Image of Libraries in Popular Culture
 

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Religion vs. Technology

War of the Worlds pits religious faith against technology and intellect. As in so many science fiction films which affirm religion or nature over invention, by the end, religion prevails. At the beginning of the film, the narrator somberly intones that the aliens have a superior intellect, "cold and unsympathetic". In this way the film sets intellect opposite warmth and humanity. The priest thinks that the creatures must be "closer to the creator" than humans because they are more advanced, but when he tries to communicate with them, they zap him without a blink of their electronic camera eyes. All of man's attempts to defeat the aliens with war technology, including nuclear bombs, fail. At the end, when the protagonists run out of any logical intellectual strategies and end up praying in a packed church, the aliens finally succumb to germs which their foreign systems can't resist. The narrator then returns, overtly stating the religious theme. He gravely concludes, "After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed by the littlest of all the things that God had put on earth."

Religious imagery also links these intellectual Martians with Satan. In their transport systems, the Martians resemble snakes. Their "spaceship" is a smoldering, radioactive heap which suggests fire, sulphur and brimstone. The three segmented "eye" of their cobra-like vehicles looks like a T.V. eye, yet the three sections also suggest the trinity. At first our group found these juxtaposed images in conflict with each other. Rethinking it though, perhaps this eye ironically symbolizes that the Martians have made technology their faith. This image conveys an implicit warning to humans and makes us wonder what our own technological advances will do to our society. Has this prediction come to pass? Has T.V. or newer technology caused us to lose some of our humanity and become more cold and 'alien'ated. (sorry). The group observed that the more recent movie, "Independence Day" has a similar ending to War of the Worlds, except that a computer virus subdues the aliens rather than a biological one. This shift in what we imagine in popular film, reminded us of the reading in Resisting the Virtual Life, "Soldier, Cyborg, Citizen" in which Robins and Levidow wrote about how our fantasies are moving away from "dependancy on nature" and the "bloody mess of organic nature". We perhaps feel less vulnerable, emotionally and physically, perceiving ourselves as mechanical or even virtual and disembodied.

Information Technology and the Portrayal of the Librarian Character

Mainly, the characters in the movie got all their information about the alien invasion through news reports, and when that went dead, they were left in the dark. The importance of their communication became very obvious to them once it failed. They made a last ditch effort to communicate by flying around in planes. Ironically, the mass hysteria which the radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds caused also says something about how dependable our ability to disseminate information via the media is. Today, urban myths circulate on the Web and Internet hoaxes abound. Are we teaching critical thinking skills enough for people to make educated decisions about what they find on the Web?

Meanwhile, our "information specialist" (with a masters degree and a teaching job at USC) didn't completely fit the stereotype of a frigid spinster librarian in a bun. She was helpless, sexy and subservient - an ideal woman. At one point when she screamed hysterically out of fear, the professor slapped her to knock some sense into her. She also took on the role of Red Cross nurse as though she had been keeping a uniform in her closet just for this occasion. In this role, her contribution to the war effort was merely to hand out donuts and coffee.

Is the Movie Timely?

War of the Worlds reflects the Cold War fears and values of its time. In the opening sequence of the film, the earth sits lonely and vulnerable against a dark, cold, blue background with a faint outline of the United States just barely visible. A recent book review in the New Yorker, "Atlas Shrugs: The new Geography Argues that Maps Have Shaped the World" (Leman, April 9, 2001) was brought up because it discussed how maps throughout time have reflected the biases and cultural agendas of those who created them. In the cold war era, maps of the United States often showed it from an ariel view, looking vulnerable to invasion. Is a Cold War mentality back after September 11th? Will our Sci-Fi films express this mood? Rick Lyman in a New York Times article, "Horrors: from Bug Movies to Bioterrorism" (Oct 23, 2001) addresses this issue saying, "Many have cited xenophobia or cold-war fears with spawning a cycle of films in the 1950's and 60's about alien attacks and infiltrating monsters from outer space" then later adds, "the era that seems to many to fit the current national mood (after Sept.11) most closely was the early 50's.. Then worries about atomic radiation--another invisible killer that could seep into your very bones without your knowing it were translated into popular culture" He ends by speculating that the Sci-Fi of the future is going to be much more, "On the X-Files model, where the villain is elusive and perhaps conspiratorial."

Overall Quality and Miscellaneous Comments

The group was divided on the subject of the movie quality. While some members said "it was worse than I thought", others said it was "not that bad." A lot of mocking of the editor, or lack thereof took place. There was an egocentric attitude to the movie. It is assumed that if the Martians were to come to Earth, it is because they want what we have. If they are so much more advanced, why? The group was particularly amused when the atomic blast took place and bystanders were able to watch it with the protection of special goggles!