War Between Worlds

Last night we left my daughter at Girl Scout camp, then stopped off at a thrift store and picked up a few UFO conspiracy books that we will give to a friend of mine, then we went to the cinema to view the destruction of the East Coast by tripods from space.

It was a renewing experience.

First, I’ll say that War of the Worlds was one of the most riveting, compelling movies I’ve seen in a while, and certainly the best of its (questionable) genre. For comparison purposes, I found Independence Day to be a steaming load of crap, ditto Deep Impact and all the rest of the “End of the World” epics that have been produced of late.

In fact, I find the genre somewhat ridiculously gratuitous, in that it feeds an unhealthy fascination with our own mutual assured destruction–whatever the metaphor being employed.

I believe War of the Worlds fundamentally different and groundbreaking in its treatment of the idea of worldwide terror. Here’s why.

1. Immediacy and the individual as witness to events: Rather than be dismayed, as some have been,  at the linearity of the storyline, I felt the choice to tell the complete tale from the point of view of the Everyman was a brilliant one for the subject matter. The as-yet unattainable goal of these movies has been to make us feel “we are there,” to identify with the characters that are going through this nearly unimaginable horror. Yet past directors gave us, to a man, the incredibly tired pastiche of “stock” characters, each “dealing” with the situation in their own way. (The young woman with a child, the brave soldier, the down-and-out guy with a heart of gold, the scientist who “knows,” etc.) But in the space of two hours, with the destruction of the earth to also address, it’s difficult–impossible, actually–to fully develop 12 characters anyone can believe in or, more importantly, care about. It’s hard enough to do in a regular movie, which can devote most of its time to this task.

What Spielberg did was focus the timeline and the action like a laser on Cruise’s character. He is in virtually every scene, and every event is seen from his point of view. This immediacy creates as much “reality” as can be had in a completely implausible situation. True, Cruise’s “nature” or personality is not deeply explored–but that too has its purpose, in helping allow us to imbue him with whatever qualities we require of our own personal “everyman.” His is in part the blank slate on which we write our emotions. He is compelling in how he reacts, how he survives, how he evolves into a survivor and a preserver, not in “who he is”, which the director wisely leaves aside in favor of telling the story. This is a morality play, not a character study.

2. Plausibility: Let’s keep in mind the whole thing is a fantasy. None of it would happen. We found ourselves discussing a lot of this–why the aliens would go to all the trouble of planting the tripods a million years ago rather than taking over Earth right away; how they would know where future major population areas would be; why, if they are so advanced, they did not do an environmental study on possible contagions before “dropping in” with their full invasion force, etc. But this movie is by no means about plausibility–who thought it “likely” that terrorists would fly jet liners into the World Trade Center before it happened? Not me. So we are offered events that “come out of nowhere,” just as the real attacks have come, and events whose purpose we cannot immediately discern, just as we did not immediately comprehend why anyone would want to destroy the WTC and Washington. And here–here–is where the director triumphs. Note the first scenes of this film. Rather than the hour or so of terminally boring exposition that these films tend toward (to “build suspense” which never gets built), Spielberg instead presents a quick introduction to the main characters (for basic dramatis personnae purposes), then immediately throws the situation into chaos. If we think of the terror allegory, this is exactly how it happens. We did not have a “buildup” to 9-11, or Bali, or Madrid, or the Chechen massacres–or London. They happened out of the blue, caught us off guard, with our pants down. As Cruise stands there gaping, impotent, in the face of the world literally cracking up under his feet, I stood there with him, in my memories, agape at the cracking up of my own world.

And though some might deem it hammy, I thought the emergence of the tripods from “below,” rather than raining fire from above as usual, was a nice touch. Enhancing the metaphor on terror, society was literally being attacked by the “seeds” of terror come to fruit, seeds that had been planted long before.

3. On terror. Spielberg hammers the idea of terror, of the shock and unreality of it, right home, quite amazingly I thought. When Cruise finally shakes off his initial shock and realizes he must leave–leave now–he goes to his friend’s car repair shop and proceeds to take possession of the only working vehicle in the city. As his friend stammers about how he’s got a business to run, it’s not my car, the guy’s gonna come back, etc., Cruise repeatedly screams at him to “Get in, get in, get in the car!” His friend is fixed in the static world of normalcy, of past-present-future, of dependency. Only Cruise has realized that that world is instantly gone, that only the immediate peril matters. The parallels to reactions to terrorism are quite nicely evoked–I saw so many who simply shrugged on 9-11–on that very day–and said, “Oh well, I don’t live in New York.” I heard  people laughing about it. They did not see that the world as they knew it had just ended, that their world would now be shadowed by the pall of terror–forever.

People too young to remember, or too cocky to admit the truth to themselves, may claim that terror cannot change their world, a la John Lennon. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. It has changed their world whether they recognize it or not. This is not to say, “Everybody panic.” Far from it. It just states the fact of it, that local insulation will not change global reality.

This brings up the other major theme of this movie, one I think others of its type have squeamishly avoided or sidestepped. The car becomes the metaphor for escape, and of course it becomes an object of envy. With respect to the way humans conduct themselves during “real” world-shattering events, the way the car is handled in the movie speaks to the darker side of our natures. Rather than everyone “pitching in” to fight the bad guys, when people finally realize that there is a good chance they will be exterminated, their community spirit goes right out the window. It becomes, literally, every man for himself. It should not have seemed over the top when Cruise pulls a gun on the crowd, gets a gun to his head, he and his son get beaten to a pulp by the panicked crowd, over possession of the vehicle. And when the gun-wielding carjacker is himself blown away by another, in cold blood, this should not be a surprise. As Art Spiegelman’s father says in his Holocaust allegory Maus–“Friends–huh, put you all in a room with no food for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see how many friends you have.” In these scenes, Spielberg evokes the real horror of such terror that strips people of their humanity and turns them against one another–against their own better natures–in a desperate bid for survival. In this way Spielberg invokes visions of another movie he made about world-shattering wars of aggression and terror.

Yet–the notion of kill or be killed to survive one more day is also undercut by the action. Spielberg cannot resist his trademark bid for humanity for humanity’s sake. As noted, the man who takes the car at gunpoint is himself gunned down–he sacrificed his humanity in vain. And note that Cruise finally kills Tim Robbins’ character in his own bid for survival–but is immediately afterwards found by the tripods and captured anyway. It was a waste. To kill another who threatens you is one thing, but to kill only because you fear that person’s existence might threaten your safety–that is one step too far, and not coincidentally is the step that the U.S. (and Britain) have wrongly taken in their paranoid reaction to terror.

About the end – this was indeed a bit hard to swallow. But I took it, like most of this film, metaphorically. I was mostly surprised at the survival of the son, who if I recall was last seen walking into a wall of flames. But note that there is no dialogue–it is a surreal scene. No one speaks, no one interacts, except for Rachel to yell, “Mommy!” They are all “there” as human beings, but–grant me this–not necessarily alive. The “family” has been preserved–the family of man–though some have died. To me, this is the message of this scene. Sacrifice, in the name of preserving who we are–we are families, by the way, not nations or races or religions–does preserve us, even if we die. It preserves our essence, our souls, if not our flesh.

4. Film-making. In the end, what most impressed me about this film was the flawlessness of the cinematography, effects, sets, pacing, editing and all-around film-making. This is one beautiful apocalypse. The tripods are gracefully, terrifyingly menacing, like omnipotent archangels of death from on high. Their prowess in killing, their pitiless wielding of that prowess, quite evocative of the bafflingly inhuman, murderous efficiency of terror cults–or imperialist armies, if you like. Their foghorn of death is rattlingly disturbing each time it sounds, a sickly send-up of Gabriel’s horn. The foggy, ashen landscapes cut by the searching lights of the tripods are beautiful, awe-inspiring in their grandeur. The destruction is so real, it was not hard to imagine I was watching a documentary. Understand, I like to work at suspending disbelief – if the director is trying, I’ll help out all I can with my imagination. But I felt I had no work to do at all. I felt as if I were watching real events unfold, in real time. No ”movie” cuts to this little house or that Oval Office scene, no attempt to provide a “world afire” vision encompassing the globe and every possible reaction–just the immediate surroundings of one man, whose immediate surroundings keep getting more and more surreal, more dreamlike, more hopeless with every scene, and his reactions. But because I follow him into this world, progress with him into horror, I find it believable no matter how bizarre it gets.

The film is not perfect, not a film for the ages, perhaps not even great. But it’s good. It’s a film for now, for us, to help us examine how we perceive our world now, in its new wrapper. As someone on the radio said the other day, “We all live in Jerusalem now.” We all will live with exploding buses, exploding people, every day now. Safety, always an illusion, will become even harder to conjure up. We will have a permanent spot, in the back of our minds, reserved for the horror when it comes again.

And it will come again.

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Virtual Being

I’ve thought a lot lately, and written about at times, the phenomenon of the virtual world. Specifically, I’ve pondered the impact of the virtual reality offered up by Second Life and, to a lesser extent, online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. My take, and the reason I’m interested, is that the ever-widening spaces of the virtual world represent a new type of reality and existence for humans, heretofore unexplored and unknown.

If I bring this up in a public space, I invariably get a curiously defensive response from early adopter/technophile types who will argue that none of this is new, that humanity has always endeavored to escape, however temporarily, the physical world through inventions of virtual worlds – through literature, drama, psychoactive drugs and, later, video games and film.

Fair enough. But what I’m seeing develop is something of much broader impact, and it is due to the medium you are now engaging: the Internet. As prevalent as fantasy and “worlds of the mind” may have been throughout history, none of the methods for fashioning other worlds, until now, provided the prospect of a persistent, universally shared alternative physical reality and an alternative identity (or multiple identities) for the individuals inhabiting that reality. I believe this is the defining difference of online virtual worlds compared with past escapism, and the reason they are exploding in popularity – not just the easily labeled virtual worlds of Second Life and multi-player online games, but all of them – the online forums, the chat rooms, the shopping malls, the movie houses, the sex dens, even one’s e-mail correspondence can take place, due to the Internet, in an always-present, always available (with the advent of Blackberries, universal WiFi, netbooks and the like) and always populated alternate reality. And the most striking difference, I think, is that this alternate reality no longer represents an “alternate” to the “real” world – it is equal to if not more compelling to plugged-in individuals than the so-called real world. The virtual world, in fact, as demonstrated by late human behavior patterns, is presently competing with the real world for our attention. And among many individuals, it appears to be winning.

This is new. If someone in the past, for example, were to spend a disproportionate amount of their time living a Star Wars fantasy, or if you prefer, dressing like Jane Austen and pretending to be a denizen of Regency England, we would have, as a society, designated that person as at least “out of touch” and, at most, a kook. Think “Trekkie.” But today, and often by necessity, many of us spend a very large portion of our time interacting not with Nature and our fellow beings, but with an LCD screen and our fellow Avatars or screen names or e-mail addresses. We may never meet these “people” (and in the case of online forums/worlds/gaming are unlikely to ever meet them), and yet it does not seem strange to us that we now divide our contacts–our friends and associates–between “people” we know and – well, whatever we want to call the partial version of people we deign to “know” online. (We don’t necessarily know them – we know their online persona. Case in point: the FBI agent who spends all day pretending to be a 14-year-old girl.)

Evidence that the virtual world is “winning” the battle for our attention is anecdotal but compelling.  Often it seems change in human behavior is generational – that is, that novel ways of living are established in our youth (because everything is new anyway), and persist through our adulthood. If this is so, then look at the youth of today – they are totally at home in the virtual world, and many seem disengaged, bored or even restless when not connected to it. When socializing with younger people I know, it’s not uncommon for them to have their cell phones open and before their eyes the entire time, effectively dividing their attention between the “real” people they are with and the virtual information that may become available. It’s important to note, because it represents the advantage the virtual world has over flesh-and-blood humans. To wit: it is instantaneous, up-to-the-minute and universal in reach. Sitting at a table in a bar, you have a pretty good idea of what’s on offer for the next hour or two – the present people sitting, drinking and conversing. But on the table, your Blackberry is a  Siren, a portal to another – faster acting – reality, one which potentially offers you everyone you know (or in the case of Facebook, have ever known), and the latest news from around the globe as filtered for your preferences. In contrast to your drab flesh-and-blood companions, the phone offers instant access to an entire reality contained in cyberspace, filtered and channeled directly to its little screen.

This phenomenon has been lately noticed in business meetings, during which the “high-powered” folks will monitor their Blackberries for any contact or information that may override the more or less “static” presentation of the current meeting in the (predictable) physical world. Or maybe they’re just playing Solitaire. Presenters at meetings have noted they feel they are “in competition” with meeting attendees’ devices, and that they are at a natural disadvantage in such a contest – no flashing colors, no news, no tweets from Ashton Kutcher, no stock updates, no surprises.

The bizarre phenomenon of “driving while texting” probably would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But it is prevalent enough to be an issue in this society, and it signifies the pull of the virtual world – we can’t even let it go while we’re fully engaged in the physical world and at risk of seriously compromising our place in it.

This is not meant as a criticism of technological progress, and I would hope this site is evidence enough that I am not a technophobe or Luddite. I don’t actually know (nor does anyone) what the spread of virtual habitats  portends. We may become a nation–a world–of sedentary screen gazers who forget what a tree looks like, or we may eventually ramp down our obsession with the virtual world and place it in our technology tool bag alongside digital cameras, DVDs and Marconi’s wireless. But we are living, at least part of the time, and for many of us a good part of the time, in a new reality, and I would argue that it is the first “new” reality for human beings since the earliest days of our embrace of civilization – represented by the inventions of writing, agriculture and animal husbandry.