I just got back from the movie. The short version of my review is that it scared me more than any other movie.... And it wasn't cheap "boo" type scares, either. The movie managed to fill me with a deep sense of dread about the human condition. Unlike most of Spielberg's movies, this is a bleak, almost depressing story with only the faintest glimmer of hope. It doesn't affect everyone the same way, though, so don't necessarily go in expecting the same experience. But first...
The radio version starring Orson Welles was broadcast the night before Halloween in 1938, and so it's still under copyright, but you can find it in RealAudio format or via a a slow MP3 link. It's less than an hour long.
The radio broadcast is famous for how closely it mimicked real radio news and caused hysteria. It starts out with a weather report about a strange low pressure area, and then we're listening to "Ramón Raquello and his orchestra". Soon, we start getting frequent news interruptions about mysterious explosions on Mars, a meteor crash, and then, before you know it, "Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grovers Mill. Evidently there's some difficulty with our field transmission."
The show continues on with broadcasts from various areas, often ending the same way. Eventually, a little more than a half-hour into the broadcast, the tripods destroy the CBS broadcast building itself. Now what I didn't know is that there's a second half of the show. The next 20-something minutes mostly consist of a surviving character talking, classic radio-show style, about the post-apocalyptic world he's been living in since the attack. It kinda drags on until the classic ending. The first half of the show was fascinating even today, but I tuned out during much of the second half.
Now back to the Stephen Spielberg movie. I've been thinking about the end of the world a lot lately for some reason. A few weeks ago, I had a dream where I woke up one day, and everyone in the world had just cleanly disappeared. It got me thinking about what I'd do in such a situation. (How long could I last on canned food? I guess I could find books in libraries to learn how to plant stuff for the long term maybe?) And then the other night, I watched the landmark 1983 TV movie The Day After. It depicted the lead-up to and aftermath of a nuclear war from the perspective of a small Kansas town. Unlike a typical Hollywood movie, it actually ends with most of the main characters dying from radiation sickness. For many people at the time, it was their wake-up call to how "unwinnable" a nuclear war would be.
So that's the frame of mind I was in when I went to see Spielberg's version. He plays it almost totally straight, with very little humor, and almost totally from the viewpoint of the main characters. We always see the tripods from the ground up or from afar. They seem enormous, invincible, and unrelenting. Somehow, despite being conditioned from tons of movies, they really freaked me out! They didn't just freak me out in a "they're going to kill the main characters" way. They freaked me out in a "oh my God they are destroying the human race" way. That just really came across for me somehow.
I like how the daughter, when she first sees the destruction they can cause, asks, "Is it the terrorists?" H. G. Wells' original novel was an allegory (and cautionary tale) about British Imperialism. Orson Welles' broadcast played off of fears about the war in Europe. The 1953 Byron Haskin movie played off of fears of communist invasion. Spielberg's movie certainly plays off of our current fears of terrorist attack, but the daughter's question makes terrorism almost laughable in the movie.
Spielberg surprised me by his vision of human nature. I saw it with someone who was scared most not by the aliens, but by how people acted in the auto theft scene. (See the movie to see what I'm talking about.) There's very little comraderie and "triumph of the human spirit". And he shows it in a mostly dejected, hopeless way, like, "This is just the way it is." Human life seems so insignificant here. I guess that's why we needed the main character's relationship with his daughter; it's like the movie is saying, "Human life is terribly insignificant, but it can still be incredibly significant to us."
The large-scale extermination scenes chilled me to the core. They gave me the sense that if I were there, I'd be thinking, "This is the end of the human race." But then came the second half. The movie suddenly becomes more introspective, and then you have all that skulking around in the basement. Even though I was set up for this by all the dread I was already feeling, meeting the aliens up close felt disappointing, and it actually deflated some of my fear. They no longer seemed omnipotent. I think one reason those later scenes didn't work for me is that in the large scale destruction scenes, I could imagine myself being there. The main characters are mostly just representatives of members of the human race. Suddenly, in the second half, we're supposed to care about their well-being in particular, and I just didn't care enough. The aliens killing everybody freaked me out, but killing a few people in a basement? That just seemed so insignificant at that point.
Maybe that's because Spielberg was too effective early on. Now that I think about it, I'm rarely actually scared by scenes of mass destruction these days. Hell, even during Saving Private Ryan, there was a part of me that thought, "Cool special effects!" during the beach assault. When big buildings or cities get blown up, I usually feel detached. Somehow, during this movie, I didn't feel detached. I actually felt a bit of shock every time the aliens killed an extra. I never once thought, "cool death ray effect!" Maybe it's a good thing that special effects no longer amaze us. We're conditioned to them now to the point where the images can actually have emotional effect again.
So that's the end of my review, though I do have an additional thought: What would the world be like after something like this happened? Apparently, there was actually a late 80s TV sequel set decades after a 1950s attack, but it didn't seem to develop in the direction I'm imagining. Apparently, the world basically forgets the attack ever happened. How could it?! I mean, let's forget about all the chaos that goes with reconstructing every major population center of the world... The aliens came once. What's to prevent them from working around the weakness that brought them down the first time and coming again? How would the world deal with the threat of another attack? Would we pour tons of resources into military research?
I think I'm on that line of thought partly because I watched Land of the Dead last week. It's set in a world years after the events of Night of the Living Dead, and it has lots of fun with the question, "What would the world be like if zombies were a part of everyday life?" That's what I'm curious about: What would the world be like if eminent attack by technologically superior aliens were a part of everyday life? I'm glad I don't actually live in that world. Or, if I do, I'm glad I don't know it.