The War of the Worlds

And so it was that after all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon the Earth.

Last week, I gave a lecture on the possibility that Mars had been habitable in the distant past.  It seemed like a good Halloween subject.  I decided to throw in some pictures of one of my favorite science fiction movies, the 1952 War of the Worlds, which I first saw as a kid and I’ve just rewatched.  Note:  I am not talking about the crappy Tom Cruise remake, the famous radio broadcast, or the H. G. Wells novel.  I’m talking about the movie where the Martian ships look like this:

Sure, there are some cheesy bits (this is a fifties alien invasion movie we’re talking about), and the less said about the science the better, but I still love this movie.

My impressions on seeing it again:

  1. Movies back then showed a striking (to modern movie-watchers) lack of hatred for our civilization.  The Martian conquest is described as both the end of humanity and of “civilization”, i.e. it’s not just a biological loss.  This is before sci fi moviewriters became fashionably alienated (or, at least, before it became fashionable to show off their alienation).  Our civilization is presumed to be worth defending, even though the Martians are obviously our technical and intellectual superiors.
  2. Alien invasion movies might help spiritually prepare people to question the Whig view of history.  In the fifties, belief in “progress” was, if anything, even stronger than today.  When the Reverend character speculates that, if the Martians are more advanced than us, surely they should be closer to God, this would have seemed reasonable to the audience.  The Martians, of course, provide a blunt disproof.  Material advance and spiritual or moral advance don’t always march together.  The “march of progress” only cares about the former.  Perhaps we should worry that someday we will be the ones who get trampled in progress’ march.
  3. Why did movies stop having narrators?  When your movie involves a worldwide calamity, it really helps.
  4. Those are still the most awesome alien spaceships in any movie.
  5. The nation that saw this movie had just endured a world war, and was currently going through a war in Korea.  War wasn’t a video game to them like it was to the makers of Independence Day.  Although the movie is told from the point of view of a scientist (a physicist who, we learn, had worked on the Manhattan Project), the military is a major presence in the movie.  The soldiers are competent and brave, but not in an action movie kind of way.  Their job is to shoot at an enemy who they have no realistic hope of stopping, and to do this until the enemy kills them.  (This is probably what it felt like being a soldier in one of our actual midcentury wars.)  The movie is acutely aware that war is not just a matter of the soldiers; the Martian invasion creates millions of pitiful refugees.  For me as a child, the most memorable scene in the movie was the evacuation of a major American city–I think it was Los Angeles.  Cars with loadspeakers announce that the Martians are coming, and everyone must leave.  A mass of dispossessed people headed for the hills.  Hospitals carrying out the sick on stretchers.  The nearly empty city descends into anarchy as the last inhabitants claw each other for a spot on the last cars.  As a kid, I was particularly disturbed by an image showing a little boy, somehow separated from his parents, eating at an abandoned ice cream stand, oblivious to the coming danger.
  6. This is one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that handles religion well.  Given what we know of them, it makes psychological sense that, when trapped in the Martian attack, Silvia would run to a church, and that Dr. Forester would look for her there (presumably to die together).  The people in the churches, praying to God for deliverance, make a striking contrast to the irreligious anarchy (both Martian and human) outside.  When they are delivered, both they and the narrator–while supplying the natural explanation–invoke divine providence.
  7. Don’t laugh, but I think seeing this movie, and also the original “V“, as a kid had a big effect on me.   Most of my contemporaries had an idea that being outgunned, being invaded, being powerless, are things that happen to other people, not to Americans.  I’ve always imagined war from the losing side.  So it’s partly thanks to the sci fi movies I saw in my youth that I’ve never in my life supported any American military action.  When I was in junior high school, and we attacked Iraq for the first time, I had a nightmare of Iraqi tanks driving down my home street.  What if we lose this war?  What if they turn around and invade us?  In retrospect, that was a silly worry, but it broadened my sympathies.  I might just as easily have been born one of those Iraqis, and then the invincible American air power would have been like the invincible Martian war ships for me.  And it was easier for me to join a side of history that I knew to be weak and overwhelmed.

8 Responses

  1. You ask “Why did movies stop having narrators?” Because narration implies a meta-narrative, i.e., an objective truth, a concept which homo liberalis rejects. The most advanced current documentaries, for example, have no narration, just a juxtaposition of talking heads.

  2. Good point. I also suspect that narration is regarded as too easy, like if they were really good filmmakers, they would show it rather than say it. There’s some truth to this, but for certain kinds of stories, it’s not possible to nonverbally show everything. Also, good narration can be an art in itself.

  3. I can’t help finding narration a sign of laziness and/or incompetence. For example, the voice over in the bowdlerized version of “Blade Runner” makes me crazy.

    On movie treatment of religion, I find the death of Witwer in “Minority Report” a beautiful scene for reasons similar to yours.

  4. Incidentally, I was thinking about mentioning how much the narration in Blade Runner annoyed the crap out of me — that tinny, overdone noir voice. Pfeh. But then, Blade Runner hardly would’ve been much of a masterpiece without it.

  5. I presume we are talking about the voice over on the original 182 movie of Blade Runner?

    I too was annoyed at the voice over, or thought I was, on first view; yet I found myself regarding this as the Best Movie Ever.

    (Best that I had seen up to that time, and from that perspective; and better than the re-edits which lost… something).

    So I was wrong! – the voice over was a significant part of the movie, the movie was the best – the voice over was a necessary part of it ergo the voice over was good, nay brilliant.

  6. “The most advanced current documentaries, for example, have no narration, just a juxtaposition of talking heads.”

    This drive me crazy.

    A documentary shot in multiple locations, which costs millions of dollars, using testimony from a dozen of the major figures, ends up being about… nothing. Just a series of disconnected images and sound bite.

    No thesis.

    I don’t think this is conscious any more; modernity has destroyed the capacity for reason and the desire for reason.

    We don’t get TV or movie or radio *essays*, just more and more *diversions* and *manipulations*.

  7. I think our modern sci-fi movies show a deep psychological understanding of what is going on, once you see them through the concept of PROJECTION. Aliens-and-Robots-R-us, basically, for America. To wit:

    Giant, powerful, unstoppable forces of evil, dominating through violent technological superiority and utter mechanic coldness, to exploit local natural resources and enslave the locals…

    Yup, our foreign policy in a nutshell!

    What man of conscience can root for us? We are Babylon.

  8. Well, it depends on what you mean by “original.” Blade Runner had test screenings without the voice over at which a significant number of audience members didn’t “get it.” Then it was re-edited to put in the voice overs and make other changes, including the happy ending. The movie with wide theatrical release had the voice overs. When it was re-released much later, something closer to the test-screened version was released without the voice over.

    I liked that one much better. First, because you have to figure out for yourself what is going on, not that this is difficult. The voice over just makes it seem like the movie was made for kindergartners. Second, the voice over breaks up the “natural” sound and humanizes the society too much. It’s more alien, ugly, and inhuman without the voice over. And, given what is being depicted, it should be.

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