Spoiler warning: I’ll be giving away a couple of plot elements from an underappreciated 2005 blockbuster. Not the ending, though.
I have a complicated fondness for Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. It’s a touch too flawed to be a genre favorite, but much too awesome to be a guilty pleasure. In fact, it might be the epitome of Spielbergian storytelling, showcasing both his god-tier talent for suspense and his habit of picking clumsy screenplays. That was my three-sentence review of the film; now, here’s why I even brought it up: For all the script’s faults, it offers a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of human morality.
First, the premise. Technologically superior aliens arrive to colonize Earth, and humans scurry to evade their disintegration beams. We follow a hotheaded dock worker named Ray (Tom Cruise) as he struggles to keep his two children safe from the mayhem. If it sounds like a typical alien invasion story, that’s because it is. Prototypical, even. The original novel was written over a century earlier by sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells, and is considered the indelible ancestor of every space invader trope. Still, Spielberg adds a unique, contemporary touch to the film, bathing it in post-9/11 panic, overexposed whites, and chilling sound design.
Sorry, I veered into review territory again there. I can’t help myself. Back to the actual topic! In a fairly early scene, when the first round of alien attacks have stirred global panic, the film makes its first statement on human nature. Ray is driving his children to what he hopes is a safe place, but refugees on the road start to notice them and beg for a ride. Ray keeps driving, apologizing halfheartedly through the window. As more people join the crowd, though, the desperation escalates. Everyone wants to escape the extraterrestrial terror. They press themselves against the windshield, smash the windows, and literally pull the protagonists out of the coveted vehicle. Finally, one determined guy holds Ray at gunpoint and takes the car for himself. He doesn’t get far, though, as the crowds now pursue him. Gunfire and death ensue.
The message is as clear as it is somber. It seems that when the comforts of modern society are stripped away, so is human empathy. When life is reduced to a fight for survival, we’re reduced to ugly, self-serving animals. Even the protagonist, Ray, isn’t shown in the best possible light in the scene. He could have fit a couple more people in that car. Or perhaps that would have made people flock towards it in greater numbers, endangering the children? It’s a grim dilemma, and easily the most disturbing scene in the movie. No aliens are even present, just a savage side of humanity that we’re all ashamedly familiar with.
Much later in the film, Ray and his daughter Rachel are hiding from aliens in the basement of a decrepit farmhouse. The guy who lives there (Tim Robbins) soon turns out to be insane, and his loud outbursts repeatedly put them all in danger of being caught. In a disturbing scene, Ray blindfolds Rachel and kills the lunatic with his bare hands. Once again, the movie asserts that we’re by no means above killing one another in the name of self-preservation. It seems that if aliens really did invade Earth, they wouldn’t even have to destroy us themselves, only spook us a bit and then sit back as we tear each other limb from limb.
But then there’s a scene where Ray and Rachel have been trapped inside an alien pod. It’s one of countless pods affixed to the invaders’ iconic walking vehicles, each containing about a dozen people. The captives can all guess what fate awaits them: The aliens will harvest their bodies, as part of their sinister colonization plans, and kill them in the process. Ray is suddenly caught by wicked machinery and pulled upwards into the heart of the vehicle, presumably for this very purpose. But everyone else in the pod grabs ahold of him and weighs him down. They aren’t his friends. He didn’t do anything for them in a prior scene. They simply recognize another human being in peril and do what they can to help. True, a single brave soldier initiates it, but when he clamors for everyone’s help, they comply instinctively. The same global catastrophe that had people killing each other in the car scene is now bringing them together. It’s perhaps the most uplifting moment in the movie.
You could consider this a thematic inconsistency. One of my favorite film theorists, Lindsay Ellis, didn’t quite buy it, and I can see why. Following a host of scenes where humans act like jerks, this episode of optimism is quite jarring. What is the film trying to say about humanity, exactly? Does Spielberg think we’re empathetic or egotistical?
I say both. We have capacity for empathy, and capacity for egotism, and what we choose is largely situational. In the car scene, people are fearing for their lives and believe that whoever has a motor vehicle will stand a better chance. When Ray kills Tim Robbins in the basement, he’s similarly desperate. But the people in the pod have already been caught, and have nothing to lose from helping Ray. Clearly, the film is saying that we do have empathy, we do have an urge to aid each other – it’s just not strong enough to trump our survival instincts. So yeah, if our survival is in jeopardy, self-preservation will take the wheel (literally, in that one scene) and remorselessly run everone else over. But when we’re not in immediate danger, we’re much more likely to help each other out. That likelihood becomes even greater if there’s at least one valiant individual present to urge us on, like the soldier in the pod scene. (See, I’m capable of saying nice things about the military. Sometimes.)
This tempered optimism towards humanity is one I don’t see much in movies. Most Hollywood productions either condemn humans for our selfishness, or make us out to be saints who’d gladly die for any half-decent cause. I don’t much care for either exaggeration. The overly pessimistic portrayal nulls the entertainment value with its wagging index finger, and the overly optimistic portrayal robs heroic sacrifices of their drama – it’s hard to be sad for someone who doesn’t seem dismayed by their own death. Seriously, did anyone cry over Man of Steel‘s Jonathan Kent as the hurricane swallowed his nonchalant countenance?
War of the Worlds walks a mature middle road of movie morality: Humans are jerks, but also saints, and different contexts bring those qualities out in different ratios. This semi-harsh truth is the reason we need society. Society must create those contexts that bring out more sainthood than jerkdom, and erase those contexts that bring out the reverse. Society is there to help us develop our caring tendencies and shun our uncaring tendencies. Only then can our potential for good be fully realized. Making sure everyone has what they need to survive is a good start.
Of course, should society collapse, as in this film, we’d inevitably relapse into jerkdom. But with the help of good leaders, like that soldier, I believe that cooperation and empathy would slowly reemerge and help us rebuild. Think about it: If the comforts of modern society were a prerequisite for humans to work together, modern society would never have been created in the first place.
There’s even more subtextual food for thought in War of the Worlds, including lessons about parenthood and toxic military zeal (gosh, it feels good to mention that last one after all the soldier praise). Plus – and bear with me as I pretend this is a review one last time – it’s just an effective thriller. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out! Uneven as it may be, it’s a scary good time, and I’d love to see it discussed more. In fact, the twist ending, which is lifted straight from the book, is somewhat applicable to the current pandemic. I guess H.G. Wells truly was ahead of his time.