I was prepared to be scared by War of the Worlds, but I never expected to be offended. I'd seen references in the reviews to 9/11 parallels in Spielberg's rendering of the story, but I'd figured these to be provocative critical musings inspired chiefly by an imperative to say something—anything—weighty about this summer's blockbuster movie.
I was wrong. The 9/11 references in War of the Worlds are explicit and quite obviously deliberate. The annihilation of people and buildings is signaled by white ash falling from the sky; photo snapshots of missing loved ones are posted on walls; at one point, the space aliens even crash a passenger jetliner into the house where Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning have taken refuge. Let's roll!
I try not to be a prude about these things. Shortly after 9/11, I labeled Leon Wieseltier "the mullah of Dupont Circle" for undertaking
a mission to excoriate any writer who dares aestheticize the moral horrors of 9/11. Like a Taliban mullah inveighing against the corrupting effects of photography and kite-flying, Wieseltier cries foul at any attempt "to meet atrocity with sensibility." Thus TheNew Yorker's delightful Adam Gopnik (enemy polymath!) gets cuffed ... for comparing the odor hanging over lower Manhattan to smoked mozzarella. "I was not in Manhattan when it was attacked," Mullah Wieseltier writes, "but I am certain that Gopnik's observation is a lie."
But there are limits to what even I can take, and I guess Steven Spielberg has helped me locate my inner mullah. War of the Worlds is not a movie about 9/11. It isn't even, really, an allegory about 9/11. The H.G. Wells novel on which it's based is often said to be an allegory about Britain's imperial hubris, and one of the film's screenwriters, David Koepp, claims that the film is similarly an allegory about the American occupation of Iraq. But if that's what Koepp really intended, Spielberg has muted that theme—wisely, I think—to the point of imperceptibility. I'm hard-pressed to find sustained commentary about any real-world event in the film's narrative. Rather, War of the Worlds is an old-fashioned monster movie—one that, despite some pretensions, ultimately has nothing more profound to say than "mass death and destruction are bad." I predict no adverse impact at the candy counter.
Because War of the Worlds has nothing to say about 9/11, its appropriation of 9/11 imagery can only be described as pornographic. Tapping the audience's memories of the 9/11 attacks injects a frisson of real-world suffering that's completely unearned. The movie lacks any construct elucidating further parallels between 9/11 and the imaginary invasion of Bayonne, N.J., by space aliens. The 9/11 trope has no meaning. It's merely an elbow in the side, reminding the audience of that day's awful events.
Why would Spielberg stoop so low? Maybe his mental wall between fantasy and history is starting to break down. I've enjoyed most of Spielberg's popcorn entertainments, and I've been moved by his dramatizations of the Holocaust (Schindler's List), the Middle Passage (Amistad), and the brutalities of World War II (Empire of the Sun, Saving Private Ryan). But mixing the two genres, as Spielberg seems to try in War of the Worlds, is not wise. I imagine that Spielberg sought to portray the space-alien attack on planet Earth as a grim historical fact. Since no space-alien attack actually occurred, there was no reservoir of collective memories to draw on. So, he borrowed from a real-world tragedy—one about which feelings are still fairly raw. It's appalling. Apart from Stephanie Zacharek in Salon, though, I haven't seen much of an outcry. Maybe movie audiences think space aliens really did once descend on New Jersey. In 1938, right? It was all over the radio ...