Jean-Francois Coget’s commentary of
The War of the Worlds (1953)
Before beginning a more focused commentary, I would like to state how well made this movie was for the time it was created, especially in terms of special effects. Those could even compare to nowadays special effects. As a matter of fact, the war of the worlds was the first movie to use special effects beyond the typical flying saucers that were usually depicted in former science-fiction movies about aliens.
Another notable aspect of this movie is the history that precedes it. The script was based on an 1898 H.G. Wells novel, which was followed by the famous Orson Welles’ radio broadcasting of 1938. H.G. Wells novel was the first science-fiction novel that brought about the theme of an alien invasion of the Earth. Although the movie was adapted loosely from the original work, we should keep in mind that the basic framework of the story dates from far before 1953.
Let us now begin a more topical commentary of this movie, that is, how it depicts the image that 1953 Americans might have had of technology and its possible future developments.
One of the first things I noticed is that the Martians do not use self-propelled spaceships to arrive to the Earth, which by the way prevents them from coming back home. In that respect, latter human technology did better because we invented self-propelled spaceships in the following decades with the conquest of space.
Another interesting fact is the way the Martians get out of there spaceship: they need to unscrew the door for a long time, which seems pretty inconvenient. We would nowadays imagine such spaceships with automatic doors. And this might be due to the fact that we view technology ever more as a tool to increase our comfort. This was not necessarily the case before. Technology was maybe viewed more as a utilitarian tool. I have visited old-fashion diesel submarines, which are very dirty and inconvenient whereas their later versions, nuclear submarines are designed with much more care for habitability and comfort – although they still are very inconvenient.
I was also amused by the fact that the same device that the Martians use to detect people is used to fire beams. That seems rather unbelievable nowadays, because detection tools are usually differentiated from destruction tools. However, ‘smart-bombs’, guided by laser with sophisticate detection parts have been used widely during the Gulf War. But they are not re-usable, like in the case of the Martian lasers.
The only really developed vision of future technology in the movie is the electro-magnetic field that protects the Martians from any attack, even that of the latest technology: the H-bomb. I think I understood that this magnetic-field was supposed to be nuclear-powered. From this vision of future technology, one part actually happened and the other didn’t.
The use of nuclear power as a convenient and powerful source of energy has happened in the military. I think that now all American submarines and aircraft carriers are propelled by nuclear power. In other countries that use these devices, like England, France or Russia, there still are diesel-powered submarines and aircraft carriers, but those are less and less used and replaced by nuclear-propelled and powered versions. However, nuclear energy has been less ubiquitous in civil uses, except for some very energy-dependant countries like France and Japan.
What hasn’t quite happened thought, is the use of electromagnetic fields as powerful weapons or shields. As much as I know, electro-magnetically powered canons were developed by the army and never broke through. However, this technology might have still a brilliant future before it, which we have yet to see.
This is all for the analysis of the movie in terms of how people saw technology in these days and how technology developed in the way predicted or not.
However, there is a stronger message about technology in this movie than just the cool futuristic devices it features. The message is that of technological superiority versus cultural superiority.
In the movie, the Martians are technologically superior to us and thus destroy us. But of course, nobody assumes that they are culturally superior, because they exterminate us, and we feel we have the right to live and survive as a species. Ironically, it is not technology that wins in the end, but nature – in an unexpected way.
There is a clear parallel between what the Martians do to us, and what we do to animals or to our fellow human beings. Colonization, was based on the idea that the European civilization was superior to those it colonized, when in fact, only its technology was momentarily superior.
The ultimate message then, is that technology doesn’t mean civilization. It can even turn against it, if ill-used. However, Mother Nature is always there to protect us from the ultimate catastrophe. But will it always be?