Sunday, July 03, 2005

War of the War Machines: Tripod Politics in Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005)

Forget the silly CGI Martians. Forget loopy Tom Cruise. Forget the incoherent politics and the embarrassing ending--the banal paean to the American Family that has become Steven Spielberg’s cinematic signature.

Go and see War of the Worlds for the machines. The glorious Martian Tripods are the real stars of the picture and their Gigeresque techno-organic sublimity almost redeems this hobbled summer blockbuster from its director’s own worst instincts. War of the Worlds may not be “a sci-fi masterpiece,” as Slate’s David Edelstein preposterously asserts, but the stunningly-realized Martian hardware and the creepy alien vines they cultivate are genuinely marvelous additions to the visual language of science fiction film.

Spielberg’s Tripods represent a return to Wells’s original literary vision and thus a striking departure from the hair-raising Martian battleships of the Byron Haskin/George Pal/Barre Lyndon film, for which special effects designer Gordon Jennings won a well-deserved Oscar in 1953. As anyone who has seen this earlier film knows, the green “swan-like” Martian warship with its serpentine “neck” topped by a glowing red eye and boasting a heat ray that incinerates everything in its path is truly terrifying, and is undoubtedly one of the most successful filmic reinventions of literary source material to hit the screen. That this reinvention was necessitated by the technical limitations of special effects in the early 1950s in no way detracts from the brilliance of the final result: a fleet of Martian war machines that is frighteningly mobile and totally inescapable.

Nonetheless, with the resources of Industrial Light and Magic at his fingertips, Spielberg is able to bring Wells’s nimble tripod design for the Martian war machine to cinematic life--and in many ways, the timing couldn’t feel more right. Science fiction filmmakers as diverse as George Lucas and the Wachowski brothers (below) have been borrowing Wells’s arresting vision of alien technology for years now, and it’s about time someone did justice to the original.

And yet, one can't help wondering...why now? And why Tripods rather than war ships? Political answers to the first question are obvious and inescapable, but in the case of Spielberg, also somewhat misleading (I will examine this paradox in more detail below).

What interests me for the moment is the return of the Tripods and their displacement of the warships. Are the Tripods just a nostalgia trip? The gosh-gee-whiz-back-to-the-future-retro-joyride of a starry-eyed kid with an ILM magic wand at his disposal? Or are they in some way connected to the film’s garbled political vision, and if so, how? Despite the care with which Spielberg and the film’s writers have perused Wells’s text, we know that Spielberg isn’t primarily concerned with filming a faithful adaptation of Wells’s War of the Worlds. For as good as she is in the role of Cruise’s doe-eyed daughter (and say what you will, she is an extremely subtle young actor), there was no Dakota Fanning in the novel’s besieged London. So what gives? And more viscerally, what is it about Wells’s Tripods that remains so thrilling and so disturbing more than a hundred years later? What exactly has happened to Martian war machines since 1953? What is the difference between a Martian battleship and a Martian Tripod?

The answer to both of these latter questions is, in a word: multiplicity.

The Martian war machines from the 1953 film may have been legion, but as Gordon Jennings’s aggressively phallic “swan” design suggests, they were still horribly, relentlessly singular. The screeching blast of each lone red eye was like an affirmation of the Martians’ single-minded program of annihilation. Moreover, in the context of Haskin and Pal’s Cold War invasion fantasy, the singularity symbolized by the battleship design evoked a frightening political singularity as well: the looming threat of communism, the alien face of a singular enemy arriving from without.

The Martian threat of Spielberg’s remake is considerably more complex and contradictory. It emerges neither exclusively from without, nor from within, but from both simultaneously: the prehistoric war machines are already under foot, sleeping patiently through the millennia, waiting to be activated by Martian pilots who ride eerily silent lightening bolts to their subterranean control centers. Just as the sleek warship design mirrored the singularity of the red scare in the political allegory of the first movie, the unsettling idea of a menace that seems to emerge from multiple sources is embodied in the amazingly heterogeneous Tripods themselves. And here, Spielberg sticks rigorously to the brilliant, evocative descriptions of the source material:

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder… Seen nearer, the Thing was incredibly strange, for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about. Behind the main body was a huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman's basket, and puffs of green smoke squirted out from the joints of the limbs as the monster swept by me. And in an instant it was gone. (Wells, WOTW Part 1: Chapter 10)

In both the novel and the film, everything about the Tripod war machines is multiple--beginning, of course, with their legs. The unique protuberant “eye” of Jennings’s warships was certainly disturbing, but the Tripods’ legs suggest something stranger and more discomfiting. As weird and shocking as it undeniably was, the singularity of the fire-spewing eye was not, in principle, incompatible with the comforting notion of the unified self of Western metaphysics that a Martian invasion film quite naturally reaffirms. Moreover, this equation of Martian ships with Martian selves makes sense in light of the first film’s political allegory: the “Martians” are just commies anyway, each as human and “singular” (albeit not “individualist”) as any American.

The Tripods of Wells’s novel and Spielberg’s movie suggest something different. Bipedal Martian machines would be unthinkable, for these would simply be giant robots--uncanny reflectors of human beings, but not truly “alien.” The third leg of the Tripod produces genuine strangeness. Like some vestigial limb, it muddles the symmetry of human, animal, reptile, and even insect forms, conveying something unpleasantly unearthly and difficult to locate ontologically. And yet its excess, its multiplicity, is not superfluous. The Tripod boasts both a disturbing stability and a frightening capacity for movement. And the conjunction of this strange multiplicity with awesome power is the mainspring of the discomfort it elicits.

As important as they are, the peculiar horror of Martian Tripods is not attributable solely to their mechanical limbs, but to their “articulate ropes of steel,” their “long, flexible, glittering tentacles,” which in Wells’s original are meant to recall the Martians' own tentacled physiognomy. The ambiguous mixture of organicism and technology is a multiplicity that Wells highlights in the novel as well when describing the creepily animate quality of another set of Martian machines:

Most of its arms were retracted, but with three long tentacles it was fishing out a number of rods, plates, and bars which lined the covering and apparently strengthened the walls of the cylinder… Its motion was so swift, complex, and perfect that at first I did not see it as a machine, in spite of its metallic glitter. The fighting-machines were coordinated and animated to an extraordinary pitch, but nothing to compare with this. People who have never seen these structures, and have only the ill-imagined efforts of artists or the imperfect descriptions of such eye-witnesses as myself to go upon, scarcely realise that living quality. (Wells, WOTW, Part 2: Chapter 6)

In Spielberg’s version, this nightmarish “living quality” defines not just the thrashing metallic tentacles that swoop down out of nowhere from an impossible height to nab fleeing human beings and deposit them in wire pouches beneath the Tripod’s “head” (the “huge mass of white metal like a gigantic fisherman’s basket” in Wells’s description) for future consumption, but the entire Martian machine. The scene in the harbor, where the Tripods emerge from beneath the churning water, is one of the best in the film because it amplifies the nightmare of this techno-organic alien multiplicity and gives it an archetypal shape. The formless chaos of the water and the writhing, hideous metallic tentacles that descend from above convey the sense of a procrustean Jules Verne-like horror from the depths that has somehow taken to the air, and is equally at home on land as in water, as the astonishing panorama of the Tripods devastating the shoreline subsequently reveals.

Like the singular swan-necked warships of the first film, the amphibious, polymorphous nature of Spielberg’s war machine has a naughty sexual correlate. Indeed, Spielberg seems almost to have conceived of this feature as the sexual complement to Jennings’s ship design. Instead of a Martian phallus, Spielberg gives us a livid pink membrane that is genitally unclassifiable (a toothless vagina dentata? a Martian anus?) but undeniably suggestive. A sort of carnivorous sexual organ that stands in for the vampirism of Spielberg’s blood-draining Martians (Wells made them cannibals), the pink “mouth” communicates between the Tripod’s metal baskets of human victims and the inner, never-glimpsed world of its command centre. It is the film’s ultimate liminal space: a passageway between outside and inside, between life and death, between the tenuously human and the fully Martian world, between the organic and the technological. It crystallizes the disturbing “living quality” of the alien war machine. It is, in short, the core of the Tripod’s frightening multiplicity, its terminal blurring of categories.

If the difference between the war machines of Haskin’s and Spielberg’s films amounts to the difference between singularity and multiplicity, what does this have to do with the politics of the most recent War of the Worlds?

I said earlier that its politics were “incoherent.” “Vapid” would serve just as well. What is important to note is that it is calculated vapidity, a willed incoherence that has two distinct dimensions.

“No,” we and Dakota Fanning are chastened as the devastating attacks begin, “it’s not the terrorists; this is something else.” And “No,” one can almost hear Mr. Spielberg yelling at us, “the movie is not a political allegory!! Honest, it’s just a story about a lost dad trying to save his kids and reunite his family. Really it is!!” And yet, in a recent news story, Spielberg confirmed the 9/11 references of the film, commenting, “There are politics underneath some of the scares, and some of the adventures, and some of the fear, but I really wanted to make it suggestive enough so everybody could have their own opinion.” For “suggestive,” one might be inclined to read “deliberately muddled.”

No matter how one feels about the current handling of the real American war machine, what is clear is that the film is painfully aware of the impossibility of making a non-allegorical Martian invasion movie in the wake of 9/11 and is as anxious to avoid reproducing the paranoid jingoism of its Cold War precursor as it is of appearing too liberal.

Hence the movie’s three symbolic endings. Although they necessarily appear sequentially, I like to think of them as following a sort of “choose your own adventure” model in which each provides a satisfying ending for a range of viewers across the political spectrum. The first ending is the liberal ending, in which Tom Cruise saves America by blowing up a Tripod (an “Axis of Evil” if ever there was one) with the cooperation of ethnically diverse fellow prisoners who pull him free of the Martian anus in an jaunty pantomime of coalition-building. The second ending is the more Conservative ending, in which the U. S. Army saves America by blasting a Tripod to smithereens the old fashioned way. This ending is stodgier and lacks the dramatic tension of the first, but it is a strategic (and one senses, half-hearted) addition in any case. The third ending is arguably the most irresponsible of the three, as it echoes the conclusion of Haskin’s flag-waver and Wells’s original in bringing about a reunion of church and state. In this ending, provided by Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration, the Martian-unfriendly microbes, which “God in his wisdom” placed on earth, carry the day. God saves America, giving us a literal deus ex machina.

A suspicious viewer might argue that these are not three endings at all, but the same ending repeated three times in (not so) subtly different registers. For such a viewer, Spielberg has prepared a special fourth ending that comes before the other three, and which might be taken as a hint to leave the theater early. This ending is of course the one in which Tom Cruise murders Tim Robbins’s whacked out would-be resistor in the cellar with his bare hands. In terms of its politics, this ending--indeed the entire cellar episode--is potentially the most radical and the most subversive of the lot because it is here that Spielberg makes the strongest explicit claim for an enemy within, and suggests that the real danger to American ideals is posed not by the “other” from without (the laughably fake CGI Martians whose very absurdity suggests parody), but by a certain paranoiac attitude that emanates from within. Of course, when dealing with Martian exterminators, one cannot be too paranoid! But Spielberg seems to want to complicate the political allegory here in order to distance his film from the patriotic stridency of Haskin’s The War of the Worlds, and he does this by setting up Tom Cruise as the liberal alternative to Tim Robbins’s jittery, gonzo “enemy within,” the human equivalent of the Tripod that emerges from beneath the city street in the film’s harrowing beginning.

A number of critics have commented on the intensity of the silent life-and-death struggle between Cruise and Robbins as the serpentine Martian eye slithers ominously all around them in the dingy claustrophobic basement. It would not being going to far, I think, to see this scene as a Spielberg’s comment on the current state of American politics--and it is potentially the most lucid political statement of the movie. Even here, though, there is something distinctly odd about casting the most vocal and visible Hollywood lefty in a role that is so politically abject. No doubt, Tim Robbins had a blast playing against type, but one senses Spielberg’s political equivocation at work here too. At the same moment that Tom Cruise’s (liberal) “Ray” kills off (right wing paranoiac) “Ogilvy” in order to survive, we are uncomfortably aware that he’s also bumping off dyed in the wool lefty Tim Robbins. Once again: stalemate.

The political soupiness of War of the Worlds is not accidental. It amounts to a strategic dodge. Spielberg knows that he cannot avoid the political implications of his material, and on some level, it seems, he does not entirely want to. The political “suggestiveness” of the script gives the proceedings a ponderous hint of depth. But only a hint, for the possibility that the film actually has a political vision at all is highly doubtful. As Rick Groen has recently argued in a penetrating article about Spielberg’s career,

everything about Spielberg’s work reflects his innate belief in the triumphant power of goodness... Not feigned but genuinely felt, this abiding belief is what makes him a populist, specifically an American populist (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happy endings). But it’s also what makes him a Capra-corn sentimentalist. The white light of goodness animates his artistry and the limits of his art, doubling as his main strength and his enduring weakness, his bete blanche. (The Globe and Mail, Saturday, July 2, 2005: R8)

In War of the Worlds, this "bete blanche" is manifested in the maudlin spectacle of Tom Cruise’s reconciliation with his imploding family, the scene which constitutes the fifth and final ending to the film. This is the “real” ending; that is, Steven Spielberg’s ending. Not a political ending, but a sentimental one that makes it impossible to accord any of film’s political “messages” even a marginal degree of seriousness. Indeed, it is the ending that the self-negating political incoherence of all four previous endings have been cunningly designed to privilege and produce.

We seem to have come a long way from Tripods. But in fact, they have been with us all along.

As images of a multiplicity that confuses inside and outside and refuses or complicates simplistic binaries with its disturbing tentacles and extra appendages, the Tripods could--and to some extent do--reflect the contradictions, challenges, and complexities of the current political situation where the enemy itself becomes amorphous, multiple, and sometimes difficult to pin down. If Jennings’s singular Martian war machines embodied the dark side of a deadly political binary from an earlier (Cold) War, then Spielberg’s ambiguous Tripods seem poised to reflect the uncertainties and dangers of the contemporary moment. And yet, as we have seen, Spielberg is uncomfortable with such difficult, potentially illuminating complexity, preferring instead to beat a hasty retreat from the public sphere to the safer domestic space of the fractured but “good” nuclear family that his films obsessively mythologize.

What is unfortunate about the new War of the Worlds is that ultimately, the Martian Tripods and the endlessly proliferating Martian vine are not allowed to bear any meaningful symbolic weight at all. If their unsettling multiplicity represents anything for Spielberg it is not the complexities and contradictions of contemporary political life, but the political sphere as such. It is politics that are alien to Spielberg’s sentimental vision, and as we watch Tom Cruise being pulled to safety from the voracious pink lips of the Martian war machine, having left a handful of grenades inside to destroy its disturbing complexity and multiplicity and blast all of the human captives to “freedom” and the still greater “safety” of home and hearth, we might catch a glimpse of the director’s own reactionary fantasy of familial insularity. And as the Tripod topples into an already dying network of red, brilliant, tangled Martian weeds, we might get an inkling of what is at stake in Spielberg’s war against the machines.

Related Links

  • Read the complete text of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds. The narrator's extended ruminations about the machines and Martian physiognomy in Part 2, Chapter 2 are especially interesting.
  • For more stills of the Martian warships from War of the Worlds (1953) see Martian War Machine.
  • For more than 80 fascinating visualizations of Wells's Tripods visit The War of the Worlds Cover Gallery.
  • Visit the superb War of the Worlds fan site War of the Worlds Online.


    warrenzone said...

    great review, I could not read it all, because it might spoil the movie for me - I prefer to read reviews after.

    by the way, I've listening to the war of the worlds rock cd, that was reissued last week. it's pretty out that, prog rock, I guess you could call it.

    Anonymous said...

    Jesus Christ! All this for a Sci-Fi movie ? Maybe you should stop living in the basement and go outside for once in your life. Come On, really. If I looked hard enough, I could probably find numerous political references and nuances in Stev Martin's "The Jerk" as well. But hey, it's JUST A MOVIE. Meant to entertain, and I thought it did a good job of that. I, unlike you, don't have that much free-time on my hands as to look at every scene and devise this majestic "second meaning" for everything that happens in the movie. This is probably because I have a life, and see this film for what it ultimately really is: A movie meant to entertain us.
    Here's a suggestion for you: Watch the movie upside-down through a mirror, and maybe then you can decipher the subliminal messages Speilberg must have put in there as well! Sound ridiculous ? So does your long-winded, self serving review.
    Nothing personal - This is business.

    Anonymous said...

    Wow, anonymous really makes himself sound like an ass. Why did you sit and read the review and then write a "long-winded" and "self serving" comment, if its just a "MOVIE" that is so meaningless to you? I'm just curious why you would invest so much time in all of this, when your life is obviously so interesting and you do things outside of your basement. Some people just like to read a bit more into the art they enjoy, as opposed to mindlessly staring at a movie screen for two and a half hours, and then just dismissing everything you saw as mearly entertainment and nothing more. Film and literature are tremendous art forms, and though they may entertain, they're also a vehicle for another person to communicate meaning and show you how they see things. I thought the article was flippin' awesome.