War of the Worlds
How do we respond to evil? How should we respond to evil? Those are the main questions raised by War of the Worlds, Steven Spielberg’s take on H. G. Wells’ classic tale of invaders from outer space. And nothing could be more evil than the creatures represented in this film: alien life forms who have plotted the annihilation of the human race for centuries, even going so far as to bury their machines of extermination deep under the earth long before humans ever arrived on the scene. Pre-meditated killing at its finest.
And yet, for all their technology, these aliens seem surprisingly inefficient, choosing to mow down human beings, buildings, and neighborhoods one at a time rather than taking them out in one, big “schebang.” If humans really are bugs in the aliens’ eyes—as the opening narrative of this film suggests—obviously no one on their planet has ever heard of “Raid.” Mere humans have come up with vastly superior means to wipe out bugs, never mind their fellow human beings. Perhaps these extra-terrestrial killers are as sporting as they are vicious. Eventually, however, it is revealed that the aliens have something more in mind than a simple holocaust—even though holocaust imagery is used throughout the film. Don’t worry: I won’t tell you what that ulterior motive is; because, frankly, I don’t think I really understand it myself!
And that, essentially, is where this film breaks down: when it comes to offering explanations. For example, apart from a few comments in the opening narrative about how the aliens have watched our world with envy over the centuries, we have no idea why these aliens attack. Has their home world gone sour? Did they have a bad encounter with humans in the past? No, it appears they are just plain evil. At least that is what we must assume, seeing as virtually no attempt is made to personify the enemy. Add this to the series of increasingly preposterous coincidences that allow the heroes to survive the onslaught, and this film veers dangerously close to a one-way trip to the remainder bin. The porous script is redeemed somewhat by excellent direction, sound design, acting, and special effects. But when the foundation of the structure is bad, it isn’t long before the entire thing comes crashing down—and it doesn’t take a death ray from outer space to do it.
As I reflected on the spiritual aspect of this film, two things struck me: First, as I have already mentioned, is the depiction of the alien invaders. David Bruce points out in his excellent commentary on this film (located elsewhere on this site) that the characterization of the aliens in War of the Worlds is a clear reflection of the times. Back in the 1980s, Stephen Spielberg brought us E.T., a film about an ugly albeit friendly alien who was more bent on exploration than destruction. According to Bruce, this represented our desire to end the Cold War before nuclear proliferation killed us all. What a contrast to the nameless and nearly faceless invaders Spielberg brings us in War of the Worlds. And yet, how appropriate, seeing as that is how our enemies are often portrayed today, especially by propagators of the so-called “War on Terror.” Perhaps Spielberg sees this film as a way to help us expunge some of the fear we experience every time we turn on the evening news.
Unfortunately, rather than serve the film (and the viewer) I think Spielberg’s anonymous depiction of the enemy actually dooms the film instead by essentially confining the action along two dimensions: fight or flight. Both of these responses to evil may be valid under certain circumstances, but they are also instinctive and, therefore, highly uncreative. Even the lowest form of animal—take bugs, for example—will choose one of these two strategies when faced with a threat. But contrary to what the aliens in this film think, we are much more than bugs, aren’t we? If so, doesn’t that demand a more creative, more human response to evil?
Don’t get me wrong: Fleeing from evil may be effective and necessary for a time, but eventually, as this film demonstrates, we will run out of places to hide. And then what? History contains countless examples of the barbarity humans are reduced to under such circumstances. (Read Josephus’ account of the sack of Jerusalem in ad 70 for example.) Taking a vengeful, “eye for an eye” response to evil is also doomed to failure, because it leads inevitably to escalation—either mutually assured destruction or desperate acts of terror in the face of overwhelming force. This fact is also demonstrated in War of the Worlds as well as in our own War on Terror. So the question remains: What would a more human, more three-dimensional response to evil look like? What would it look like in terms of this film? In terms of real life?
War of the Worlds gives us a partial answer when, at a critical juncture, hero Ray Ferrier stops running from the aliens and actually allows them to capture him instead. For perhaps the first time in this film, mere survival is no longer Ray’s primary motive. Finally, he has found something more important than his own life, and he is willing to risk everything to attain it. Not coincidentally, this is the precise moment when the tide begins to turn against the aliens.
So, we can see that part of the answer to our question is self-sacrifice. Taken either physically or literally, a self-sacrificial response to evil goes beyond an instinctive flight or fight response and asks, “How might we ensure that we not only defeat evil but, in defeating it, not become the evil thing we are trying to overcome?”
Beyond self-sacrificial love for those near and dear to us, however, a second factor must be present if we are to take a truly three-dimensional response to evil, and that is this: self-sacrificial love of enemy. I’ll admit: It’s difficult to love—much less be willing to die for—a nameless, faceless enemy, especially one that is trying to wipe you off the face of the planet. But isn’t that exactly what Christ did on the cross? As the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Elsewhere Paul says, “For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10) Anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ must follow this example. And anyone who is not a follower of Christ should give is serious consideration, because, ultimately, this is the only way evil can be defeated—in others and in ourselves.
War of the Worlds teeters on the brink of such a three-dimensional response to evil, and that is one of the few times this movie threatens to break out of the two-dimensional prison in which it has confined itself. If we want to break out of the same prison—to respond to evil as human beings, not as mere bugs—then we must be willing to fully embrace this third dimension as well. I’m not saying it will be easy. I love my life and the life of my family and friends as much as anyone. But, like the Apostle Paul, I have also glimpsed the greater good. I realize that whether I live or die is not the most important thing. It’s what I live or die for that really matters.