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Spielberg's War of the Worlds hits differently 15 years later and in the age of coronavirus
In 2005, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds opened in theaters as America was still healing from the events of 9/11 in 2001. The blockbuster adaptation of H.G. Wells' 1897 story about a hostile Martian invasion was reshaped into a message about unity, family, and American militarism, starring Tom Cruise as an everyman dock worker named Ray Ferrier trying to save his kids.
15 years later, in the middle of a pandemic, watching aliens get defeated by Earth bacteria is a very different experience. Wells, whose book was inspired by the colonial conquest of indigenous peoples and creatures, would probably find similarities in today's world of fear, conflict, and xenophobia.
The film begins with Morgan Freeman (in a voiceover) describing how the Martians watched and waited for the right time to attack Earth, painting an uncomplicated picture of foreign invaders and buried terrorist cells. It ain't subtle, but for a post-9/11 message, it's effective: War of the Worlds was a call for Americans to band together against a frightening alien force intent on taking over the world. You don't usually pick Spielberg action movies for nuance, but in 2020, a year so far defined by COVID-19 and worldwide demands to upend America's systemically protected police violence against Black Americans, these themes have taken on a different meaning for the 15-year anniversary.
Today's fight against COVID-19 isn't a literal alien invasion or terrorism, but it's still a conflict marked by racism and misinformation and a problematic narrative of "foreign infections." The War of the Worlds has a legacy of stoking paranoia, from the book's "factual" tone to the 1938 radio play that allegedly scared people into believing there was a real alien invasion. It is a story about the Other — something we don't know or understand that we believe has come to disrupt our way of life.
The only way we as a society seem capable of understanding such a planetary-scale event is through the language of war. News sites across the world are plastered with headlines using the same language — to eradicate, wipe out, and vanquish the novel coronavirus. America is waging a war against an entity that doesn't discriminate, but war is still the easiest (and, perhaps, only) way to describe just how dangerous it is. TIME has already reflected on how one day, COVID-19 first responders will be honored and compensated in the same way as 9/11 survivors.
Like many people seeking clear information on the coronavirus today, in the film Ray and his family struggle to make sense of what's happening around them. The aliens are distant, unknowable, seemingly invulnerable. Bystanders gather and gawk until it's much too late — humans are curious creatures, but we're also insufferably obstinate. There's a sick poetry to the scene in which Ray realizes the weird gray dust around him is the disintegrated remains of his fellow humans — he's been breathing in dead people. Today, face masks are the new normal.
It's also the beginning of a delicate act of information brokering: What do you tell your kids? What does a government tell its people? How do you explain what's happening? "This came from someplace else," Ray tells his teen son Robbie. "What do you mean, like Europe?!" Robbie exclaims. This jokey exchange has taken on new meaning as COVID-19 continues, in some circles (and by President Donald Trump), to be painted as a Chinese disease.
Dakota Fanning, who plays Ray's precocious 10-year-old daughter Rachel, offers a blunt foreshadowing of the film's end. In an early scene, she bickers with Ray over how to handle a splinter in her finger. Ray insists it'll become infected if they don't take it out, but she just wants to show it to him. "When it's ready, my body will just push it out," she tells her dad.
If only things were that simple. There's a quiet confidence in Fanning's delivery that belies a sense of privilege — maybe she's never had an infection before. Perhaps she's just always been lucky with splinters. It's the same breed of that quiet, unfounded certainty that America will come out on top – the kind of confidence that Spielberg wanted to portray for Americans who were still reeling from the attacks on the Twin Towers.
War of the Worlds, in all its militaristic glory (it is, after all, a big-budget action flick), needs a new reading in 2020. It's not enough to sit around and wait for a natural solution when nothing about current events can be considered normal. And while classism, racism, and sexism are unfortunate parts of the modern human experience, we can and should do better.
When Ray realizes that the dark vortex over Brooklyn is no ordinary storm, he notices that the lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place — this is something totally different. He learns that the aliens are "riding the lightning" (thanks, Metallica) from space down into the earth, where they've awakened scores of three-legged death machines. If we're going with heavy-handed metaphors, Ray is painfully wrong: As long as the same power structures are in place, the proverbial lightning — injustice and inequality — will continue to repeatedly impact the same targets.
America's response to the coronavirus has brought to light class divisions, racist institutions, corporate greed, and underfunded public services. And while the nation struggles to cope with over 100,000 deaths at the time of writing, this isn't the first or the last pandemic that America will experience. As various states open up around the country, their infection rates are rising; many expect a second wave of coronavirus infections to hit, especially given the uncoordinated government response, which was further hampered by the police violence that erupted in late May.
The film ends on a Darwinistic note — that humankind has earned the right to be here, after "countless immunities" and struggles against forces much greater than ourselves. Visual sequences of cells and nature hammer home the idea that we deserve to survive because we've been through so much, we're in harmony with our germ-filled environment, and we've put in the work. In 2005, just a few years after the Iraq War began, the main takeaway is a feeling of entitlement — America has suffered, America will prevail. But today, for many, that feeling of patriotic optimism is gone.
The aliens are ultimately defeated by tiny, microscopic germs. But in 2020, we can't wait around for oppressive systems to decay. No miracle will save us from our own ruin, but we should take every opportunity, like Ray, to fight back as much as we are able. Like the Martian invaders, coronavirus doesn't care about who you are or what you look like — it's a force of nature.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.