The obsolescence of alien invaders


I watched War of the Worlds last night — the Spielberg version with Tom Cruise playing a scruffy version of the eerily Tom Cruise-like character he always plays, and the Obligatory Shrieky Girl, shrieking.

It was, predictably, awful. I watched it not in the expectation that it was going to be any good, but because I had been led by certain reviews to the belief that there was a surprise ending, and I was morbidly curious what twist ending Spielberg would’ve tacked on to the story. As it turns out, the surprise ending is a surprise only if you’re completely unfamiliar with the H.G. Wells story, the Orson Welles radio play, and all of the fifteen film adaptations, and also if you skip the opening credits which bluntly give the “surprise” away.

All this was to be expected, I suppose; Spielberg’s movies are always either really really good or really really bad, never anything in between. Hardly worth belaboring the point. (Though I can’t resist mentioning the moment in the ‘making of’ feature where one of the production designers proudly describes exactly the sort of brilliant innovation we can expect from the director: “All the past adaptations had the aliens coming down from the sky. So Steve’s idea was, what if this time they came from underground?” Oooooh. I admit it’s a nice visual having the tripods crawl up through enormous cracks in the earth, but it’s not worth the bizarre plot contortions they have to go through to justify it. “They must have buried these millions of years ago. Because they’re just. that. patient.”)

What I was surprised by, though, is how the whole idea of alien invaders coming to earth in big machines to kill us all seems so — quaint is the only word I can think of. So inefficient. These vastly powerful intellects cross billions of miles of space, and the best they can come up with is shooting us one at a time with laser beams? I suppose we should be thankful for the individual attention.

I’ve always been a fan of end-of-the-world stories. (I once spent a longish hospital stay with J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World, Burning World, Crystal World, and Wind from Nowhere as my bedside reading, and let me tell you there’s there’s no better way on earth to put yourself in an apocalyptic mood. Which was just what I needed right then.)

But something about them just doesn’t seem to work anymore.

On the one hand the world looks so precarious as it is — between global warming, peak oil, pandemics and terr’ists and nukes oh my — there’s simply no need for vast cool intellects from outer space to come put an end to us; we’re quite capable of doing it on our own.

And on the other hand the idea of any species developing the unbelievable power required to travel from one star to another, yet still for some reason needing rocks to live on…. silly. If you’ve got that much power and technology, seems like you’d be much more likely to go nanoscale, create virtual worlds to live in where you can make up the rules yourself, than to expend vast amounts of energy to travel all that distance just to move from one ball of rock in space to another.

I’m not sure what changed to ruin these stories for me. The world isn’t in any more precarious a situation than it was a decade ago, really; the stars aren’t any farther apart. (Well, okay, they are and it is, but not significantly so.)