Sunday, July 03, 2005

War of the Worlds
Plus: Wrestling with Spielberg's Dystopian Vision

Artwork by Alvim CorrĂ©a This fantastic site details artwork from various editions of H. G. Well's The War of the Worlds over the years. It includes the particularly elegant work of Edwards Gorey and Alvim Corréa, whose work appears at left.

Additionally, the version with Gorey's lovely, eerie artwork has just been reissued by The New York Review of Books.

I've just seen Stephen Spielberg's version of the story this weekend, and it proved gripping and even horrifying at times. The special effects are spectacular in that how-on-earth-did-they-do-that sort of way that begs a making-of feature. It's also not a movie without faults, many of which you may have seen discussed elsewhere. What I think is less discussed is what this flick tells us about what's going on in Spielberg's head. Some have argued that it's a grotesque, opportunistic movie, and I'm not sure I entirely disagree. In fact, some passages of the movie made me rather angry, as Spielberg does indeed appear to be cashing in on 9/11--or at least playing into our fears, as he's actually admitted.

But that's not what I want to draw attention to when I talk about what's going on inside his head; what I mean is this: Is Spielberg a misanthrope, a humanist, or both?

After all, this isn't the first of his movies to deal with the mass extermination of humanity. You think immediately of Schindler's List, of course, but there's a third example: AI.

Perhaps the most disturbing element of AI is that the extermination of all humanity pretty much ends up a footnote in that movie. (Others noticed this, of course.) It's a movie whose protagonist is a robot. All the human people depicted in it are wicked. Not just flawed, but pretty much wicked. And they're all dispensed with in a future that's populated solely by highly advanced machinery. It's artificial intelligence that finally provides David with the comfort he needs and with the end to his fairy tale story.

And AI was just that, a fairy tale, and fairy tales are full of wicked humans. But consider War of the Worlds, as well. Here humans are extinguished en masse, too, and Spielberg depicts a far more vicious (and admittedly more realistic) reaction by humans to one another than previous versions, as people trample and kill one another in their efforts to escape the inexorable progress of the alien tripods.

Let's also not forget that the most truly accomplished segments of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan also depict men butchering other men--in however heroic a fashion.

Now, I'm not developing a strict thesis here, and I'd certainly not gloss over the horrors mankind visits upon mankind (and Schindler's List was masterful), but I do think there's more to Spielberg's psyche than the humanistic side we've so often seen lauded.

But that's probably true for all of us.

Of course, it's also true that humanity's past is rife with horrors, and so likely is its future. So perhaps Spielberg isn't a misanthrope so much as a realist. And a humanist calling upon his species to confront themselves with their tendency towards self-annihilation. Isn't the same true of a writer like Jonathan Swift? He was decried as a misanthrope, too, but " A Modest Proposal" could also be read as the work of an outraged humanist, couldn't it? And I have to admit I left War of the Worlds with a profound feeling of the preciousness of human life, as well as the importance of focusing on our commonality as humans, rather eternally focusing on our differences.

Still, there's something about the casual disappearance of humanity from AI that troubles me.

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