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.
This long, long action sequence is only the latest of the many set pieces in which Spielberg has unleashed fury on the world. Think of the massacre of the Krakow Ghetto in Schindler’s List, the Omaha Beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, the tortures of the Middle Passage in Amistad, the hate rally in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. These eruptions of violence, which in length and intensity surpass all expectation, are perhaps the most characteristic expression of Spielberg’s talent, which now reaches its climax in War of the Worlds.
And yet, after he’s finally wiped out everything as far as the eye can see, he now stumbles to a halt. It’s as if, the tantrum having been spent, he looks around and doesn’t know what to do, with half an hour of the movie left to go.
The problem of War of the Worlds isn’t that Spielberg then gets himself locked interminably in a basement with Tim Robbins, or that the climax he at last stages is both perfunctory and implausible. Those are technical flaws, and so ought to be seen as symptoms in the work of so technically accomplished a filmmaker. The more serious issue they point to, I think, is a shirking of responsibility. After setting loose pure, unmotivated havoc as never before, Spielberg fails to recognize himself as its source: to admit that he likes to set the world on fire and revels in commanding the resources to do so. That’s why he can’t bear to linger over the aliens’ downfall or dwell on its implications. He is his own Martian.
This refusal of self-knowledge may be a private fault in Spielberg, an artistic embarrassment in the movie, but it is something larger and much worse in the country that gave rise to this film. What’s left unstated in War of the Worlds deserves our attention, because it echoes widely in other, daily silences–the newscasts that don’t reckon up the war dead, for example, or the conversations where people won’t call incipient fascism by its name.
So where do you go around here for a good, honest horror movie? Try, if you must, Dark Water, which puts poor Jennifer Connelly through half a dozen of the scariest trials of modern life: getting divorced, hiring a lawyer, taking a menial job, popping meds with shaky hands, renting a ghastly apartment where the super’s a creep and the ceiling leaks blood and (here’s the main inconvenience) discovering that your daughter has made friends with the ghost girl who lives upstairs.
With what grim sense of duty, with what somnambulism, does Connelly endure these afflictions! By halfway through the shoot, other actresses might have noticed the oppressive rain effects, the plodding exposition, the turgid pace, and seen how the best of the supporting actors were saving themselves, playing for every laugh they could get; but Connelly slogged on, never once seeking to amuse herself (or her audience) but respecting this soggy nonsense down to its last drip. Maybe she behaved herself for the sake of the director, Walter Salles, thinking that the maker of Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries must know what he was doing. Now Salles is about to get a much-deserved downgrading of his reputation, and Connelly, in repayment for her professionalism, may soon face career limbo.
I sigh my way through this report only so I can point out the congruence between Dark Water and War of the Worlds: In each film, a deeply flawed single parent struggles to protect a child from forces beyond comprehension. Note the “single” part. Cruise plays an abrasive loner; Connelly, a woman shut away in perpetual mourning. Neither seems to have had any social ties, even before the otherworldly came blasting in. I suspect something more than coincidence is at work here, given the very different pedigrees of these films. Investors at powerful corporations–Disney and Viacom–must be guessing that people now feel anxious about the loss of the middle ground between their private homes and the far horizon. When selling us a scary movie, then, the studios want dread to be at once intimate and all-pervasive. This hasn’t always been the case: Look at the Nightmare on Elm Street series, where the site of horror is the school and the neighborhood, or any of the three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with their various forms of public space. But Dark Water and War of the Worlds suggest that people are betting big money on the disappearance of the social world–which is an idea more frightening than both movies combined.
Fortunately, though, George A. Romero has something to say on the subject in Land of the Dead–an exhilarating, funny, inventive and truly revolting horror movie, which features no private homes and no families but plenty of social interaction, for the living and dead alike.
In fact, as the picture begins, the dead are doing their best to enjoy an old-fashioned, small-town Saturday night, complete with a brass band in the gazebo–though not a very good band, given the cerebral decomposition. As fans of Romero’s Dead movies will know, these peaceful-seeming zombies will soon grow hungry and stagger off, searching with mindless persistence for living human flesh. But before they do, into the town roars an outfit of gun-wielding raiders, led by Riley (Simon Baker) and his sad-sack sharpshooter friend Charlie (Robert Joy). Their mission is basically economic: to forage for supplies and bring them back to the last refuge of the living, a fortress city–let’s call it Pittsburgh–controlled by an all-purpose realtor, corporate czar and crime boss. This Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) operates from the penthouse of a pricey and widely advertised mixed-use condominium tower. Riley and Charlie, by contrast, live in the slums, which seem to have become more dilapidated in the years since the zombies rose.
Obviously, this premise is more than an excuse for having nasty things jump out of the dark. It gives Romero the basis for constructing a community–two communities, in fact–where interests clash, values compete, loyalties are forged and betrayed and, yes, entrails are eaten. Those members of the audience who demand a gross-out will not be disappointed. The rest of us will prefer to concentrate on the clever double movement in Land of the Dead, in which Riley and his team venture out to the zombie-infested sticks, just as a swelling horde of the dead start clomping toward the city, led by a howling, bullet-headed figure (Eugene Clark) who in life had been a gas-station attendant.
He proves to be a worthy opponent for Riley and a far more noble character than Kaufman; he has so much more to overcome than either of them, being dead. And his followers, in effect, share in his dignity and pathos, though they’re funny, too, with their stiff-legged gaits and workaday costumes, which turn them into a grotesque Pageant of the Trades. Given Romero’s casting, each face would be idiosyncratic, even without its graveyard deformations. These zombies remain individuals; yet they have lost their singularity, too, since they no longer function as butcher, cheerleader, pump jockey, nurse. Death has united them in one purpose–and it’s not as mindless as you’d expect.
In Land of the Dead, America’s small-town past comes back as parody, horror and ideal all in one: haunting the modern city, preying on it, showing it an aspiration higher than anything a Kaufman would offer his clients. Food for worms; food for thought.