Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 4

click tracking

Ray Ferrier has spent three acts of War of the Worlds fleeing the predations of the unknowable aliens who seem bent on destroying his family — that is, his action has been, up to now, the act of avoiding action. Now, as Act IV begins, the aliens go one step over the line, forcing Ray into a crisis of action.

The act begins with Ray and Rachel snuggled up tight in the basement of the wrecked house of Act III. Ray has, it seems, earned the right to act as father to Rachel — he has protected her from Harlan’s ill-thought-out "plan" and provided her with shelter — such as it is. Now, however, the alien tentacle-scope returns and invades Ray’s space as he sleeps. Rachel screams and heads outside as Ray destroys the mechanical eye — a direct contrast from his previous response.

Ray follows Rachel outside into the dark night and finds the world transformed. The aliens have been busy as Ray has slept. They have turned the peaceful heartland into a blood-red charnel house of destruction and death. As a liberal who lived through the Bush years, all I can say is: I’ve been there, man.

Rachel, confusing the aliens with the T-Rex of Jurassic Park, freezes before one of the towering machines and gets captured. This turns Ray into a guerilla fighter. He was not interested in confrontation until he had no choice. When the aliens invaded his planet, destroyed his home, and then his wife’s home, and then lured his son away, Ray could only flee and hide. But now he must act, in spite of the fact that his actions are all improvisatory and may have no impact whatsoever.

Think of how lucky Ray is in his totally-slapped-together non-plan. To free his daughter, Ray first gets the machine’s attention by throwing a hand grenade at its defensive force-field. That accomplished, Ray gets himself captured and, as luck would have it, deposited in the same holding-pen as Rachel. He has no idea how the aliens will respond to his actions, he just does what he thinks he must do in the moment. Once he locates Rachel and snaps her out of her shock, the aliens next select him for — well, for whatever happens to a human who disappears up the anus-like opening at the top of the holding pen — which, when you think about it, can’t be anything good. Ray, with everyone in the holding pen working together to haul him out, manages to, well, shove a pair of hand grenades up the ass of the alien machine. This is, of course, a startling contrast to the climax of Close Encounters, where Roy Neary couldn’t wait to get up that mechanical alien fundament, where love and salvation awaited him. (It also recalls Giger’s crashed alien spacecraft in Alien — there are just some orifices people would do better not to enter.)

So, Ray gets the aliens’ attention, not knowing what they will do, then, gets himself captured, not knowing if that will help, then, luckily, winds up in the same basket with Rachel, even though that does not really improve their situation, then — unexpectedly — gets selected for anal insertion, at which point he relies upon the kindness of the mob to help him deliver his explosive suppository. He doesn’t know what the grenades will accomplish, and further, he has no assurances that anybody wil survive the machine’s destruction. All thatstrikes me as pretty guerilla, and I spell it out here to point out that, even as Ray moves to rescue his daughter, the only thing he has left in the world, he still has absolutely no plan.

After Ray rescues Rachel, it’s just a hop, skip and jump over to Boston, where the machines still roam the streets, but are now apparently drunk in addition to being murderous. (Well, it is Boston.) The narrative at this point turns oddly anti-climactic, as Ray is, again, reduced to bystander. This is, I think, entirely intentional on Spielberg’s part — Ray is not a warrior, he is a father. He has fought the aliens to retrieve his daughter, and now he is, again, simply a father. One of the startling gambits of War of the Worlds is that its premise is, as its title implies, global, but its conflicts are all relentlessly domestic. There are no scenes of military personnel and political leaders gathered around a big table in an ill-lit room, furrowing their brows as they suss out the alien threat — the movie doesn’t even try to make a guess as to who the aliens are or what they want, they remain unknowable and "other" throughout.

Spielberg could easily have constructed a narrative that involved Ray taking on the aliens a billion to one and triumphing, and that would have been the more commercial choice. Think of Chief Brody at the end of Jaws — an utterly implausible ending that made audiences stand up and cheer. There is no cheering at the end of War of the Worlds, just Ray running for cover again as the army does their job and brings down one of the drunken machines. (Yes, I know, Ray points out that birds are landing on the machine, indicating that their force-fields are down, but the narrative clearly indicates that the die is cast at that point — Ray’s actions have no impact on the alien invasion.)

Think of that. Spielberg, America’s most populist director, when given the chance to create the ultimate one-man-against-impossible-odds triumph narrative, instead pulls back and has his protagonist huddle in a tunnel with some of the faceless crowd while some army guys we’ve never met finish off a drunken machine. The fact that the aliens have been killed by germs is almost beside the point; the point is that it’s not Ray’s job to save the world. He’s not a hero, he’s just a father, one of the millions, not special. In its way, the ending of War is the truly populist one — it says that its protagonist is nobody special, and it says that, in fact, everyone is special, in ways they never suspected. (In Independence Day, the alien ships manage to crash-land into every landmark in the world. Here, the machine on display crashes into an anonymous factory building — in Boston, no less, where landmarks grow on trees.)

The alien threat gone, Ray ambles over to his ex-wife’s parents’ house, where he delivers Rachel to her mother, his "ferrying" job complete. He doesn’t even get close enough to the house to speak to his ex-wife — he’s not Frank Abagnale, he’s not about to use his terrifying ordeal as a lever to draw his estranged wife back to him. He’s done his job, he’s faced down the dragon, and now, like Joe Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces, he can no longer be a part of the home he fought to preserve. (This fate will also befall the protagonist of Munich.) The ex-wife’s parents smile and nod at Ray approvingly, but no one even thinks to invite him in for a cup of tea as a thanks for delivering Rachel.

On the other hand, Robbie, as many have pointed out, is somehow alive and well and has, apparently, just shown up to the house a minute earlier — he hasn’t even had time to wash his face. He comes down to give Ray the hug he asked for nearly two hours earlier. Fatherhood, War says (as does the slightly less-horrifying Finding Nemo), has two primary jobs — keeping safe and letting go. Ray has admirably fulfilled both, and is suitably rewarded. In the end, he delivers his daughter but, like Hanratty at the end of Catch Me If You Can, gains back his (prodigal) son.

Comments

37 Responses to “Spielberg: War of the Worlds part 4”
  1. iainjcoleman says:

    This turns Ray into a guerilla fighter

    And it turns the film into bollocks. Right here is the point where a film that has often been starlingly good takes a sharp right turn into nonsense. One of the things I like most abot the film up to this point is that Ray is a very credible, human character, ill-prepared for violence, at a loss when his world collapses. Now he turns into, not just a fighter, but a superman in typical action-movie style. A massive disappointment.

    • Todd says:

      I disagree — I don’t think Ray turns super at all. He succeeds, improbably, in freeing his daughter, but his tactics are closer to Indiana Jones than Superman, and in no way “typcial action-movie”-ish. Even working-class mug John McClane could kick Ray Ferrier’s ass.

      • iainjcoleman says:

        He is suddenly blessed with strength, dexterity, agility, resourcefulness, luck and script immunity. Indiana Jones, Superman and John McClane are all supermen in this sense. I was really enjoying the fact that Ray wasn’t. Then this happened, and all I could think was “Oh, for fuck’s sake”.

        • travisezell says:

          By those criteria, he was a superman from the beginning. How many impossible scenarios did he escape based on sheer luck? But any story with danger and peril, with stakes high enough to play life vs. death, has by nature a protagonist with a certain degree of “script immunity.” It’s the weak anthropic principle applied to the universe of the story. If Ray had been one of the jillions who died from the aliens’ vaporizer rays, we wouldn’t be telling his story. Since he’s not an equipped magical action hero, and since he has to be close enough to the action to keep the story moving but fortunate enough to survive to the next scene, then luck has to play a factor.

          He still comes off, for my money, as credible, human, and pleasingly ill-prepared for violence (the gun/van scene comes to mind).

          • iainjcoleman says:

            The gun/van scene was one of the best bits. I can’t reconcile that character with the guy who heroically takes out the Handling Machine. It’s like those two scenes belong in completely different films.

      • robjmiller says:

        John McClane can also take out helicopters with a car.

    • andrewducker says:

      Yeah, that was the problem I had – it seemed like a scene from a very different movie.

  2. samedietc says:

    anonymous factory building

    And, thinking about it now, every object/place that gets it is pretty unmonumental–there’s a certain everydayness to the things that get destroyed: a train, a ferry, a McMansion (destroyed by a falling plane which may carry an echo of the WTC, but unlike the WTC, this building has no name), an intersection.

  3. They have turned the peaceful heartland into a blood-red charnel house of destruction and death. As a liberal who lived through the Bush years, all I can say is: I’ve been there, man.

    And lived to complain about it. 😉

    That aside, this series on War of the Worlds was, in my opinion, definitely one of your best. I watched the movie again after I read “Part I” so I could refresh my memory. I had forgotten how good this movie was.

  4. stormwyvern says:

    I’m not going to try to form too much of an opinion either way about a film I haven’t seen, but I will say this: I think it’s a very difficult thing to give an audience cues that hint at a particular kind of movie and not follow through in the expected way while still delivering a satisfying ending. It’s not that filmmakers can’t or shouldn’t do this; you’ve made much throughout this series of how Spielberg makes concepts fresh by standing them on their heads. But their are certain concepts and scenarios that trigger certain expectations in an audience – and not just because they’ve seen to many by the book formula movies – and you have to be pretty clever to sidestep those expectations and leave your viewers satisfied. It’s part of why I still ponder over the ending to “Broken Flowers” – a film that sets up the idea of a detective and a mystery and then proceeds to not solve it – and whether i think it works. The fact is, the “alien invasion” or “alien attack” scenario comes with certain strings attached. The audience generally wants to see the humans fighting back against the invaders, either to punish them for the atrocities they’ve committed or to prevent future ones. To not only remove the film’s protagonist from having any active role in the aliens’ downfall, but to have germs rather than humans be responsible for taking out the invading force is probably going to be a tough sell.

    It seems to me that what Spielberg has done is to take all of the trappings of an alien invasion movie and used them to dress what is at its heart a disaster movie. No one would have criticized Ray for wanting to run to safety instead of standing and fighting if what he was up against was a tornado or a tidal wave or an upside-down boat. (While it was in theaters, I took to calling the remake of The Poseidon Adventure “The Boat That Was Upside-Down.”) We know that forces of nature can’t be fought, so we don’t expect the protagonists to try to do anything but survive or escape. But because the threat in this film is aliens and because we’ve seen and read and heard countless stories that say individual people can fight back against aliens or zombies or whatever the invading menace of the day is, we’re a bit less accepting of Ray’s decision to stay out of the way throughout most of the movie. We expect him to be the ordinary guy who becomes a hero in extraordinary circumstances, though for someone like Ray, getting off his ass and out of his prolonged adolescence long enough to keep his kids safe may be as heroic as it gets.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’d been wondering since Todd started this analysis why Spielberg chose to do War of the Worlds rather than creating an alien invasion movie without tripods or Wells’ ending that has the twin problems of deus-ex-machina and “Why haven’t the aliens heard of quarantine?” I think you may be onto something with the idea that using War of the Worlds gave him the license to do what he wanted – ie portray the aliens as a force of nature to be endured or escaped, rather than an enemy that can be defeated.

      • Todd says:

        I think doing War of the Worlds instead of a new alien-invasion story gives Spielberg two things: 1, it gives him a well-known title that will get people into the theater (and doesn’t cost a dime), and 2, once the people are inside it gives him the license to screw with the audience’s expectations.

    • romahdus says:

      Now that I think of it, I don’t think I had an issue with him not saving the world, no: but the moment when they realize the aliens are finally vulnerable, they are already safe (kind of) – at least not under as direct threat as in the “basket” just some moments ago.

      So that climax, the point where the alien’s plan starts backfiring, actually happens off-screen. That’s what makes it anti-climactic to me.

      But I do notice that I’m hoping for a more traditional ending (maybe there’s reason for that?), where Ray’s pointing out that the aliens’ shield is down would have more effect on their own survival – like if they had been under a direct threat, and would have been killed unless Ray had seen the weakness in the shields.

  5. and I spell it out here to point out that, even as Ray moves to rescue his daughter, the only thing he has left in the world, he still has absolutely no plan.

    There are no scenes of military personnel and political leaders gathered around a big table in an ill-lit room, furrowing their brows as they suss out the alien threat — the movie doesn’t even try to make a guess as to who the aliens are or what they want, they remain unknowable and “other” throughout.

    Spielberg could easily have constructed a narrative that involved Ray taking on the aliens a billion to one and triumphing, and that would have been the more commercial choice. Think of Chief Brody at the end of Jaws — an utterly implausible ending that made audiences stand up and cheer.

    Think of that. Spielberg, America’s most populist director, when given the chance to create the ultimate one-man-against-impossible-odds triumph narrative, instead pulls back and has his protagonist huddle in a tunnel with some of the faceless crowd while some army guys we’ve never met finish off a drunken machine. The fact that the aliens have been killed by germs is almost beside the point; the point is that it’s not Ray’s job to save the world. He’s not a hero, he’s just a father, one of the millions, not special. In its way, the ending of War is the truly populist one — it says that its protagonist is nobody special, and it says that, in fact, everyone is special, in ways they never suspected.

    Just noting some parallels with WOTW and CLOVERFIELD. And I enjoy both movies very, very much.

    • blake_reitz says:

      Just last week I was talking to a friend (who had convinced me to see War of the Worlds), and the conversation was about how WotW out Cloverfield’s Cloverfield in the first half, then out Sign’s Signs in the second.

  6. mr_noy says:

    The thing I love most about the video store I rent from (apart from the good selection of titles) are the little handwritten comments the employees tape onto the DVD cases. Usually the comments are positive and thoughtful but sometimes they are scathing.

    One of the harshest employee comments was reserved for War of the Worlds: “Wow, for a while there I actually thought they were in danger. Way to go Spielbitch. – (Name Omitted)”

    Of course that’s not as good as the one taped to the Banderas/Jolie vehicle Original Sin which reads “Go ahead and rent this movie. Just know that as soon you leave the store we’re going to make fun of you. – (Name Omitted)”

    • rjwhite says:

      Good business sense at that place, there.

      • mr_noy says:

        They seem to be doing quite well actually. Browsing the shelves and coming across a comment I haven’t read before is one of my favorite things to do while at this particular video store. I’ve also discovered a few interesting flicks thanks to some of the employee comments.

    • robjmiller says:

      Where is this store? It sounds amazing. I miss Videodrome, the store I went to when I lived in Atlanta (anything named after a Cronenberg movie has to be good).

      • mr_noy says:

        I Luv Video. Austin Texas. Two Locations. Good selection of new, classic, foreign, cult, indie and the just plain weird and/or obscure. (They’ve even got one of Alcott’s early one man shows on VHS)

        Also, free beer on Tuesdays.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Rachel, confusing the aliens with the T-Rex of Jurassic Park, freezes before one of the towering machines and gets captured.

    I meant to post this on Act III, but I saw another Jurassic Park in the basement scene when Ray uses a mirror to fool the tentacle-scope.

    –Ed.

  8. adam_0oo says:

    billion to one

    The chances of anything coming from Mars were a million to one…but still they come.

  9. travisezell says:

    Referencing Alien makes me wonder. I’m far from a huge nut over them, but there’s a series of films each of whose scripts feel like they go in intelligent but thematically different directions — who use the same imagery and world as metaphors for different things (I don’t know, off the top of my head: the first one seems to be about corporations/colonialism, the second about the military, the third faith?, and the fourth science? but that’s a weak glib comment coming off the cuff about a series I haven’t watched in years). When you finish catch up with Spielberg, ever consider looking at the Alien movies?

  10. selectnone says:

    Apropos to to Spielberg, he’s just done an interview on making videogames, with thoughts on storytelling methods therein, I thought I’d pass it on

  11. marcochacon says:

    I have to say that I wasn’t that impressed with WotW and I think the ending hits it home. Firstly we require the aliens get out of their (presumably environmentally sealed) tanks to wander around like tourists in order to get infected.

    Secondly, Ray’s saving of his daughter rang hollow to me for all the reasons you go into (it’s so improbable–is this really the first time anyone wound up in the basket with grenades? If so: extra luck).

    But this is nothing compared to how Ray is rendered useless in the saving of his son: his “keeping Rachel safe” seems to just have imperiled her more–if she had gone with Robbie she’d have been home sooner (we can speculate, I’m aware there are problems with this ‘deduction’ but, I think, fewer than with the end scene itself).

    It’s impossible for me to accuse Spielberg of sloppiness–he’s a master and everything in the movie is intentional. I also think that dialing Ray back to “face in the crowd” (indeed, he’s unintelligible when speaking to the army guys) is a surprise maneuver. But I’d rather he have saved his daughter by doing something that a less than ultra-lucky dad could do (keep his daughter from harm by the crowd, know when to walk away, make hard choices for her, be mature, etc.)

    There’s some of that–but for the climax? He becomes a hero using luck as a weapon rather than skill (also: I think the idea that ‘the crowd’ can stand up to the machine when the army can’t may be keeping in line with the idea that people are better than the military against terrorists–but I think Doctor Octopus’ response to the angry crowd in the last Spider-Man rang more true (cruch)).

    -Marco

  12. robjmiller says:

    Mars?

    the movie doesn’t even try to make a guess as to who the aliens are or what they want

    I can’t remember the movie that well, but don’t we at least suspect the aliens are from Mars? I seem to remember there being newspaper articles or news reports or something at the beginning that mentioned unusual observations of Mars, at least there was something like that in the book.

  13. stormwyvern says:

    Did you change the screenshot for this part or am I going insane?

    • Todd says:

      I changed the screenshot when I realized the still was from Act I instead of Act IV. But that does not necessarily preclude your going insane.