This one came from 2006. It should be self-explanatory (and maybe even a bit too didactic), but I've always been interested in how fantasy films participate in cultural discourses, especially discourses having to do with aliens and outsiders. My 2005 book Framing Monsters, discussed in this interview, lays out my interests and arguments at greater length than this short essay, titled "Domestic Terror," can.
A colleague told me she absolutely hated Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds.
“It insulted my intelligence,” she said. “To have the son return unscathed at the end was completely unbelievable. And what about the time Tom Cruise and his daughter were dropped from the underside of the tripod and walked away without a scratch? They’d have been crushed flat, squashed, exploded into a million pieces.”
Taken as a statement of fact, I couldn’t disagree. War of the Worlds insulted my intelligence too. In fact, excepting the six-year-olds in the audience, I think it’s safe to say it insulted everyone’s. But taken as a judgment of the film, I felt she was missing the point. Movies—at least, summer blockbuster alien-invasion movies directed by Steven Spielberg—aren’t about nourishing the intellect. They’re about fulfilling desire. And in this respect, War of the Worlds couldn’t have been better.
War of the Worlds fulfills the perennial American desire for the preservation of the family at all costs, against all obstacles. We in America like to believe that no matter what, no matter how many shootings, explosions, downed buildings, foreign wars, nuclear holocausts, somehow, miraculously, the family will survive. Not someone else’s family, of course—our family. And it’s because Spielberg knows how to tell stories that tap this quintessentially American desire that he’s been responsible for most of the top-grossing films of the past two decades. It’s not that he’s the only American filmmaker to tell this story; most mainstream American films tell it in one way or another. It’s just that he’s so damn good at it.
Maybe this is because it’s the only story Spielberg knows how to tell. He told it in E. T. He told it in Hook. He told it in Jurassic Park (parts I and II). He told it in Schindler’s List. It’s the story of a family, invariably father-headed, that manages to survive the worst possible threat the world has ever known—indeed, that comes into existence through the tumult of fighting off that threat. In Jurassic Park the threat was rampaging dinosaurs, and the father was former kid-hating curmudgeon Alan Grant. In Schindler’s List the threat was marauding Nazis, and the father was former out-for-himself rapscallion Oskar Schindler. And now, in War of the Worlds, the threat is gigantic death-dealing tripods steered by alien imperialists, and the father is former all-around asshole Ray Ferrier.
In all these stories, an inconceivable, a seemingly insurmountable, and—importantly—an alien threat conjures the family into existence. So you and your daughter get dropped from a height that would crumple steel? So your son walks into a wall of fire that engulfs the horizon? Don’t worry. At the end, father and son will embrace. Our family is impregnable.
War of the Worlds brims with imagery suggesting the family’s peril, suggesting, in fact, that the family won’t make it. You might have noticed the repeated image of panes of glass pierced by a perfect circle: once when Cruise throws a ball through his own front window, once when a refugee claws through the windshield of Cruise’s stolen car, once when Cruise, hiding in a basement bunker, witnesses his daughter standing like a prepubescent Ann Darrow before a looming tripod. In these shots—the first of which occurs before the aliens attack, as Cruise tries to one-up his son by whipping a hardball at him in a curdled game of father-son catch—the shattered glass signifies the fragility of the family “circle”: an invisible protective shield that is frighteningly easy to break, glass, like the family, should not survive the onslaught of baseballs, much less of alien monsters. But it does. Indeed, the ultimate fantasy of a film like War of the Worlds is not just that the family survives, but that while an errant throw by an inattentive dad can puncture the shield, the alien menace, the very power that should shatter the family for good, whips the father into shape and coaxes the family into being.
I don’t disdain the power of this fantasy. We are family creatures; we need families. And a certain truth underlies the claim that families find themselves in extremity. Though catastrophe—financial, mortal, or otherwise—can destroy families, it can also bind them closer. Typically, of course, families are threatened not by alien forces but by forces inflicted either by themselves (alcoholism, abuse, infidelity) or by their own society (low pay, lack of health insurance, mercury-laden water). And typically, families survive, if they do, not by plumbing some previously unglimpsed reserve of inner fortitude but by appealing to external agencies: the police, the social welfare system, legal and legislative allies. Still, the primal power of this fantasy can be productive of good: it makes us want to preserve our families, or at least to see them preserved, and a desire that strong can help people through some pretty rough times.
Yet to the degree that this fantasy is capable of producing great good, it is also capable of producing great harm. For when we convince ourselves that because families come together through the agency of external threats there must be an external threat to secure our families, we enter a realm of dangerous, even deadly, paranoia and denial. When we believe that, we’re liable to do anything. Buy guard dogs. Buy guns. Bomb Iraq.
The obvious way to read Spielberg’s film—at least, the one in all the reviews—is to call it a 9/11 nightmare; and the screenplay, obligingly, provides such a reading when Cruise’s daughter, a convincingly panicked Dakota Fanning, screams, “Is it the terrorists?” just as the tripods attack. But I think a more profitable way to view the film is to place it within America’s foundational posture of defensive denial, a denial so powerful it enabled the young nation to view its prehistory not as the greatest act of invasion the world had ever known but as the providential triumph of a besieged outpost of civilization against the heathen hordes. That denial still runs so deep that only now—three years, tens of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollars after we sauntered into war with Iraq—are we beginning to witness a murmur of collective discomfort (it is still too polite to call it “protest”) against our delusive national conviction that we could preserve our own family by slaughtering someone else’s. And however that hallucinatory denial may be ebbing a bit in our public discourse, it remains regnant in our collective psyche.
So we forbid photographs of dead Iraqi children and dead American soldiers. So we drive SUVs with magnetic September 11 stickers, memorializing 9/11 by enriching the nation that birthed and bred the hijackers and their mastermind. So we sit by as the President of the United States hides out in his Crawford bungalow, unwilling (I mean us as well as him) to confront a grieving mother. So we watch War of the Worlds. Don’t worry, we tell ourselves. The wall of fire, the fall from the heights are only movie tricks. Our family will survive.
And I suppose it will. But it will also suffer, and punish, and kill, and no Tom Cruise will appear to save it.