Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 3

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As Act III of War of the Worlds begins, Ray Ferrier, who has just lost his son, seeks refuge from the giant mechanical beasts rampaging across the countryside. He heeds the call of Harlan Ogilvy, who lures him down into the basement of an abandoned house (either that, or it’s Harlan’s own house — I’m not sure). Ray only wants to hide, to get out of the way of the horrifying machines, but he will find out that Harlan has much bolder plans in mind — armed insurrection. (Why Ray should be surprised at Harlan’s plans is something of a mystery — Harlan calls Ray into his basement by holding a shotgun aloft in his clenched fist — a signal for armed insurrection if ever there was one.)

So Harlan calls Ray to battle, but Ray comes only to protect and nurture. His fatherhood-under-fire trial continues as he puts Rachel to sleep. He notices a blue ribbon she has apparently been clutching ever since Bayonne — her award for "long trot and canter." She is, apparently, a horse enthusiast. This is, perhaps, fitting, since the alternate spelling of Ray’s last is "Farrier," a farrier being a guy who takes care of horses’ hooves. So perhaps Ray is a ferrier, one who ferries, and perhaps he is one who tends to horses’ feet, which would serve his daughters’ pleasure and add to her triumphs in the horsey arena. In any case, Ray tries to put Rachel to sleep, but knows no lullabies. Instead, he sings her the Beach Boys’ "Little Deuce Coupe," which is, ironically, a love song dedicated to a machine (although, for Ray, jumping from "beloved car" to "beloved daughter" is a much more heartfelt transition — his beloved car is back in devastated Bayonne, but his beloved daughter remains).

Once Rachel is asleep, Harlan begins discussing his plans over glasses of peach schnapps ("disgusting stuff" he says, and I concur, but I wonder about it as an odd detail in a movie filled with carefully placed cultural signifiers — what could "peach schnapps" possibly symbolize?). Harlan, down in his basement, has been doing some classic "basement thinking." His plan is for humanity to dig their own tunnels, to link up an underground civilization, then take the aliens out by coming up from underground themselves. That is, Harlan’s solution to the alien-attack problem is for people to behave like the enemy who is trying to kill them. This is an obvious reference in the Bush-era response to terrorism, and explains Ray’s panic and total lack of plans. If War of the Worlds is Spielberg’s response to 9/11, and it seems pretty obvious that it is, and Ray is the protagonist he’s chosen for the project, it’s fair to say the Ray is a stand-in for Spielberg as much as Roy Neary was in Close Encounters. (As discussed in yesterday’s comments, Ray seems very much to be a repudiation of Roy — Roy destroys his family in order to rush toward the siren song of the aliens, and Ray does everything in his power to avoid the aliens and do what’s best for his family — even though that means turning his children over to his estranged wife.) So, Spielberg’s response to 9/11 is, primarily, an emotional one of fear, panic and disorientation — a perfectly understandable response, given the circumstances. Once Ray gets himself oriented and has a moment to breathe, he finds himself in the company of someone who has had a very different response to the crisis, a man who wishes, like Ray’s son Robbie, to strike back at the attackers, without any understanding of the attackers motives or methods whatsoever, and do so by behaving exactly like the enemy. The aliens are terrifying enough to Ray, but Harlan’s plans for taking back the planet will be the first thing to move him to action.

("Harlan Ogilvy" is a strange name, almost as strange as the "Agatha, Dashiell and Arthur" detectives in Minority Report. "Harlan" seems a clear nod to sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, but the only famous Ogilvy I can think of is trendsetting ad-man David. Is Harlan Ogilvy part visionary, part pitchman?  UPDATE: the name comes from the novel.  Live and learn.)

"What’s your plan, Ray?" sneers Harlan, implying that not having a plan to deal with the unthinkable is somehow suspect, even un-American. The discussion is tabled when an alien tentacle-scope comes snaking down into the basement. Ray and Harlan then play out their struggle in pantomime: Harlan wants to attack the tentacle, Ray wants only to stay the hell out of its way.

(The tentacle-scope pauses to regard itself at length in the mirror Ray hides behind, echoing Ray’s long mirror-gaze toward the end of Act I. Perhaps the aliens, seeking enemies, are, like Ray, only finding themselves.)

Ray wins the round and the tentacle withdraws, to be replaced by a trio of curious aliens, who poke around the basement (Spielberg points to E.T. when he has one alien toy with a bicycle) and drink the water (foreshadowing!) while Ray, Harlan and Rachel play stay-out-of-the-way. Once the aliens go away, Harlan confronts Ray, saying "I don’t think we’re on the same page," with the implied threat behind that. ("You’re either with us or with the terrorists" is how Bush put it.)

The aliens’ plan then begins to reveal itself: the humans they do not vaporize, they are draining and using the blood to spread mysterious "red weeds" across the landscape. The plan remains mysterious to the end of the movie, but it seems that the aliens are redecorating, using human blood to make the planet more to their liking. Perhaps this is why they created the whole "burying the machines millions of years ago" plan — they saw that Earth could sustain human life, but they had to wait until humanity reached peak population growth before they could strike — to optimize their resources. A couple of years later and a plague could have decimated the human population, and then where would they be? (Although, if they’re smart enough to figure out peak population growth, it’s odd that they forget to put on space suits when poking around in strange basements.)

The red weed is a little too much for Harlan to take, and he proceeds to lose his proverbial shit. Finding himself in a literal hole, Harlan proceeds to — yes — dig faster. Ray, even now, with his situation more hopeless than ever, still wants only to stay out of the aliens’ way, and chooses to kill Harlan rather than attract their attention.

Once Harlan is dead, Rachel places herself in Ray’s lap and puts his arms around her as he sits staring in a daze. Ray might not be prepared to be a father, but Rachel is prepared to put him in that position, even if it means manipulating his physical being in order to facilitate the pose.


29 Responses to “Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 3”
  1. “Ogilvy” is the fellow who first spots the martians in the book.

    Wikipedia also shares this: “Comrade Ogilvy is an imaginary character in the novel 1984. He is created by main character Winston Smith, an employee of the Ministry of Truth, to replace Comrade Withers, a prominent Inner Party member who was made an unperson, in a newspaper article.

    Comrade Ogilvy supposedly lived a patriotic and virtuous life, from denouncing his uncle to the Thought Police at eleven, to designing a hand grenade that killed 31 prisoners of war in its first trial run, to jumping from his helicopter into the Indian Ocean to avoid capture and interrogation.

    Comrade Ogilvy displays how easy it is for a member of The Party to be pulled from thin air, and how determined The Party is to keep unpersons from the media.”

  2. jasonlove says:

    I knew the name Ogilvy was familiar, and my intuition served me right. From Jeff Wayne’s musical adaptation of “War of the Worlds”:

    “And that how it was for the next ten nights: a flair spurting out from Mars, bright green, drawing a green mist behind it. A beautiful, but somehow disturbing, sight. Ogilvy the astronomer assured me we were in no danger. He was convinced there could be no live thing on that remote, forbidding planet.”

    There doesn’t seem to be a lot in common between the characters, though. Is the name just a nod to the musical version, then, or is there something here I’m not seeing?

    • jasonlove says:

      mr_effulgence posted while I was writing. Looks like the name is common in the story regardless of format–but I still wonder why Spielberg chose to use this specific name for this specific character.

  3. capthek says:

    Ya, I assumed they stayed buried either to wait until we had a large enough population, or until they detect we are on the way to developing technology that could in any way put up a good fight. There are a number of sci-fi stories that suggest aliens come when they detect we can use nuclear weapons or detect space flight. It’s a bit late for that so perhaps nanotech or something, but who knows? Not knowing is a bit part of the terror.

  4. swan_tower says:

    Perhaps this is why they created the whole “burying the machines millions of years ago” plan — they saw that Earth could sustain human life, but they had to wait until humanity reached peak population growth before they could strike — to optimize their resources.

    Awfully foresightful of them, then, since we haven’t really been around for millions of years. 🙂 <archaeologist hat on> The first bipedal australopithecines showed up maybe 4 million years ago; we started using tools 2.5 million years ago; anatomically modern H. sapiens appeared on the scene about 100,000 years ago. I doubt they knew a little plains ape in East Africa was going to spread so far. <archaeologist hat off>

    My only direct familiarity with The War of the Worlds is one viewing of this film — the rest I’ve picked up by osmosis — but my impression is that the long-term plan of the aliens is meant to be utterly inexplicable, beyond our ability to even comprehend. Unfortunately, “inexplicable” is the next-door-neighbor of “nonsensical,” but I suspect that looking for a rationale behind the alien actions is an exercise in futility.

  5. ninebelow says:

    what could “peach schnapps” possibly symbolize?

    Is this just to suggest that it isn’t his basement? If it is to symbolise anything perhaps it is Blue State effeteness, he is asserting his identity to Ray: “I ain’t no filthy schnapps drinker”.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Ogilvy’s family. He mentions they are “gone” and there is a deliberate ambiguity here because at first we are meant to assume they have been killed by the Martians but then it begins to seem likely that they have actually left him prior to this. Then there is the queasy semi-sexual way he tries to usurp Ray’s role as father.

    The aliens’ plan then begins to reveal itself:

    I’m not sure that is quite how I’d put it…

  6. mr_noy says:

    I don’t know anyone who actually likes peach schnapps. For something so awful it’s surprising how much of the stuff is around. Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle drinks peach schnapps, even pouring them over his corn flakes. Incidentally, Bernard Herrmann was reluctant to score Taxi Driver until he came across the scene depicting Travis’s breakfast of crazy vigilante champions. I guess there’s something about peach schnapps that is pathetic and repulsive to anyone with sense or taste.

    I’ve only ever had peach schnapps a few times and each time it was in the wee hours of the morning when just about everyone else has left the party and there’s absolutely nothing left in the house to drink. This has happened to me more than once so I’ve always associated peach schnapps with desperation and depravity. I’m sure I’m not the only one. Either way, it seems like a good choice for the scene.

    • cornekopia says:

      I like peach schnapps. Sweet.

    • Todd says:

      I totally get that — peach schnapps is always some kind of birthday gift, never anything you’d buy for yourself. Harlan is, obviously, down to the last stuff in the house.

    • noskilz says:

      Could it be that peach schnapps fits because it’s something that on the surface doesn’t sound horrible, but is? Peaches are popular and booze is popular, couldn’t one expect peach booze to be a pretty safe bet?

      Hiding in a basement for awhile may not sound like a bad move, at least until it turns out the other guy is dangerously nuts.

      • mr_noy says:

        I totally get that — peach schnapps is always some kind of birthday gift, never anything you’d buy for yourself. Harlan is, obviously, down to the last stuff in the house.

        I concur with Todd. Peach schnapps is the fruitcake of booze. Frequently given. Rarely consumed (unless there’s no other option).

  7. Anonymous says:

    I loved how the -alien in basement scene- took me back (waay back) to the velociraptor in kitchen scene from Jurassic Park. Great read!

  8. stormwyvern says:

    I am guessing that the symbolism of Harlan raising his gun aloft escapes Ray because running away from aliens does not leave much time for thinking about anything except where the aliens are and how you can not be there. I doubt the fact that Ray had to lose his muscle car for a family friendly mini van had any deeper meaning to him than “Other car gone, get new car.”

    Speaking of the car, I wonder if Ray defaulting to singing “Little Deuce Coup” to lull his daughter to sleep kind of represents Ray bonding with Rachel over something very odd: materialism. Ray discovers that the one thing Rachel has brought with her as they’d fled for their lives is something totally useless. It has sentimental value to her, but she didn’t grab anything utilitarian because she’s a young child. So Ray sings a song to her that remind her of his favorite material possession. A moment of connection that’s also a farewell to Ray’s extended childhood, which he’s having to give up so his daughter can hopefully have more time to think a ribbon from a horse show is the most important thing in the world.

    The comment about the schnapps could be Harlan’s way of saying that he – and humanity – haven’t been reduced to total desperation yet. He’s not at the point where he’s cherish anything that vaguely resembles food or drink. The world may be ending, but as long as peach schnapps still tastes horrid, there’s still hope.

  9. woodandiron says:

    Another little internal logic problem that bothered me the last time I watched this movie:

    Ray discovers the aliens are harvesting human blood when he sees the alien tripod put a person behind a car (conveniently blocking any gore) and plunge a gigantic needle in and begin to suck blood. That is fine and dandy but later in the movie, in the next act, we see that the aliens actually keep the humans in baskets and then bring them into the tripod to presumably suck their blood. The first instance just strikes me too much as, “well, Ray has to realize what the aliens are doing so they’ll put on a show” and then the action sequence requires them to operate differently.

    I realize I’m being pretty nit-picky but like I’ve posted before, I get really peeved with internal logic problems in sci-fi/fantasy entertainment.

    • Todd says:

      Either that or the people skewered on the ground fulfill a different function than the people in the baskets. Who knows with these freakin’ aliens? They drink water out of broken pipes in strange basements.

      • I could see that being as simply explained as the difference between getting water from a sink and getting it from a bottle.

        Either way, yeah…these aliens are dumb. Biggest logic problem I always have is with the ending: the aliens show they are capable of long-distance space travel, incredibly advanced weaponry, that weird lightning-travel-thingy, the organization to achieve near-total domination of the entire planet within a quick time frame, and the ability to immediately begin effective terraforming (or… whatever the proper name for Mars-forming would be). Yet their ultimate downfall is that they don’t know about germs. Really?

        No, really?

        • robjmiller says:

          To be fair, how many evil alien movies have intelligent aliens? Maybe Independence Day? Take Signs for example. The aliens invade a planet where 70% of the surface and 80% of all living things are made of water, a substance that burns and kills them on contact. The stuff falls from the fucking sky. What do the aliens do to prepare for the invasion? That’s right, they make crop circles. Brilliant job M. Night.

          • Todd says:

            The aliens in both Close Encounters and E.T. seem to have their acts together, but of course they are here to inspire and enlighten, not to pillage and plunder. And the aliens in Independence Day are foiled by their inability to install a simple hack-proof firewall on their computer system.

            • robjmiller says:

              Oh, the Independence Day aliens are no geniuses, but they seem to be on a human level of intelligence. It took Hollywood’s top scientist actor, Jeff Goldblum, to beat them after all. That guy makes teleporters, leads underwater turtle-studying expeditions, predicts dinosaur-related catastrophies, is a neurosurgeon/piano player, and also an alien (although not a very intelligent one).

              • The other big Independence Day alien flaw that always bugged me was that Jeff Goldblum is tipped off to the invasion because the aliens blatantly broadcast the countdown to their invasion using our satellites. Not too subtle.

                Really, the problem is that if humanity were truly confronted with an alien invasion (which inherently means an alien civilization light years ahead of us in space travel, so how many other technological advantages would they have over us?), we’d really just be hopelessly fucked, which wouldn’t make for a fun uplifting blockbuster movie. That said, the X-Files movies might stand as the only place you really get both the malevolent invasion element and the suitable intelligence (sans gaping weakness/gaping plothole problem), but I don’t remember much of the first one and never saw the second one.

                I never saw Battlefield Earth either. I’m just gonna hazard a guess the aliens are idiots in that one too (and everyone else involved in the production…).

      • selectnone says:

        I reckon they just use the fresh stuff for their goop-spreading – if you’re gooping up somewhere with people running around, you just get out the straw; basket ’em up if you need ’em later.

  10. blake_reitz says:

    I’m torn on the aliens in the basement scene. It started off as one of the tenser moments of the movie, with the alien moving just behind the cloth, but as soon as we saw it the threat started to lift. There was even a kind of weird humanization going on there, like the aliens were given a little free time to chill in the ruins, mess around with bikes, get a quick drink.

    Perhaps that’s why the bury the machines – they do so all over the universe, waiting for planets to become interesting, then beam in and start messing shit up. Like when you go on another person’s SimCity (or SimEarth, really) profile, and starting hitting the cartography button for kicks.

    Another possibility. They started off as a machine-like killing force but the earth’s environment made them disoriented and drunk, leading them to do stranger things like putting humans in bins and digging around in basements. They might not even know how badly they were affected, until they start dying.

    • Todd says:

      You mean — they “go native,” and start behaving like humans, gathering their prey, concentrating them so to speak, in order to better liquidate them? (Maybe they saw Schindler’s List — but only up to the middle.)

      • blake_reitz says:

        They just mistook us for recess pieces…

        The shocking twist: They’re one of those trek-type alien races that received fragmented broadcasts of human media, and based their whole civilization around . The human media in point? Spielberg’s film collection.

  11. Anonymous says:

    There was a character much like Harlan in Wells’ original – with an anonymous occupational title like “the artilleryman” or “the verger”, who seemed to positively relish the idea of having a resistance against an unstoppable enemy to separate the weak from the strong.

  12. greyaenigma says:

    Maybe “peach schnapps” sounds too close to “peace” for Harlan’s tastes.