Hidden amid the rubble at the end of War of the Worlds, like Bambi squished beneath Godzilla’s paw, lie a few words of explanation wrenched from H.G. Wells. In their original version, which included the now-banished term “natural selection,” they identified the immune system as the true hero of this story–the immune system, which every day fights off invaders as multitudinous, and as potentially deadly, as a host of Martians. I suppose you’d have to be a socialist to describe our antibodies as Wells did in this passage, calling them a collective inheritance; to valorize their development over the generations, thanks to the struggle of anonymous masses; to proclaim, on behalf of those forebears, our rightful ownership of the world.
Let the socialists in the house take heart. As for the rest of the audience, perhaps one viewer in ten will notice this text’s existence in the movie. Maybe one in 10,000 will grasp its point, given the way it’s intoned as a quick closing voiceover and so reduced to gibble-gabble. As briskly as Steven Spielberg has torn the initial article from Wells’s The War of the Worlds, so have he and his screenwriters, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, stripped the story of any larger meaning. Millions now die, and the patient work of civilization is almost obliterated, just so an angry teenager can hug Tom Cruise and call him Dad.
Scoffers will say we can expect nothing more from Hollywood, given that mass-market storytelling in a base genre must always be worthless–though somehow it wasn’t, back in 1898. More complacent viewers, meanwhile, will happily discover that Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is about terrorism. Or, rather, it’s about Americans who initially think they’re under terrorist attack, though they’re wrong, because they’re really under foreign occupation, though that must be wrong, too, since it’s the Americans who recently have invaded the world’s terrorist strongholds, which means that we’re our own Martians, or something. No wonder that Tim Robbins seems so confused, planning his futile counterattack; no wonder that every political interpretation of this movie blows apart upon inspection, like flesh struck by an alien death-ray. Spielberg is not without courage; from Schindler’s List through Minority Report, he’s taken risks that deserve respect. But when it suits him to do so, as now, he also knows how to have everything both ways–much as you’d expect from the consummate Hollywood craftsman.
So if we want to think about the meaning of War of the Worlds–or, rather, about the meaning it refrains from having–we ought to consider the part of the film that Spielberg cares about the most: the exuberant, stupendous, awe-inspiring exercise of his skill. Forget the bad-boy characterization he elicits from Cruise, and the formulaic family drama. Although these aspects of the movie are more than competent, they matter only because Spielberg integrates them so well into his principal delight, which is to blow things up, on a vast scale, in motion, continuously, for minutes on end. From the working-class neighborhoods of Bayonne, up through the wealthy New Jersey suburbs and on to the Hudson Valley, he makes War of the Worlds sweep forward as a single giddy wave of destruction.