War of the Worlds

The aliens have invaded our space in Stephen Spielberg's War of the Worlds.
They have infiltrated our bodies, burrowed beneath our city streets, made themselves at home in the rush of lunch-hour crowds. The aliens have assimilated us by allowing us to bury them deep inside our psyche, where fear bears an uncanny resemblance to hope and the face looking back out of the cosmic darkness looks a lot like our own.
If Independence Day made aliens into an interstellar substitute for communist Russia – the bug-critters just another configuration of big, ugly Nikita Khrushchev after all – War of the Worlds resurrects a more primal fear, the superstitious and uncanny confrontation with an intergalactic red scare. The film’s strength comes from its subtle insinuation that humanity threatens itself as much as any boogeyman, and that our common clinging to civilization is tenuous and fragile.
Bodies may be ripped apart, turned to dust, used to water the earth in blood, but we haven’t lost until we give up our humanity. Spielberg’s film is a good, old-fashioned disaster film using aliens as an occasion to test its theory – not merely an escapist science fiction.
Survival propels the film, and the main characters are absorbed into the drive to subside in a world that has cracked open, broken apart and boiled over. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is a blue-collar divorcee taking care of his teen-aged son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin), and young precocious daughter, Rachel (Dakota Fanning), for a weekend. A middle-aged adolescent, Ray is a thoughtless dad living like a frat boy on spring break.
Spielberg’s obsession with reconfiguring a nuclear family resurfaces in War of the Worlds as a nagging insistence on the importance of blood relations. Nation crumbles under the alien threat and society bursts at its seams, but Ray and his family miraculously survive – thrive, even – in the chaos. The only thing that saves War of the Worlds from becoming the weird psychoanalytic exercise of Spielberg’s other Oedipal dramas like Artificial Intelligence and E.T. is the raw emotional energy of the cataclysmic terror – the sheer size and scope of the disaster puts the Ferrier family’s little domestic struggle in its proper perspective.
The end of the world is just another lazy Saturday afternoon. Ray wakes up, finds that Robbie has taken his vintage muscle car on a joy ride and Rachel has ordered inedible health food for breakfast, when suddenly a meteor storm lights up the sky. Strange lights pound holes in the ground and it’s all fun and games until giant metallic spiders crawl from the holes and begin vaporizing whatever is in their path.
Ray is no hero, and his fight or flight mechanism is stuck on run. He gathers up his children, intent on delivering them back to their mother, his ex-wife, so that he will be free to run and hide more effectively. With that loose goal in place they flee, propelled by the fearful masses.
A family out of necessity, the Ferriers are little more than strangers, really, but compared to the subhuman crowds they meet at every checkpoint they’re intimately bonded. The mass swells and constricts, surges forward like a ghostly centipede, stomps its feet in fear and dread of the things that follow it.
No longer human, the terror of the masses is every bit as shocking as the aliens. People crush one another, pushing forward to the edge of the Hudson Ferry, jostle over guns that have proven useless against the aliens, but steadfastly deadly against one another, kill over a clammy, dank cellar. Loosed from its primal cocoon, the madness spreads out of real human bodies and into a world tragically wounded by otherworldly invaders: Stupid, mindless, out of control.     
Ray and his family are swallowed up by the chaos; feed it their helpless fear. Running from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse, they find themselves ultimately in the nexus of the beast: A field of dreams dripping in human gore, an otherworldly factory farm where blood is used as a type of fertilizer.
Digging in beneath this nightmare, Ray and Rachel come face-to-face with the secret beast, an alien bred in a place as dark and fertile as the alien field of dreams. We are aliens in our own skin and the real horror is that the monster can be released at any time. Aliens are just pussycats in comparison.
One of Spielberg’s most disturbing films, War of the Worlds taps into our primal fears and allows the raw nerve to lie exposed, twitching and hideous as a toothache. It’s a journey into a darkness that is both at the edge of space and buried deep in our own psyches, and it’s well worth the trip


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