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My Favorite Armageddon
Emily Gertz, 2 Jul 05

wotw.jpgSince I'm hoping to see Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" this weekend, I'm getting a jump on the Worldchanging Weekend with a few musings on the 107-year popularity of this tale.

Mars and theoretical Martians certainly captivate several of us at Worldchanging -- from current robotic explorations of the planet, to the imaginary future colony world of Kim Stanley Robinson. But even in back when it was first written (22 years after the canals of Mars were discovered by G. V. Schiaparelli) "War of the Worlds" was only parenthetically about the real red planet.

H.G. Wells' original 1898 novel is a backbone of 20th century science fiction -- visionary in positing life on other worlds, space travel and other kinds of advanced technology. It's also a deeply veiled condemnation of British imperialism -- symbolized by Martians invading and subjugating the earth with their superior ability to devise and deploy technology. Wells' visions of modern warfare were also prescient. A Socialist and utopian, he was quite often a pessimist his speculative fiction, arguing the need for humanity's social, philosophical and political evolution by positing the unthinkable alternatives.

In electronic media incarnations, the critique of colonialism is lost, but the fear of total modern warfare remains. "War of the Worlds" after Wells is transformed into a survivalist romance of brave humans surviving an unimaginably destructive onslaught, like "The Day After Tomorrow."

"War of the Worlds" morphed into the Orson Welles radio play of 1938, which famously induced panic in about one million Americans who believed the invasion was real. The timing was crucial to the reaction: Europe was on the brink of war, people were jittery, and radio was still a relatively new medium for receiving the news. Welles' staged "news flashes" about an invasion of Martians in New Jersey came off a lot like the many actual, abrupt news bulletins from Edward R. Murrow in Europe -- the Munich Agreement to resolve the Sudetenland Crisis was signed on September 29, one month before Welles and his players staged their broadcast on Halloween Night. And believe it or not, productions of this radio play continued to fool and frighten people for decades afterwards.

Then came George Pal's 1953 Cold War-era epic, a high watermark in the evolution of movie special effects. It was a road-movie-cum-apocalypse: Square-jawed scientist-hero Gene Barry and his plucky love Ann Robinson run, fly a small plane, and drive jeeps, trucks and busses across the cities and backcountry of southern California as they alternately fight and flee the Communists...I mean, Martians. Some have read psychosexual menace in the scene where the creepy periscope/probe from the Martian hovership sneaks up on the unsuspecting heroine.

There was an American TV series for a couple years in the late 1980s, populated by extremely sexy Martian overlord wannabes with nary a tentacle in sight (they'd been hibernating since the 1953 defeat, see, and decided to go about world domination a little more stylishly), opposed by equally telegenic resistance fighters. And of course, the love-it-or-hate-it 1978 concept album by Jeff Wayne.

"War of the Worlds" provides the skeleton for Roland Emmerich's very loud 1996 summer spectacular "Independence Day". This version was was replete with enthusiastic American know-how. Heroic fighter pilot Will Smith supplies the muscle (punching an alien invader in the jaw and dragging it across the playa towards Area 51) and heroic geek Jeff Goldblum supplies the sci-tech chops.

The climactic international air battle for the Earth in "Independence Day" (planetary cooperation at last!) includes a denatured homage to "Dr. Strangelove," thus crossing and shorting the wires of two of the best critiques of modernity and war in the English language. Where Pal (cued by Wells) felled the Martians with minute earthly bacteria and viruses, Emmerich's not-Martian invaders are sabotaged by a computer virus delivered via Goldblum's Mac laptop.

And now we're up to Spielberg's 2005 retelling, which features a longshoreman from northern New Jersey (who thus lives in easy view of 9/11-scarred downtown Manhattan), his children and their flight for survival. A.O. Scott in the New York Times calls it "an elemental story of predator and prey," and says that direct allegories to contemporary matters are minimal, but it's certainly not hard to read current American anxieties into the scenario -- fear of another terrorist attack, and maybe more generalized uneasiness about vulnerabilities to "outsiders," from dependence on foreign oil, to thousands of jobs vanished overseas, to the red/blue divide. And doesn't that movie poster of our globe in a tentacled grip evoke the iconic 1960s images of the Earth from space -- images that brought home the unity and fragility of the planet to millions?

Okay, maybe I'm pushing it. I'll know after I see the movie. But I think this is the key to the enduring attraction of "War of the Worlds" to creatives. It's a powerful narrative of destruction, disorientation and survival that good storytellers adapt to embody each era's primal terrors.

And we, the audience? We can emerge from having the stuffing scared out of us, blinking at the sun, a little relieved, and perhaps (in the words of another science fiction writer whose work recently came out on the big screen), ready for a nice cup of tea. "War of the Worlds" is both eternally the same -- humanity makes it in the end -- and supremely adaptable to whatever current fears we bring to the tale.

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". . . and supremely adaptable to whatever current fears we bring to the tale . . ."

I think this theme -- undoubtedly present in at least some of the later versions -- misses out on a very important aspect of the novel:

Humanity survives in Wells' story by sheer dumb luck.

No amount of pluck, perseverence, or orneryness is adequate in the face of heat rays, choking red weed, poison gas or armored tripods. The one defiant survivalist in the novel is a worthless dreamer. One or two martians buy it thanks to lucky shots by heavy artillery, but that's it. Every sign points toward humanity being turned into a race of cattle, to by milked for blood and perhaps tended by a few desperate quislings.

Because the novel wasn't only a "what would it feel like to be conquored?" parable about colonialism; it was about Victorian pretentions that the white race, and Englishmen in particular, where the hightest link of the great Chain of Being, and rightful masters of all creation.

It was a sledgehammer aimed at one of the props holding up human vanity. The fact that invaders are done in by lowly microbes at the bottom of the ladder of evolutionary progress is supposed to rub in the fact of man's cosmic insignificance.

Adaptations of the novel which don't acknowledge this are phony and debased.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 1 Jul 05

I don't disagree that this is an important facet of the novel, one that survives into the Welles and Pal adaptations. However, H.G. Wells' original intent for his story may be incidental to what people make of the story in the present, just as his anti-colonialist sentiments have been excised from the media adaptations I mention.

There is the novel "War of the Worlds," and there is the WotW of the popular imagination.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 1 Jul 05

The date of the novel listed on this site is wrong!!!!!! H.G.Wells did not write or publish "War of The Worlds" in 1989. Check your facts! Stop posting misleads everyone.

Posted by: KO on 1 Jul 05

Thanks for catching the typo, and telling us about it so politely.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 1 Jul 05

Hey, Emily, you beat me to it - I saw the WoW and thought I might blog it, but you did a much better job than I would've.

I saw references to the Pal/Byron Haskin film, especially in the scenes of lethal panic, and in the barnhouse scene with a the slithering mechanical eye, which looks very much like the critterbot in Pal's film.

(Spoiler Alert - you can skip the next paragraphs if you want to.)

I don't see an analogy to 9/11, though reviewers keep bringing it up. And these aliens aren't imperialists, they want to do far worse than establish rule.

What I did see in WoW is what it might be like to move down a notch on the food chain.

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 2 Jul 05

Hi Emily - great reading that essay. W0tW has been released in Bombay too and I hope to check it out in the next two days.

Only yesterday I was hearing WNYCs new Radio Lab show on the BBC show by Orson Welles. Here you go.

And the other thing that always struck me were premonitions of the Guernica bombing (1937, an year before the radio show, several decades after the book), the first time someone (we know who) would bring to life/death the greatest fears of the book - war from above:

Quiet people go out in the morning, and see
air-fleets passing overhead ¬ó dripping death¬ódripping death!
- H.G. Wells

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 2 Jul 05

Glad you are on to Radio Lab, Rohit. It's a great show. I did link to it, in a roundabout way, under the point on how productions of Welles' play "continued to fool and frighten people."

Sorry I scooped you, Jon -- maybe we ought to coordinate when a scifi blockbuster comes out. I'm averting my eyes from your spoilers until I make it to the movies.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 3 Jul 05

So, I wasn't as transported as I'd hoped to be (wishing for the distraction of a really good summer blockbuster, I guess), but this was a good exercise in sf/horror. Really excellent use of sound and music. Almost a stylistic throwback to 50's sf, I thought, with the crisp, hard-edged visuals, the tight focus on a very small group of characters amidst giant raging chaos, and the whole story told from Ray's (Tom Cruise) perspective.

(spoilers below)

There are some obvious attempts to reference 9/11 -- the walls of flyers and photos, the clothing fluttering from the sky, Ray covered in grayish ash. They failed to move me. Is it just that we're gaining some distance from those days? That's a personal thing, of course but there was a scene involving walls of missing persons flyers on "Battlestar Galactica" not so many months ago that was electric, a bit of a shock, and very, very sad.

Spielberg did quote Pal here and there -- the curious critterbot, the limp alien arm drooping from the wrecked tripod at the end, definitely the scenes of panic. (How easily Civilization vanishes.) And while the plot stays true to Wells' ending -- hurrah for authenticity -- the movie cuts it both ways: The aliens are dying, and thus the Army manages to shoot down one of the tripods at last, and we have our moment of military triumph.

Apt comment about the food chain, Jon -- see, there is ecological content to be found anywhere, if you just look for it!

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 5 Jul 05



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