Popcorn from the 9/11 rubble

Here, maybe, is the way the Hollywood world ends: not with a bang, but a stinker. Enter another bloated Spielberg epic, weighed down by $180-million in computer contrivances and syrupy strings. Stand by for one more dodgy attempt at putting HG Wells on screen. But this time, for this war of this world, there’s a deeper difference.

What do British audiences think? Our critics, as ever, are all over the place, but the 7 o’clock crowd in my local multiethnic multiplex — who whooped their way through Mr & Mrs Smith a couple of weeks ago — were torpid throughout. The action the Daily Mail found so loathsome (”the most remorselessly violent film I have seen for years” — Simon Heffer) barely kept them awake. No energy, let alone pity and terror. And you could understand why.

Blood-drinking monsters from outer space who haven’t heard about HIV? Earth invasion plans a million years in the plotting that forgot to factor in microbe immunity? A Unite States (US) army that never panics, but just keeps shouting ”Move along there” as though it were winding up a Live 8 concert? Tom Cruise singing Hushabye Mountain to Hollywood’s most irksome moppet, Dakota Fanning, as thousands die 50 yards away? This is tosh, and crass tosh at that.

But America doesn’t think so, apparently. There, most voices conjoin in reverential awe. ”It’s a rare thing — a summer movie that demands to be taken as a serious emotional experience,” says the Village Voice. ”It is, simply, the alienation-invasion movie to beat all alien invasion movies,” says the San Francisco Chronicle. Spielberg’s biggest box-office hit for years, predicts Variety. And the question is: why?

You don’t have to dig too far to find out. War of the Worlds 2005 is the first piece of multiplex fodder ripped straight from the rubble of 9/11. Its ”scenes of urban destruction — chaos in the streets, collapse in communications — intentionally call to mind everyone’s worst terrorism nightmares”, the Chronicle observes.

Consider Cruise’s first encounter with the alien marauders: ”He comes home covered in fine, white dust, like a bystander at ground zero.” But this powder is pulverised flesh and blood, as served up by our tripod-tottering chums when they’re not feeling bloodthirsty. And that wholly gratuitous plane-crash scene? What other planes, crashing, wreaked such havoc?

Over to Slant Magazine: ”War of the Worlds takes one of our deepest global fears, the threat of annihilation, and gives us catharsis where humanity reasserts itself. In this case, it’s not our ability to blow shit up … but that American individualism and family values can overcome mindless evil.”

The LA Times waxes even more panoramic. ”With the spectre of terrorism, the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea, Iran and who knows who else, not to mention the invasion of Iraq … we certainly live in perilous times” — and this is ”a perfect fit for our paranoid, potentially apocalyptic age”.

Of course it’s possible to claim, with Spielberg and supporters, that HG Wells constructed a disaster template here, that The War of the Worlds is your basic adaptable doom scenario. So Wells, in 1898, saw the mechanised slaughter of 1914-18 coming. So Orson Welles, in 1938, pitched his radio version into the jaws of the second world war. So George Pal’s 1953 movie was full of cold-war resonances. So 2005 is Osama’s turn, with a pinch of Saddam. And so on and so forth.

But pass the sick bag with the popcorn, mummy. Wells’s Martians didn’t stop the Edwardians from having a grand old hedonistic binge. Welles ’38 still found Pearl Harbor a bit of a surprise: and Pal ’53 dropped while Eisenhower was on a golf course somewhere.

You can, in short, overdo the pomp of sci-fi prophecy, the edge of quasi-religiosity that turns decently crafted fiction into something more grandiose. But you shouldn’t overdo our cinematic capacity to scare ourselves witless.

Alien invasions? They’ve been standard fare for decades, the Triffids and Body Snatchers of everyday nightmare. But recently the School of Tom Clancy, with its sinister Arabs (usually played by Royal Shakespeare Company graduates), has taken all the top slots. Terrorism, as peddled by Clancy with CIA gusto, was the threat of the age. And lo! It comes to pass that, post-9/11, the two genres could be rolled into one, the sum of all fears.

Here’s a conjunction far more dangerous than the confected violence the Mail chunters about, another damned recipe for Uncle George’s favourite paranoia pie with chocolate Cheney sauce. Zap North Korea and zap Iran, just like we zapped Iraq, because something has to be done — because dark forces out there are coming to get us on TV as well as in our spook briefing papers. Watch one momentous attack by four teams of not-very-hi-tech al-Qaida assassins with penknives morph into assault by cannibal tripods.

Perhaps none of this resonated in my downtown multiplex because 9/11, like George W, was over there, not over here. But perhaps there’s also a dividing line as deep as the Atlantic, a different mix of culture, perception and automatic assumption that makes common action increasingly impossible. Phoney disaster movies starring Bruce Willis are one thing, arty disaster movies full of glib references quite another.

”We have learned now that we cannot regard this planet as being fenced in and a secure abiding place for Man; we can never anticipate the unseen good or evil that may come upon us suddenly out of space,” says Wells’s narrator as his final chapter closes.

Yes: but what if today’s unseen evil involves the roasting of Mother Earth that we hasten every time we drive to the movies? Where’s the box office potential in that? Â

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