Saturday, July 09, 2005

And A New Generation Loves HG

War of the Worlds

Summer before last I was determined to get my then very new teen-aged stepson to read at least one book instead of a full 10 weeks of video games and internet comsumption. So, with small bribes, we perused the shelves at the local Half Priced Books. I suggested several titles, but each selection was met with a turned-up adolescent nose. Finally, I spied the sci-fi section, and I looked for "W" authors. Yes! H.G. Wells', War of the Worlds - perfect! Although a reluctant reader at first, I soon found that heretofore upturned schnoze buried in the pages of a book. Success!

When this summer's blockbuster hit of War of the Worlds came to the big screen, my stepson was eager to see it. He would never admit it, but I think he was rather proud of the fact he had read it, "a long time ago".

As I promised Eric, here is my for-what-its-worth take on the newest WOTW. Kman and I had seen the trailers and as avid Sci-Fi fans we were eagerly anticipating the film's arrival, but I was not sure I would really like it. I did, and then some. It was more disturbing and far scarier than I expected, but perhaps due in no small part to my age and my remembrance of the older cinematic version of WOTW. But, first, some historical Pattie background:

As a kid born in the mid 1950's, my childhood was hallmarked by the Cold War and atomic bomb fears. In elementary school we had the semi-monthly duck and cover drills just in case Kruschev decided to drop the Big One. We were also subjected to short films on what to do in case of a nuclear attack, how to look for safe buildings by this identifying sign:

I remember wondering how I would find my mother or my father should we actually be hit by an "H" bomb; would they come and get me, would they be safe? The days after the JFK assassination were full of ominous portentions of Russian attacks, and I recall the palpable fear of a full-fledged war. I was 9 years old.

1960's television was host to a horde of sci-fi and monster movies, leftover black and whites from the 40's and 50's, most with apocalyptic themes. Several of these left a deep mark on my impressionable young psyche: This Island Earth, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and On the Beach ( which truly was about the end of the world after atomic disaster - an understated but very disturbing film and far too adult contented for small children. I can still recall the double suicide of the married couple who simply went to bed after taking poison).

On Friday night, after 10 PM, channel 11 would air "The Late Show", usually a fairly adult-themed flick, or sci-fi. I can still hear the opening music and the small screen image of fireworks lighting up a black night sky as an unseen host announces the night's title. The only television set we had was in my parent's bedroom, and they would let me make a pallet on the floor on movie nights. My dad was notorious for knowing just when to let out a deep throaty "whaaah-haaah-haaah" (having seen most of these late night flicks half a dozen times already) and goose me into a screaming fit.

The night WOTW came on, Dad told me the story of the radio program and Orson Welles' ability to convince the nation we were truly under attack from Mars. I remember especially the part about people jumping into their cars, sheer panic-driven to leave the city and the poor souls who actually commited suicide in fear. I could relate to that kind of fear, had no problem with people believing in the possibility of aliens overtaking our fair planet.

A few years before I saw the old version of WOTW, I went through a spell of bedtime fears and nightmares. My bed was a hand-me-down, of course, an old double bed with squeaky springs and mahogany-spindled headboard and footboard. Pushed up against a window, the bright light of a full moon would spill down into my room, through the knobby wooden bars of my headboard. I can still feel the little round knots of the spindles, my hands slowly sliding up and down, counting each little bump (there were six down to the mattress top). I would look up into the night sky, and watch the stars; the occasional shooting star causing me quick panic. Either due to too much television or a very active imagination, I had a very real and deep fear that aliens from another planet, from "outer space" were planning to attack earth. I would keep my sentinel on the sky, all the while watching the shadows in my room for movement of "them". Out of expected ridicule I suppose, I don't recall telling my parents or anyone of my fears, but they were almost paralyzing some nights.

Childhood fears are usually outgrown, and while mine lasted ages it seemed, I eventually could tuck that little secret well away by the time I was 13 or so. In later years, while reading about alien abductions, I would often revisit my long-ago night scares and wonder...

Back to the Present: *Warning: Spoilers beyond this point*

The newest WOTW is sure to be a classic, joining its predecessor in the sci-fi hall of fame. I have always enjoyed a good Tom Cruise performance, and he really is top notch in this flick. For once he wasn't just playing "Tom Cruise", boy wonder and impish charm and whatnot. The movie is dark, and steeped in the apocalyptic theme that H.G. Wells meant to convey in his novel. Perhaps more than the coming alien dominion, man's inhumanity to his fellow man creates an underlying sense of doom, our primordial need to survive neatly dismantling the hundreds of years of civilized existence.

As you may recall in the older version, a picturesque steepled church with gorgeous stained glass windows represented the seemingly last safe place on earth in the midst of ear-piercing laser blasts and destruction; however, in the new WOTW, a church is demolished early on, no threat, no Wall of Jericho at all to the cold and ferocious attacks of the relentless tripods. In retrospect, I wonder how many of the younger viewers have seen the older movie or even read the book; do they "get" Spielberg's symbolism in reverse?

Adding to the intensity of the film, there were no stupid attempts at off-putting witty humor, no awkward break in the build-up of plot, unless you can count the character that Tim Robbins plays - a gun nut gone completely off the deep end from trauma and perhaps a too-small gene pool. I don't blame Robbins, who is a gifted actor; more so, it was the bad script writing that added a less than believeable character.

The only real complaint I have of the new WOTW is the poorly developed ending. Yes, it was true to Wells' original tale, but it was not the ironic "Ah Ha!" kind of emotion I expected to feel. Perhaps my prescient knowledge of why the aliens did not succeed in their mission contributed the let-down; but I think the movie would have benefitted from a slightly more protracted attention to their demise. To be fair, the book deals with them abruptly as well. The cinematic use of birds added great creative mood and detail, especially when Dakota Fanning looks skyward and sees an ominous flock of gulls(? I think they were gulls) headed in an odd direction in the dark of night, spotlighted by the dock and ferry lights. (Which makes me wonder: how long till Hitchcock's masterpieces are re-invented, like The Birds - or perhaps that HAS been redone?)

There were no obvious political stances taken in the new WOTW, but the memory of 9/11 and the ever-present threat of terrorism, as well as the real possibility of dirty bombs and nuclear attacks, lurked just beyond my old fear of being invaded by beings from another world. The movie evokes that same quick suffocating panic that recent world events have added to our lives. It also awakened my childhood boogey-men, open that tiny long-ago door that shut them away safely; alas, the nighttime sky will never look the same again.

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