I’m writing my first posting on Spielberg’s War of the Worlds out of a frustration of constantly having to defend it as one of Spielberg’s most intense and sophisticated films. At present, I’m inclined to agree with the controversial Armond White of the New York Press, who said “the problem is not that Spielberg isn’t as intelligent as he thinks he is, it’s that people don’t think Spielberg is as intelligent as he is.” But for the sake of peace, let’s just say we didn’t have the same experience. When I saw War of the Worlds for the first time, I felt like I was on the verge of a heart attack for two straight hours. Yet with the release of fear and emotion came a deftly mixed intelligence in a manner few other filmmakers can realise. Using everything at his disposal - realistic and restrained use of special effects, astonishing sound design, hyperreal cinematography - Spielberg thrusts you into the immediate, subjective present of the film while bringing the full force of history down upon it. The result is a cataclysmic confrontation of fantasy and reality.
But for all its devastating entertainment value, WOTW’s depth of feeling and thrills also points to a deep political sophistication. Certain critics, such as A.O. Scott of the New York Times, have noted that WOTW is the second film in what has been labelled Spielberg’s 9/11 trilogy. Having paved the way with Minority Report, which dealt with the ramifications of the Patriot Act and the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war, the ‘trilogy’ concluded most recently with Munich, which concerned itself with America’s conduct in the War on Terror. WOTW, on the other hand, is directly concerned with the fear and rrauma of September 11 itself. It frames the shock of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre as the shock of the Real
on the American social order. More than anything, however, WOTW is about the witnessing of September 11, indeed the witnessing of all traumatic events, both personal and historical.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s brilliant post 9/11 essay, 'Welcome to the Desert of the Real'
, is remarkably relevant here. In his essay, Zizek makes the argument that the shock of September 11 was: “not that reality entered our image: [but that] the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e., the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality).” The image of the World Trade Centres exploding and collapsing in New York City brought to life every libidinal fantasy we had paid money to see within the false spectacle of the Hollywood blockbuster. A similar emotionally involved detachment had also extended towards the television news. When we watched third-world horrors on the television, there was always the idea that the horror was happening over there
and not here
. It maintained the distance between Us and Them, the separation of the symbolic reality and the Real - and the creation of the fantasies essential to lead our ‘innocent’ lives. September 11 brought the lie to those fantasies and to the idea that we were not affected by nor the cause of the horrors we saw. Suddenly there was no place to hide. What we were seeing on the TV screen was not only real but was happening here.
The shock of this invasion of the horrors from the outside is perfectly captured by Spielberg in a deliberately resonant 9/11 image. It is the close up shot during the intersection scene where a video camera has been dropped, its owner vaporised by the alien death beam. As the carnage continues, we see what is happening off screen through the screen of the video. The screen can no longer provide that fantasmatic distance. What it's recording is both here and
What War of the Worlds conveys so viscerally and with a searing sense of iconography is precisely that traumatic shift of perception. By re-connecting the present with history, the self and the Other, Spielberg courageously reconnects the personal with the political. WOTW examines the experiential trauma and inner guilt of September 11 and then asks how did we (and how should we) react to such trauma?
The same dialectic of the image that made September 11 so traumatic infuse WOTW. While the film maintains an incredible hyperrealism throughout, it gets increasingly fantastic and surreal as the film progresses. Indeed, the whole film could be seen as a catalogue of the most traumatic events in world history brought into immediate proximity. The bystanders filming and then running from the alien tripod bursting out of the intersection, amidst a cloud of smoke and rubble, clearly evoke the collapse of the World Trade Centre. Other 9/11 visual motifs are littered throughout, such as Ray in shock, covered in white ash; the plane wreckage; the notice board of missing persons at the Hudson Ferry. But Spielberg goes further and connects 9/11 to other catastrophes in human history that have shaken our perceptions. The truly horrifying image of the dead bodies floating down the stream evokes Rwandan genocidal victims thrown in the water or left on roads. The prophetic irony of that scene is that it now could be read as a visual reference to Hurricane Katrina: the definitive example of third world horrors being brought home to America.*
Other scenes make us feel as if we are moving rapidly backwards in time. The mob rocking the car evokes the LA Riots (the shock on the white bourgeois reality); the ferry sinking brings to mind Titanic (a symbol of ideological fantasizing and the might of 19th century industrialisation). The line of survivors walking up the hills of Connecticut, their possessions in bundles, echoes the Holocaust survivors (and the shock of ‘absolute evil’ that it brought to the world), while the military battles recall the world wars and the devastating mental effect they had on soldiers and the public outlook. Rightest commentator George Will said that Sept 11 showed America that its holiday from history was over. Here Spielberg gives America a history lesson in the space of two hours.
The film shifts gears when Ray and Rachel enter the basement of Tim Robbins’ character, Harlan Ogilvy. The level of intensity that has propelled us so far now shifts from external to internal, our field of vision becoming more insular. It almost feels as if the film is slipping back into the more immediate present and giving our characters a dramatic breather. However, the domestic environment of the basement (the parallel being to the basement at the mother’s house and the one at Ray’s) is even more strange and dreamlike, ironically even more timeless and more threatening. The pounding sound of the aliens pumping the red weed and Ogilvy’s comments that “occupations always fail” brings to mind oil wells, Iraq and the No Blood for Oil slogan. We realise that Spielberg has taken us on a gauntlet through history, into the heart of darkness, only to return us to a feverish, primal dream version of the present. We see it differently, stranger, more hostile than before.
In his essay, Zizek interestingly makes a comparison of the first plane hitting the World Trade Centre to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds:
"Is the endlessly repeated shot of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower not the real-life version of the famous scene from Hitchcock's Birds, superbly analysed by Raymond Bellour, in which Melanie approaches the Bodega Bay pier after crossing the bay on the small boat? When, while approaching the wharf, she waves to her (future) lover, a single bird (first perceived as an undistinguished dark blot) unexpectedly enters the frame from above right and hits her head. Was the plane which hit the WTC tower not literally the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, the anamorphic stain which denaturalized the idyllic well-known New York landscape?"
The ‘blotch’ on the screen stands in for the Real, the fragile instability and irrationality underlying the world. It is that which can't be recognised or accounted for within our frame of meaning and in so doing works as a threat against it. Aptly then, WOTW is laced with story similarities and visual references to the Hitchcock film, as well as September 11. Just as the birds don’t seem to attack until Melanie arrives at Bodega bay, the aliens don’t attack the mother’s neighbourhood until Ray gets there. Like the final act of Hitchcock’s film, WOTW’s main characters are trapped inside a house, defending themselves from attacks. The shot of Rachel watching a flock of birds heading towards the trees as the camera pans with them, eventually revealing the Tripods in the distance, reminds us of Melanie following the single black crow as it flies towards the play equipment, revealing a larger, ominous flock of crows gathered there. Like the birds, the aliens are the ultimate McGuffin. They are there purely as an excuse to throw Ray into the Real, hence the rumours, the contradictory information and lack of reason surrounding them. WOTW isn’t concerned with the aliens. It’s concerned with its characters, the relationships between people and, in turn, their larger political relationship.
Hitchcock commented that his film was about ‘complacency’. With the help of HG Wells, Spielberg brings this now “infinite complacency” into a contemporary political context. This “infinite complacency” is a modern complacency, comforted by an ever-present media that fosters and nurtures our narcissistic, detached and ‘timeless’ relationship to the world. We are stuck in the idea of ourselves. Detached from the world by the screen that both projects and protects.
When Ray first sees the storm brewing he runs to the backyard to get a better look, calling to Rachel, “Do you wanna see something cool?” As lightning starts to hit, a frightened Rachel wants to go back inside but Ray makes a joke out of it, confident that what he is seeing is far from harm and that he is secure in his flag-waving American home. Ironically then, he begins comparing the lightning flashes to the fireworks of the 4th of July and starts singing Amazing Grace, connecting his detached and reflexive gaze to a larger American ‘innocence’. Yet as the lightning becomes more aggressive both characters end up retreating inside and watching it through the safety of a screen, only to have the lightning then strike in their backyard. They further retreat to under the table, Ray quickly regressing into the state of a confused and vulnerable child. The implication being that his previous attitude was not too dissimilar.
What Spielberg wants to do is break that screen. In what actually proves to be the central thematic scene of the film, Ray throws a baseball at Robbie in a fit of childish competitive anger. The baseball misses, smashing a hole in the basement window. The camera cuts to a view of Ray from the inside, framed by the cracked hole in the glass. The perspective we take is no one's. In the Lacanian sense, the shot is a perfect example of the Gaze
. It is when we stare at some thing and it stares straight back. We realise that we are not just a subject but also an object, that we too are being watched. This shot becomes the central symbol in the film for the destabilising impact of the Real. It's an image that shall return in the middle and end of the film but it's also an idea implicit in the introduction to Wells novel, of a world being watched unaware as we go about our daily business.
The image reappears during the mob scene when a rioter throws a stone at the car windscreen, and as Ray speeds up, he sees a mother with a child framed in the cracked hole of the screen. It is precisely this threat to the mother child relationship that Ray is afraid of and indeed the image suggests the traumatic affect of the Real on the symbolic: the painful separation from that pre-natal state of nature, of the mother-child relationship, out of which the void appears. What Ray has to face up to is this traumatic separation or risk his regressive relationship with the mother becoming a devouring death. He must finally realise his role as the father - the One Who Does Not Panic. This change fittingly must occur on his journey home, to the mother in Boston.
Appropriately then, the last shot of a character framed by the smashed screen is Rachel. During the final scene in the alien farm, Ray hides in a jeep while the Tripod tosses it, smashing a hole in the windscreen, from which we then see a frontal shot of Rachel framed by the smashed hole, about to be taken by the Tripod. The Real has now become a direct demand for Ray to fulfil his role as a father and protect his children from the horror of the abyss, the void symbolised by the Aliens.
It is the Real that destabilises and disorients all our senses and frames of reference. Often in WOTW we and the characters are rendered blind or deaf (the blackness after the plane crash, the deaf camera man). The boundaries between inside and outside are destroyed (exemplified in that shot of Ray ‘exiting’ the house after the plane crash). We can no longer signify based on binary opposition or even distinguish between values. Notice the seemingly good crowd that turned bad, the threat posed by the good intentions of the couple taking Rachel, the ambiguity of Ogilvy’s character. Is Ogilvy an ally? Or a threat? Grieving? Or crazy? Desperate? Or heroic? What Spielberg asks in this destabilising period of trauma is how do we maintain a unity of self?
This ambiguity is best conveyed in the dream space of Ogilvy’s basement and it is worth recalling just how many times Ray is asleep and then wakes up throughout the film. The first time he goes to sleep is after having thrown the baseball in a childlike tantrum and it is apt that after this event the alien invasion starts and ‘reality’ becomes more and more dreamlike. When he wakes up, Rachel and the television distract him to the fact that Robbie has vanished with his car and a massive storm is brewing in his neighbourhood. Each time he wakes up it is for a new encounter with the Real: waking up in the mother’s basement to the sounds of the airplane crashing; waking up in the car to the mob outside; waking up in Ogilvy’s basement to the gaze of the alien eye.
It is in the final Act when in Ogilvy’s basement that this dreamlike feeling reaches its height. Scenes and events blur into one another with little sense of time or space. Ogilvy hops around from one place to the next, speaking one thing and then another, seemingly not listening to Ray, his eyes wide, both frightened and angry.
We realise that we are in Ray’s unconscious. Ogilvy’s basement recalls the mother’s basement. Like the sound of the plane crashing, we hear horrendous sounds pounding above and see part of the ceiling caving in. The shot of Ray looking out the basement window evokes a similar shot in the mother’s house. The exit Ray makes is also similar, although pointedly the exit from Ogilvy’s is a tracking shot taken from behind (whereas the previous exit was a frontal tracking shot). Indeed, the shift from black and white to the emergence of colour as Ray opens the door reminds one of a scene from the Wizard of Oz, a movie precisely about the illusion of the Big Other and the journey to return home after battling with a wicked witch/mother. The mother’s house is no longer a vision of safety. Ray realises that he is now in the horrific heart of the Real.
In this space, Ogilvy is the fearful, panicky and childish version of Ray that Ray must confront and overcome. He is the childless father – much like Ray acted - who wears his sweater over his head like a cape, while responding to Ray like he's someone who refuses to play a game (“you probably wanna
get caught”). Ogilvy’s impulsive desire to fight back probably would have been the reaction of the Ray at the beginning, who just acted for himself, whose reactions were violent, impulsive and childish (recall when he threw the ball in retaliation against Robbie’s challenges). The merging of their perspectives is made clear when Ray is peeping out of the window and we view outside through his perspective only to realise it is now Ogilvy’s perspective once we pull back. Ogilvy represents an unconscious competitor for Ray, as seen when Ray spies him talking to Rachel about replacing her father if anything happens to him (in this respect Ogilvy may also represent Robby with the following scene a symbolic acting out of the Oedipal tension between the two).
However, in order to become the Father, the One Who Does Not Panic, there has to be a repression of this childlike persona, hence the unseen murder of Ogilvy. For the Father must see everything - must "keep his eyes open" - while the child can not see, so as to protect not only the authority of the father, the unity and illusion of the Big Other, but the innocence she represents in his eyes.
Zizek proposes that we had two responses open to us after September 11 – the way of the superego and the way of the Act. The way of the superego would be barbaric violence to fill in the gap of the symbolic law. The way of the Act, in a simplified definition, would be a symbolic suicide where you sacrifice some precious part of yourself, by means of which you were manipulated by power (eg. the consumerist mode of enjoyment). This, he says, is the generative moment of subjectivity, where one is radically reborn in the sense that you redefine who you truly are. Spielberg shows us both responses.
After Ray has killed Ogilvy, Rachel wakes up facing the alien eye, the film’s epitome of the self-consciousness of the Real. Ray’s immediate reaction is of the superego: brutal violence, striking the tentacle of the eye with Ogilvy’s axe, blood spurting. He is channelling Ogilvy/Childish Ray’s aggressive instincts, only this time Rachel has seen the violence and runs off in fear. Ray realises that he can no longer re-form the self through brutal repression but must now directly confront the Real.
Some have criticised the ending where the tripods abruptly die from breathing our oxygen yet this criticism fails to take into account that the ‘true’ ending of the film is when Ray is taken up inside the alien succubus. It is here that Ray fulfils the redemptive power of the Act, saving the others while knowing that he is going to die. The image of the pink alien succubus here is the most horrifying image in the film. Ray is getting what he fantasized about – to be sucked up back inside the womb - only now he realises the full horror of his fantasy. What Spielberg shows is the transformative power of the Act as it extends into a chain of people helping to pull him out. It is this genuine sacrificial chain of social relationships which is suggested as the only way to fill the void.
What follows as Ray and Rachel return to Boston has been criticised as anti-climatic or Hollywood cliché. However, I would argue that, like the similarly misunderstood ending of A.I., there is an element of subversive awareness and thematic sophistication here that has not been appreciated. The Boston ending is not just to show the results of Ray’s personal character arch but also to parallel the different personal responses to trauma we’ve just seen with more explicit and compromised political responses, while simultaneously linking both spheres. Boston is not only the home of the mother but is also the first settlement and the origins and home of America itself. What we are seeing is at once the connection and disconnection between the political and the personal.
The scene begins with Ray opening his eyes for the last time and it seems now finally he has woken up in the ‘real world’. Yet, with the subjective dreamlike intensity of everything that went before, there is strange air of ‘unreality’ in the daylight, the grey colours, the evaporating red weed and empty feeling of calmness. The perfunctory action scene seems to be a knowing wink to an audience who still needs to see the aliens destroyed in a blaze of heroic glory. But its rushed, almost staged nature, with soldiers issuing directions and a ritualistic public witnessing of the overly dramatic and symbolic last gasp of the alien, leads us to rethink what this sequence is about. The aliens are virtually dead anyway, without the help of humans, and the idea of military heroism is blunted by a shield-less Tripod wobbling next to a dead Tripod. The destruction of the alien spaceship frustrates our expectations at the same time as it is supposed to be fulfilling them. It is not quite acceptable for us. But it also forces us to move beyond the fantasy of destruction and jingoistic heroics we’ve been accustomed to through Hollywood. It encourages us to recognise the fantasy for what it really is - a staged spectacle, much like the Stalinist show trials of which Zizek speaks, where violent effort to distil the Real from the elusive reality necessarily resulted in ritualistic stagings of a public spectacle in which no one believed.
The final coda of Ray returning home extends this political reaction with a suggestion of ambiguous retreat from historical guilt into American innocence. While Spielberg layers the scene with an earnest and moving appreciation of family and the father-son relationship, a sentimentality that feels earned after two hours of gruelling fear, there is again an inescapable awareness to it. Ray is seen separated from the rest of the family, framed as a distant silhouette (much like the last shot of John Wayne in The Searchers). As the Father, his knowledge of the Real and the repression it took to retain the innocence of the family means also that he can never return home.
*The interesting point about this scene is the question why there would be bodies at all considering the alien's vaporising death ray? The answer lies precisely at the level of affect. As Zizek points out, while September 11 led to a break down of the fantasmatic distance, a sense of the horrors taking place here and not there, it also paradoxically maintained this distance. What was so unreal about the World Trade Centre attacks was that there was so little carnage or dead bodies shown (unlike most third world disasters). The bodies in the stream thus act as the return of the repressed of September 11 itself - while the haunting image of bodiless clothes falling through the air in a later scene act serve as an eerie reminder.
Labels: film, spielberg, war of the worlds, zizek