed to defeat, “slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.” War of the Worlds is a story about a protagonist – humanity – who is small (compared to those towering tripods) and flawed, and unable to save itself in the end.

And yet, when the enemy falls, we are glad. The protagonist is us, and we hope for that fictional humanity – and ourselves – another day to live with renewed purpose, shaken from the “infinite complacency” with which they “went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs.” Somewhere within us stirs the yearning for something more, or the alarm that complacency is dangerous, that prompts us to write and read these science fiction stories in the first place.

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About Melissa Cuppett

  • “was perhaps marred for some moviegoers by its unfortunate timing.”

    It was marred for me by being a bad movie. I didn’t care about the characters. The son showing up was ridiculous. Spielberg stole from himself by recreating his “raptor in the kitchen” sequence from Jurassic Park. I better not remember anymore or it will ruin the rest of my day.

  • El Bicho,

    It takes all kinds to make the world go round, you know. It was a bad movie, in your opinion. My opinion is different from yours.

    I enjoyed this movie, even though it never even gets across the point that the invaders are from Mars. The book, which was very literate and clear, is a long read by 21st Century standards, even though Wells is an excellent story-teller.

    Wells’ story’s age shows in its length – written when a book provided the kind of entertainment that TV and movies provide today.

    Spielberg does more than just steal from his Juraissic Park stuff – he re-uses the same alien types used in Independence Day. In addition, he uses his basic theme of kids damaged by divorce that he used in ET. I didn’t really know that this was a Spielberg film until Ms. Cuppett said so. But the minute she did, all those points fell into place.

    Melissa Cuppett did an excellent job with this review – she did far better than I could have (an unfinished War of the Worlds review sits on my damaged hard-drive awaiting resurrection some day).

    Finally, and most importantly, the movie deals with Wells’ basic these of human complacency – an issue I run into all too often on this site in the political section where I usually hang out.

  • I was only offering my opinion, Ruvy. Glad the movie worked for you, although what was going on with the birds. They seemed to have a presence in the story that was never explained.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    Ruvy — I thought the deal with the birds was very vague. I don’t know why they were attracted to the tripods (perhaps they were aware the aliens were dying and wanted to feast on them?), but the fact that the birds could touch them revealed that their shields were down and they were thus susceptible to weapons. That’s as far as I got.

  • I thought the deal with the birds was very vague…

    That part with the birds was taken straight from Wells’ story. In the story’s end, the protagonist sees birds feasting upon the dying Martians, and dogs running off with fresh meat as he wanders exhausted through London, hearing the Martians screaming “ulla, ulla” before falling silent in death.

    Earlier in the film, since little Rachel’s main job is to scream in terror (so it seems) the birds flying off in terror give her reason to be terrified….

  • Ruvy — Thanks for the refresher!