of the Worlds
by Steven Spielberg
117 minutes (PG-13 rating)
Commentary by Kevin Miller
do we respond to evil? How should we respond to evil? Those
are the main questions raised by War of the Worlds,
Steven Spielberg’s take on H. G. Wells’ classic
tale of invaders from outer space. And nothing could be more
evil than the creatures represented in this film: alien life
forms who have plotted the annihilation of the human race
for centuries, even going so far as to bury their machines
of extermination deep under the earth long before humans ever
arrived on the scene. Pre-meditated killing at its finest.
And yet, for all their technology, these aliens seem surprisingly
inefficient, choosing to mow down human beings, buildings,
and neighborhoods one at a time rather than taking them out
in one, big “shebang.” If humans really are bugs
in the aliens’ eyes—as the opening narrative of
this film suggests—obviously no one on their planet
has ever heard of “Raid.” Mere humans have come
up with vastly superior means to wipe out bugs, never mind
their fellow human beings. Perhaps these extra-terrestrial
killers are as sporting as they are vicious. Eventually, however,
it is revealed that the aliens have something more in mind
than a simple holocaust—even though holocaust imagery
is used throughout the film. Don’t worry: I won’t
tell you what that ulterior motive is, because, frankly, I
don’t think I really understand it myself!
that, essentially, is where this film breaks down: when it
comes to offering explanations. For example, apart from a
few comments in the opening narrative about how the aliens
have watched our world with envy over the centuries, we have
no idea why these aliens attack. Has their home world gone
sour? Did they have a bad encounter with humans in the past?
No, it appears they are just plain evil. At least that is
what we must assume, seeing as virtually no attempt is made
to personify the enemy. Add this to the series of increasingly
preposterous coincidences that allow the heroes to survive
the onslaught, and this film veers dangerously close to a
one-way trip to the remainder bin. The porous script is redeemed
somewhat by excellent direction, sound design, acting, and
special effects. But when the foundation of the structure
is bad, it isn’t long before the entire thing comes
crashing down—and it doesn’t take a death ray
from outer space to do it.
As far as any spiritual dimension to this film, that becomes
most evident when the human dimension is most lacking. As
I mentioned previously, the film’s depiction of the
alien invaders is sorely devoid of explanations as to motivation.
David Bruce (www.hollywoodjesus.com)
points out in his excellent commentary on this film that the
characterization of the aliens in War of the Worlds
is a clear reflection of the times. Back in the 1980s, Stephen
Spielberg brought us E.T., a film about an ugly albeit
friendly alien who was more bent on exploration than destruction.
According to Bruce, this represented our desire to end the
Cold War before nuclear proliferation killed us all. What
a contrast to the nameless and nearly faceless invaders Spielberg
brings us in War of the Worlds. And yet, how appropriate,
seeing as that is how our enemies are often portrayed today.
Perhaps Spielberg sees this film as a way to help us expunge
some of the fear we experience every time we turn on the evening
Unfortunately, rather than serve the film (and the viewer),
I think Spielberg’s anonymous depiction of the enemy
actually dooms the film by essentially confining the action
to two dimensions: fight or flight. Both of these responses
to evil may be valid under certain circumstances, but they
are also instinctive and, therefore, highly uncreative. Even
the lowest form of animal—take bugs, for example—will
choose one of these two strategies when faced with a threat.
But contrary to what the aliens in this film think, we are
much more than bugs, aren’t we? If so, doesn’t
that demand a more creative, more human response to evil?
Don’t get me wrong: Fleeing from evil may be effective
and necessary for a time, but eventually, as this film demonstrates,
we will run out of places to hide. And then what? History
contains countless examples of the barbarity humans are reduced
to under such circumstances. (Read Josephus’ account
of the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70 for example.) Taking a vengeful,
“eye for an eye” response to evil is also doomed
to failure, because it leads inevitably to escalation—either
mutually assured destruction or desperate acts of terror in
the face of overwhelming force. So the question remains: What
would a more human, more three-dimensional response to evil
look like? What would it look like in terms of this film?
In terms of real life?
War of the Worlds gives us a partial answer when,
at a critical juncture, hero Ray Ferrier stops running from
the aliens and actually allows them to capture him instead.
For perhaps the first time in this film, mere survival is
no longer Ray’s primary motive. Finally, he has found
something more important than his own life, and he is willing
to risk everything to attain it. Not coincidentally, this
is the precise moment when the tide begins to turn against
the aliens, and begins to turn in favor of the movie as a
In the end, however, Ray’s self-sacrificial response
to evil is too little too late in terms of the movie’s
success, and remains one of the few times War of the Worlds
tries to break out of its two-dimensional prison. Our own
success at breaking out of the prison of flight or fight to
embrace the freedom of self-sacrifice and love in the face
of evil remains to be seen.
@ 2005 Kevin Miller.