Mars Attacks

Dayton City Paper | June 29, 2005
I never thought that a Martian would remind me of my four-year-old son. A couple of years ago, he broke his leg and had to be outfitted with a cast. Sitting in his crib, I watched him wrap his blanket around his good leg so it resembled the bad one, presumably to produce a sense of security and familiarity.

In Steven Spielberg’s re-imagining of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, we see the alien tripods either vaporizing humans or pinning them to the ground and sucking out their blood. At first, one might think the tripod was simply behaving like a larger-scale version of the dust-buster. Who says genocide can’t be tidy? But then the tripods begin to spew the collected blood over the landscape, covering our natural browns and greens with a thin red sheen, presumably to make Earth, their adopted residence, look more like their original home: Mars. The Red Planet. Awww. And to think the pundits would have us believe that this was Spielberg’s “meanie” alien flick, with no E.T or Close Encounters-like moments to speak of.

H.G. Wells’ novel, first published in 1898, was very much a product of colonialism and the Industrial Revolution, a time when we were becoming increasingly enamored with our synthetic toys while simultaneously sneering at the natural world that yielded the raw materials. War of the Worlds wanted to stimulate our sense of humility before the biosphere that not only makes our existence possible but is capable of snuffing us out through a wide variety of methods.

A movie version of the novel was released in 1953, which added a touch of Cold War anxiety with the humans’ “last resort” use of a nuclear bomb. But while there’s fleeting references to terrorism in Spielberg’s movie, it’s really just a conventional disaster movie, not a contemporary political allegory. Tom Cruise plays a slovenly, neglectful father who takes his two children from his more stable ex-wife and wealthy new husband for the weekend. Predictably, despite some initial frostiness, mass destruction wrought by aliens brings them together like no judge or therapist ever could. Even though the calamity apparently affects the whole world, the U.S. is deemed the only nation worth looking at. (Though, in all fairness to Spielberg and screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp, there’s less Independence Day-style heroics and more the kind of savage mobs that this level of infrastructure collapse would realistically produce). Spielberg still has a terrific gift for spectacle, both in terms of crafting a suspenseful preamble as well as the actual unveiling.

The ending is still problematic. For all the Martians’ alleged superiority, you’d think they would’ve conducted some rudimentary biochemical investigations over the years. But in the end, Spielberg makes it clear that it’s all about the firm and famously dignified voice of Morgan Freeman, who would probably win the poll of most preferable celebrity to tell us whether wer’e going to live or die.

Reach DCP film critic Aaron Epple at

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