The Ironic Resonance of “The War of the Worlds”
Daniel M. Kimmel
H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel, “The War of the Worlds” is arguably the single most influential work of science fiction. It has never gone out of print, been repeatedly adapted into a variety of dramatic works, and laid the groundwork for countless other tales of aliens invading Earth. Watching the 1953 film version (the first on screen) during our COVID-19 plague year was a revelation, not because I had not seen the film many times before, but because it seemed eerily prescient about life in 2020.
After an ominous prologue where we learn that predatory Martians have searched the solar system and decided to invade Earth, the story moves to a small town in California where what seems to be a crashing meteor lights up the night sky. People go out to see the site out of curiosity but eventually go on with their lives, with some talk of how they might monetize this odd attraction. When the “meteor” opens up a hatch, three men who have stuck around step forward waving a white flag to indicate their peaceful intentions. The emergence of a snakelike eye turns out to the beginning of the war as the men are incinerated.
Meanwhile back in town, all the power goes out and everyone’s watch has stopped, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) – and yes, it was a name later adopted by “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” – realizes that the “meteor” is not only radioactive but has emitted an electromagnetic impulse. One person with a narratively handy pocket compass is surprised that it is no longer pointing north, but instead in the direction of the meteor. Soon they’re back at the site and realize they need to call out the military.
The moments here that cause shivers now are not so much the sleek mantaray-like Martian spaceships, but realizing that the reactions of these 1953 humans are surprisingly familiar as they are slow to realize the danger they’re facing. The infection – pardon, invasion – is taking place all over the world. Only slowly do they understand that this is a global threat and that all life on Earth is at stake.
If the government and the military prove ineffective in countering the threat, the movie’s attitude towards religion is more ambiguous. On the one hand we see the naivete of Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin), a well-meaning man of faith who believes that, as sentient beings, the Martians can be reasoned with, and he goes forth to one of the ships clutching a Bible, hoping to find a way to connect with them. For his efforts he is burned to death. On the other hand, late in the film, we see people gathering in churches seeking comfort and community in the midst of the increasing death and destruction.
In the present crisis we have similarly seen religious leaders at their best and worst. There were those who have reached out – safely and online – to provide solace, teaching, and the opportunity to worship even as everyone was supposed to be sheltering in place and unable to gather together. (Allow me a shout out to my own rabbi, Eliana Jacobowitz, at Temple B’nai Brith, in Somerville, Massachusetts for doing just that.) Then there were those, across a variety of religious sects, who ignored the realities of how the virus is transmitted and defiantly held gatherings that may have led to countless new infections. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, herself a committed Catholic, might have expressed the view best in sync with the movie’s when she said, “And for those who say we choose prayer over science, I say science is an answer to our prayers.”
On the run, Forrester and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), Pastor Collins’ niece and someone who did her thesis on Forrester, find themselves in an abandoned farmhouse. She confesses how fearful she is since they have no way of knowing what they are up against or how to combat it. It’s not a sign of weakness, as might be expected of the female lead in many of the science fiction and horror films of the era. It’s a sign of lucid, rational thought that should seem familiar to any viewer now, because we understand exactly how she feels. Which is what makes what follows all the scarier.
The Martians attack the farmhouse, but the couple manage to escape with two valuable items: a specimen of Martian blood and the camera-like eye of one of the ships that Forrester has managed to hack off with an axe. The examination of the “eye” is interesting and reveals something about the nature of the enemy but is a dead end when it comes to figuring out how to fight back. That should also sound familiar as with some of the early dead ends in research on the virus. It’s the nature of science to proceed along various lines of inquiry, with the knowledge that not all of them will pan out.
The decision is made to use what, to 1953 audiences, would have seemed the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. When that proves ineffective against the Martians, Forrester argues that a biological approach may be their only answer. And here is where the film resonates the most. A plan to set up a laboratory to try to find that solution is disrupted by people so frightened or ignorant (or both) that they attack the scientists and steal their vehicles. The antipathy held in some quarters towards science, academics, or any form of expertise, is a sad thread in American life going back to at least the Scopes trial and continuing right up to this year’s attacks in some quarters against Dr. Anthony Fauci, widely regarded as the leading authority on infectious diseases.
Forrester and Van Buren are separated, and he now runs through the streets of Los Angeles seeking her out at churches, remembering that she had told him how she once sought shelter in a church as a child. The images of the virtually empty streets of a major American city could have been taken from any recent newscast during the shutdown. Our buildings may not have been shattered by Martian ray guns, but prior to the rush to “open up” the country, these scenes look uncomfortably familiar.
The famous twist on how Earth is saved is especially ironic now. When it seems that all is lost, the Martian ships start collapsing on their own and we learn that the mostly unseen Martians have died, succumbing to infection by microscopic invaders to which humans had long ago developed an immunity. Defenseless against the bacteria, they are wiped out and Earth is saved. For the filmmakers – and contemporary audiences – this was a statement about God’s wisdom, having provided this virtually invisible defense that serves to rescue humanity. In our time it’s a virtually invisible virus that has become a threat to humanity while we are similarly looking for a miracle – scientific or otherwise – to rescue us.
“The War of the Worlds” doesn’t have a solution for us in 2020. The real ironic twist would be if aliens arrived with a cure for COVID-19. As many have observed, science fiction’s job is not to predict the future, but to provide a metaphor for the present. When Wells wrote his novel, he was inspired by how the British Empire imposed its will on less developed countries and wondered how England would react if they were treated similarly by a civilization far more advanced than them. Many of the science fiction films of the 1950s used their aliens as metaphors for the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Neither producer George Pal nor any of his collaborators could have been thinking about the coronavirus when they made the movie as COVID-19 did not even exist before last year. Yet the best in art and literature are works that transcend their times and connect with audiences much later for reasons they could not possibly have imagined. Almost 70 years after its release, “The War of the Worlds” is a movie that still has the power to make us think and feel and doesn’t seem like a relic of another age at all.
About the author: Daniel M. Kimmel is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award, given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He was a finalist for a Hugo Award for Jar Jar Binks Must Die… and other observations about science fiction movies and for the Compton Crook Award for best first novel for Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood, and the Bartender’s Guide. In addition to short stories, he is the author of Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel and Father of the Bride of Frankenstein.