Science Fiction Movie Reviews -
Past Visions of Future Information Technologies


The individual dynamics subgroup watched two science fiction movies, one older movie and one more recent, to compare attitudes towards technology.  The movies we watched were The War of the Worlds, written in 1898 by H. G. Wells and released to theaters in 1953, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, written by Arthur C. Clark, and released to theaters in 1968 in a production by Stanley Kubrick. Both movies showcase various then-incipient technologies, some of which are coming to various stages of fruition, and some of which are still largely science fiction, or at least beyond the reaches of most folks, yet.

Additionally, these two movies have an important theme in common: the possible consequences of over-reliance on highly developed technology. This is demonstrated in 2001: A Space Odyssey with the design, uses and behaviors of the computer, HAL. A corresponding theme is the development of artificial intelligence. In The War of the Worlds, the theme of overreliance on technology is demonstrated in a more general way, with the descent of the Martians on Earth, and the Humans' futile attempts to repel the attack. A corresponding theme in this movie are the questions of where how much faith we should put in our sciences, and alternatively, the question of where should we be putting our faith.

Click on the links below to see brief plot synopses from the Internet Movie Database, and to see our reviews and comments.

The War of the Worlds

Plot synopsis from the Internet Movie Database
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Lisa's review
Michael's review
Nelson's review
2001: A Space Odyssey Plot synopsis from the Internet Movie Database
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Lisa's review
Michael's review
Nelson's review


The War of the Worlds


(Lisa's review of The War of the Worlds)

Overview
For those who do not know the story, The War of the Worlds is a story written by H. G. Wells, and made famous by Orson Wells on the radio. Written in 1898, it is a ‘what if’ story, supposing an invasion of Earth by Martians. Produced in 1953, the film is an updated and tamer version of the story that H. G. Wells wrote. In the film, a meteor lands on Earth, outside of Los Angeles. People are excited by the object, and call for the nearest scientist to investigate it. It is not long before they discover that it is one of many spaceships that are landing all over the planet near population centers, containing apparently hostile creatures. (Evidenced by the spaceships’ inclination to incinerate anything in their path. The Army and Air Force are called in, and they coordinate with the armies of the rest of the world to wage an ineffectual war against the invaders. In the end, the attacks stop, as the Martians fall prey to some disease or infection they have picked up as a result of contact with the Earth’s atmosphere and inhabitants.

It is interesting to note some of the changes that were made in the story as it was updated for the movie version. In the book, the main character is not a scientist, as he is in the movie, but a philosopher. Another difference is that in the book, the Martians were not just destructive, they were hungry, too. Since they viewed humans as a lower life form, they apparently had no compunction about eating them. This may also be a way that the Martians were exposed to Earth bacteria and diseases. Presumably in an effort to make their intended new home more ‘homey’ the Martians brought to Earth a large, red, fern type of plant from Mars, which ultimately shared their fate.

The movie also updated the capabilities of the ships. In the book, the Earthlings do manage to destroy a couple of the Martian ships, which causes the Martians to use some kind of poison gas as a weapon so that they can stay beyond artillery range. This is a precursor to the gas warfare of WWI. In the movie, the Martian machines are invulnerable to all forms of artillery attacks, and have some kind of very destructive beam available as a weapon. In both versions, the Martians themselves are much more vulnerable than their machines are.

The spaceships use some kind of electromagnetic fields, similar to what are used today by the magnetic levitation bullet trains, to provide shielding and the three legs that lifted them up off the ground.

Knowing what we know now about the atomic bomb, it is amazing to watch the movie characters be so close to an atomic bomb explosion with no more than a pair of goggles and a fox hole to protect them.

In both versions, the narrator suggests that the Martians have been around for centuries, if not millennia longer than humans have, therefore their technology is significantly more advanced. Yet they must leave the planet, because it is dying, presumably under the weight of all of their technology.

The movie includes a strong element of hero worship of science and its scientists. When the first spaceship lands, people immediately seek the nearest scientist available, who conveniently happens to be an astronomer. They rely doggedly on their tried and true military tactics and equipment. When these tactics are in full swing, the priest goes out to attempt to communicate with the Martians. For his trouble, he is killed, a result he surely knew was likely, as evidenced by his recitation of Psalm 23 as he went out. Only after the humans have exhausted their options do they gather in the churches for comfort and prayer.

At one point earlier in the movie, the scientists are examining Martian blood samples, and seem on the verge of discovering a way to capitalize on the biological differences to defeat the Martians, but they are driven out of the lab by the ‘bombing’ before they can develop this option. So biological warfare by man’s hand is ruled out. Only the germs that are made present by the hand of the Creator are available to defeat this enemy that man’s efforts are useless against.

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(Michael's review of The War of the Worlds)

The War of the Worlds is a sci-fi investigation of faith. In the film's first few minutes we learn that Mars is a dying planet, though the Martians' technology is far superior to our own. If they are so advanced, why can't they save themselves? Perhaps we are meant to conclude that technology itself is the cause of their downfall, that a species' life force is inversely proportional to its dependence on technology. Or maybe the point is that machines and death rays, however powerful, mean nothing if their creators fall sick and die. The Martians' hubris (faith in technology) proves fatal and the humans' faith in science and scientists fails to thwart the invasion. In the end, common germs defeat the Martians, so one might argue that the humans' faith in the grace of a higher power was equally useless. I'd like to think of this movie as an existential reminder not to trust technology too much, but something tells me an anti-Communist agenda was closer to the filmmakers' intentions.

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(Nelson's review of The War of the Worlds)

The War of the Worlds makes a poignant statement about confidence in science and faith. In the movie, beings from Mars come to Earth looking to escape their own "dying planet." In the meanwhile, humans use every weapon in their arsenal, all the way up to an atomic bomb, but they are unable to penetrate the Martians' technologically superior defenses. With science unable to offer any more hope, the masses turn to religion, crowding a church to pray for salvation from the advancing alien force. When all seems lost, the aliens begin dying en masse; their bodies are not accustomed to Earth's atmosphere, and they succumb to the lowly germ. In the end, it is not humankind's technological achievements which saves them, but something not created by humans at all.

The moral of this story seems to be a reminder that though humans have achieved great success in science, it is but a pittance in the grand scheme of knowledge and creation. Overreliance on the work of human hands is tantamount sacrilegious, and people need to keep that in perspective lest invaders from another planet come by to remind us.

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2001: A Space Odyssey


(Lisa's review of 2001: A Space Odyssey)

2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. There are a number of technological developments that are interesting to note in this movie. Perhaps most significant is the state of development of Artificial Intelligence. Some of HAL’s decisions suggest that there was still room for improvement in the development of AI in the 2001 scenario, and present us with cautions to bear in mind as we press forward with this technology in real life. Video phones are something that do exist now, but not to the degree that they can be used as common tool of communication by most people. The commercialization of space flight is a future that people have contemplated for something like the space shuttles, once we have someplace for more than just a few scientists and explorer-astronauts to go. And of course, the use of cryogenics is something that a few people have been dabbling with for a few years, now, though I don’t think it’s progressed to the point yet that a human can be awakened from such a state. The individual data pads that Dave and his crewmate used to look at their news reports suggest the data pads of Star Trek (or is that the other way around?) and some of the electronic books that are currently under development.

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(Michael's review of 2001: A Space Odyssey)

Wow. The entire history of the human pursuit of technology is summed up so nicely in that bone-space station segue. Once again, trusting technology too much has fatal consequences. In this case, I think the error was in creating a computer that "thought" too much like a human. My interpretation: HAL lied in order to put the humans in a situation where their communication was cut off, then killed them because he perceived them to be a risk to the mission. While the humans assumed that HAL was mistaken, HAL recognized (or was programmed to recognize) that humans were prone to errors and that the mission had the highest priority. The lesson, once again: don't put too much faith in technology.

On a tangent, does anybody else think the ending is an audio-visual pun referring to the concept of eternal recurrence? We see Dave grow old, die, and seemingly return as a newborn baby just as Thus Spoke Zarathustra comes in. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is the work in which Nietzsche introduced eternal recurrence, the doctrine that one ought to live life as though one would re-experience that life over and over again after death.

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(Nelson's review of 2001: A Space Odyssey)

The main theme in 2001: A Space Odyssey obviously comes from the segment of the film concerning HAL, the AI of the computer on the ship for the Jupiter mission. This theme concerns whether a computer can be self-aware and have feelings, and what happens if humans over-rely on it and give it too much control. HAL believes itself to be perfect, citing the perfect performance record of its entire model line of computers. However, it seems to be defective, and when the humans try to disconnect it, it "fights back" in self-preservation. Once again, the humans were overreliant on the cleverness of their technology, and they gave this computer nearly complete control of their spacecraft, so HAL has many opportunities to fight back. Only after Dave manages to defeat HAL is the nature of their mysterious Jupiter mission revealed, but that part of the movie is beyond my feeble attempts to analyze and interpret.

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Last modified: 15 December 1999
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