War of the Worlds:
The Duality of Power and Weakness in the Concept of the “Other”
Master of English Program
College of Liberal Arts and Science
Emporia State University
English 794- Alien Invasion: Critical Studies in Film
Summer 2014, Colson
According to Nagl (1983) in “The Science Fiction Film in a Historical Perspective”, science fiction films employ myths as a method of presenting rational or irrational events to explain human behavior. This is an apt characterization of the place of myth within the film War of the Worlds (1953). Within this film there are numerous examples of the creation of myths demonstrating how humans view power, as well as defining both humanity and the philosophical “Other”. This can be seen as an extension and metaphor for human issues, much as various cultures have created myths to explain their origins, their future, and to define who they are in comparison to those around them. These types of myth provide identity and justification for power structure, which influences how social groups interact. The film War of the Worlds (1953) creates a mythos demonstrating themes of power and domination as fundamental to the human process of defining both humanity and “the Other”, as well as moral justification for violence against “the Other”, all while appearing to privilege religion over science.
Nagl (1983) goes on to discuss his “Global Characteristics of Science Fiction”, including how myth originally reflected man’s unity with life. This can be seen in the many difference creation myths, myths explaining social norms, and providing a shared history for a social group. In Judeo-Christianity this is evidenced in the myths of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale. These stories provide a commonality and an opportunity for people to socially bond through shared understanding and knowledge. These stories define the “good” versus “bad”, the “us” versus “them”, and the concept of the “Other”. (Kelley-Romano, 2006) In many ways, science fiction has taken on this social norm providing stories and myths explaining what it means to be human, and what it means to be in-human, alien or subhuman. Science fiction uses allegories, metaphors and myths to explain the human anxiety associated with the “Other” (often a being from a different planet, an alien) in place of a different race, a different culture, or a different gender. Within science fiction “themes of menace and destruction, dominate or seen as dominant [can be seen as] an articulation and elaboration of and defense against anxiety.” (Nagl, 1983, p. 269) Some science fiction films negate this anxiety, while others support it. Science fiction and the film War of the Worlds specifically, use the myth of the other to explore how humanity reacts to an overwhelming threat in terms of power struggles, religion and military action.
Within the concept of the “Other”, understanding the balance of power between the majority and the “Other” is vital. A loss of power and control is one of humanity’s greatest fears. The importance of freedom of choice and personal preservation is one of humans’ most sought after and violence causing aspects. Wars routinely erupt over these issues of choice, as well as often being the motivating factor behind support of political, social and religious movements. War of the Worlds demonstrates the catastrophic effects of a complete loss of power for humanity, a complete helplessness and how various people react and cope with both the unknown assailant and their inability to fight this invader. The film also shows how humanity defines “otherness”, and in the process also defines humanity. (Kelley-Romano, 2006)
The concept of the “Other” is seen both in cinematic and real-life situations. Current events such as the immigration debate, racial violence and the use of moral justification for violence are all situations in which humans classify other groups as "the Other", the enemy, different enough to be cause for violent action towards them. This is in direct contrast to other multicultural, tolerance movements, focusing on the similarities between people and attempting to dispel the myth of the “Other”. These unifying social movements allow cooperation between many social groups and structures (such as the military, science, education, business and religion)
Invasion versus Conquest
Within the science fiction film genre, there are two major categories that most films fall in, that of an alien invasion film and a space conquest by human film. These categories reflect the contrasting views have humans have about their dominion and power in everything from immigration to scientific exploration. In situations of anxiety about social conditions, a film reflecting an alien invasion illustrates these anxieties as a metaphoric myth. Conversely, films showing space conquest illustrate human confidence in their dominion over not only the earth, but metaphorically their entire universe. Within science fiction films, there are often instance and examples of both this anxiety and confidence, but ultimately the hero usually is aligned to one of these categories, leading the viewers to take away a message about their own place in the world and the associated anxiety.
War of the Worlds is a film which falls into the first category, that of alien invasion, and creates myths and metaphors for human conditions in which invasion is a source of anxiety and fear. A current human source of anxiety could be associated with possible invasion by a racial social group, a country, an animal species, an ideology, or a technology. Thus this film can be seen as a metaphor about human anxiety and possible reactions to that anxiety. Themes of power and morally justified violence also contribute the myth, informing viewers of possible reactions to their real anxiety and the results of these actions. For example, the character Pastor Collins attempts to approach the aliens, reciting the twenty-third Psalm, holding a Bible, implicitly trusting that his God will protect him against the alien invasion. His trust is not rewarded and he is instantly vaporized by the alien heat-ray. This is in contrast the heroic character of Dr. Forrester, who is the only character who engages in a one-on-one fight with an alien. He is able to wound the alien and from the alien’s blood gain valuable insight into the alien biology. From this comparison, in times of anxiety the superiority of scientific research over blind trust is manifest to the audience.
The Physical Aspects and Motivation of “the Other”
As the first step in creating “the Other” within the myths of power, the aliens in War of the Worlds are characterized by dramatically different appearances and biological processes. These aliens are portrayed as being based on sets of three, as opposed to humanity basic sets of two: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, etc. The aliens in comparison have three eyes, three digits on each appendage and their crafts group in threes. In addition, they do not communicate in an audible manner. This lack of communication is pivotal in the creation of “the Other”. The inability to communicate in order to understand the motivation of the “enemy” inevitably leads to misunderstanding and a lack of empathy, which is vital in human relationships and is thus another way these aliens are distanced from humans and de-humanized.
The narrator of the film informs the viewers that the motivation of these aliens is destruction and subjugation of the earth’s planetary resources, due to the inability of their home planet to support and sustain them by fulfilling their needs. This is the most significant information of the limited insight gained about the alien’s motivation, but is not provided to the characters within the film. They are left to wonder why they have been subjugated to extermination and to blindly fight against their attackers. The characterization of the aliens as invaders, with not only colonizing intentions, but the means for extermination influences the audience’s view of them as unknowable “Others”, beyond any understanding and human desire to understand.
Similarities in Aliens and the Humans
The key aspect in the creation of the myth of the “Other” is the process of distancing them, in terms of characteristics from the majority group. This focus on the differences rather than the similarities solidifies the social definition of the “Other” and the associated activities, such as prejudice, racism and morally justified violence. Despite this, there are some general similarities between the aliens and humans. Both groups appear to have blood as part of their physiology, are susceptible to environmentally transmitted viruses and are very concerned with sustaining their future (the aliens in finding a new world to support them, and the humans in their attempts to stop the alien invasion). In some science fiction films, the filmmakers reverse the concept of the “Other”, making the aliens more human or humane and the humans unrecognizable in their lack of humanity. This film does not focus on the similarities and defines the aliens as completely inhumane and unworthy of sympathy.
Power in terms of Race, Gender, Religion
Within the human race, there are examples of stereotyped groups, who at one point in time have been characterized as a minority, a class of “Other”. A few of these groups appear within the film War of the Worlds, an interesting addendum to the myth defining humanity. In the sea of Caucasian faces, there is one individual who appears to have a Hispanic heritage, evidenced both by his appearance and his language. He is one of the three men left to guard the “meteor” after the fire has been put out. He is characterized initially as a coward (he doesn’t want to approach the craft), and thenmindlessly conforming to the social pressure of his peers (by joining them in racing toward the craft and being instantly vaporized). This is a very negative portrayal of his race, as part of the film’s overall theme of social power
Interestingly enough, in this same scene, one of the three men argues that “everything human doesn't have to look like you and me." This is a very intriguing comment in the face of the dramatic emphasis that this film places on separating and defining humanity and the “Other”. This comment can be seen as an ironic statement, especially in conjunction with the three men’s quick demise soon after this statement. In the film War of the Worlds, humanity is strictly defined with similar physical traits as one of the ways of identifying the alien who would cause pain with complete apathy.
One insightful contradiction in this film is the contrast between the religious influence and explanation provided by the narrator, as opposed to the lack of religious power exerted within the film. The example of Pastor Collins’ death and the inability of the churches to withstand the attack of the aliens all project the impotence of religion as a powerful saving force, but in contrast to that the narrator uses religion and the power of God as the explanation for the survival of the human race, ending with a dramatic “humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put on this Earth”, and a ringing chorus of “Amen”. It will be argued below that this correlation of God’s power and the instance of the virus do not necessitate a causal relationship, but in terms of the myth and message of the film, religion is in fact just as impotent and unreliable as the military.
Ironically, it was their very status as human that saved the people in War of the Worlds. The very biological agents that killed the aliens do not affect humans. It could be interpreted as a naturally occurring part of the earth (of which humanity is a part of and can be identified within) that destroyed the aliens, not a deity reaching down and interfering. The earth and it’s natural processes (as understood by science) protected her inhabitants.
The instance of casualties in this film also brings insight to the balance of power and dominion within the film. The first interaction with the aliens occurs when three normal local men attempt to make contact with the aliens, waving a white flag and shouting, “We're friends!” Their decision to approach the alien craft shows a distinct lack of self preservation knowledge, and an innocent trust that the alien will understand their benign intentions. The three men are callously vaporized by a heat-ray, as the first casualties of the alien invasion. Subsequently, Dr. Forrester and the sheriff of Linda Rosa investigate the scene and are attacked by the same ray, but survive and escape to raise the alarm. This contrast of the three men’s guileless trust and Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff's experience and knowledge informs the viewer about a myth of superiority within humanity. It is implied that Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff are able to avoid death because to their superior skills, knowledge and associated status, whereas the other three men were not valuable assets to humanity. This speaks to an elevation of the class of scientists that is seen throughout this film.
Another example of commentary on the theme of power and dominion is the military's inability to damage the Martian crafts, even with an atomic bomb. The military bravado, as evidenced by Colonel Heffner’s comment that shooting has “always been a good persuader” is quickly decimated. The military is rendered inefficient and impotent, while the scientists experience some success learning about their enemy, deducing from a blood sample and electronic eye (collected by Dr. Forrester, the most eminent of these scientists) that the aliens are physically weak and anemic. The scientists are the best hope for stopping the alien invasion, and are given six days to come up with a solution. Dr. Forrester’s dedication and focus on finding a solution also give the implication that he really could find a way to stop the alien horde, if not for the rioters who steal the truck and scientific equipment necessary.
The religious tone of this film does present a conflict to the seeming promotion of Science. But in the narrator’s final commentary states, the Martians are destroyed by Earth’s virus and bacteria. It is implied that this was a product of religious intervention, but in the modern understanding of biological science, it is possible for human scientists to create and manipulate bacteria and virus. It was the earth based natural biology of earth that defeated the aliens. An important part of how humanity defines itself is it’s myth of connection to nature. In different cultures and throughout history, the connections between humans and earth/nature have been conflicted and cause for debate, from an ecological to postmodern perspective. It can be argued that “human culture itself (it’s social organization, the built environment, material and artistic productions) belong to an interlinked planetary ecosystem and is therefore every bit as ‘natural’ as a termite mound or a bird’s nest” (Hughes, p. 23). As a result, human identity can be constructed as part of the nature in which humans live in and by which they are shaped, including the associated bacteria.
In War of the Worlds, are humans characterized as part of “nature”? Or are they a separate invasive class who simply take advantage of natural resources? The latter characterization is how the aliens are introduced in this film, while the humans in this film are presented as part of nature, a component of planet earth and one of it’s resources. The success of this earthly and natural infection in destroying the alien race is ultimately another support of the elevation of science in the understanding of the balance of power in this film. A deity may have created the initial bacteria, but it was natural bacteria forces, as understood by science, that were the proverbial nail in the coffin.
The humans are not the only earthlings affected by the alien invasion. There are scenes of horses stampeding, deer running for cover and birds is flight, all emphasizing the idea that the entire earth as a whole is under attack by the aliens. It can additionally be argued that humanity it’s self is “inextricably enmeshed within the biosphere” (Hughes, p. 38)
Within science fiction, “a pristine natural world… has historically been crucial to our sense of who we [as humans] are”(Hughes, p. 37). Humanity identifies with the earth, as they are part of the interconnectedness of nature. In fact it “no longer makes sense to discuss ‘human’ identity as something distinct from either nature or technology” (Hughes, p. 37). In this way, the alien invasion of the earth is a metaphor for very personal invasion, an assault on the human and earthly collective. Dr. Forrester, as the protagonist of the film is charged with “restoring narrative order and control over [humanity and] their own stories” (Hughes, p. 37), by stopping the alien invasion and infection of Earth.
Power: Human vs. Alien
In terms of power it is quickly obvious that the aliens dominate the humans in terms of military and technological ability. The aliens quickly use their ships and heat-waves to attack strategic points and inhibit communication between the humans. They are portrayed in the film as powerful beings, until the scientists analyze the alien blood and discover a potentially fatal flaw in their genetics. But in terms of technology and firepower, nothing that the humans do even causes the aliens to pause in the sacking of humanity.
At the point of no return, both the scientists and the military seem supremely confident that the use of the atom bomb on the alien ships will decimate the invading force. As Booker (2006) comments, this is a bomb that is “ten times more powerful than anything ever used before.” The military even attempts to compensate for the possible effects on the human population, by evacuating people into remote areas, as shown in various visuals of concourses of people interjected into the scene in which the military drops the bomb.They also done protective gear and give specific instructions to those observing the blast. The military fully expects this weapon of last resort to destroy the aliens. The military leaders specifically seem confident in their power, but on the proof that their weapons are completely ineffective they are forced to hand their hope into the scientists and their knowledge of biology as the ultimate offensive weapon. The narrative of the superiority of science over military is of great importance in understanding the seemingly conflicted portrayal of religion in this film as discussed earlier. The happy accident that saves humanity from utter destruction is due to the alien’s misunderstanding of the biological effects of the earth on their bodies. In this comparison, the humans have a superior understanding on the earth’s biological and chemical make-up, which makes them superior in the scientific understanding of earth. This power shift is the pivotal factor which leads to the alien’s demise and defeat.
In the scene where the scientists are packing up and attempting to escape Los Angeles, in a metaphor for this emphasis on knowledge as the savor of humanity, Sylvia drives the school bus, full of people and scientific supplies and instruments away from the city. This school bus is evidence of the importance of knowledge and scientific exploration that is humanity’s best chance at survival. The vehicle could have been a tank (referencing military domination) or any other number of vehicles, but the choice of the school bus is illustrative of the importance of education and knowledge, in contrast to military action.
Power: Human vs. Human
Another reference to the power structure within humanity is the incidents in Los Angeles, when the human rioters turn on each other. Here is a situation where the dramatic changes in the power structure, caused by the alien invasion have collapsed the social structure to the detriment on the entire human race, destroying their last best chance of defeating the aliens. Those people who do not make it out of the city quickly turn on each other. Violence becomes the norm as the people attack each other for any semblance of advantage, pulling people from vehicles and destroying goods. Interestingly, in these scenes, only men are shown looting and attacking each other. When Sylvia and Dr. Duprey (the female scientist) are attacked, this scene is not shown, and the viewer only hears about it later. In terms of understanding power structure, this is important because the female characters are not given the quality of assertive violence, but are characterized as pure victims, without any complexity of confidence and authority.
In the midst of this scene of chaos, as the looters destroy his instruments and supplies, Dr. Forrester desperately tries to make them understand that he and his knowledge and abilities are the last best hope for human survival. He appeals to the social authority of the police, who once again acknowledge their complete lack of ability to use any social power to control the looters. They simply recommend he join them in escaping the city, running away instead of taking a stand. In anguish, Forrester cries out "Fools, they cut their own throats!"The looters and people left behind have shed their visage of humanity and its associated compassion and “human-ness” to become a seething mass of imaginary “Other” which Dr. Forrester must fight against in his quest. With the dramatic shift in power and the associated panic, even humanity is not enough to bind people together, but often leads to the process of separation and distinction within social groups. These looters not longer see themselves as Californians or Americans, but as individuals each fighting for their survival. At the very moment when the people need to come together against the common enemy, the alien, they splinter into ineffective groups, fighting against each other and against Dr. Forrester: their last, best hope.
Power: God vs Alien…. vs Man
The influence of the narrator gives the film War of the Worlds a very distinct theme of the power of God versus the power of the invading alien. As discussed elsewhere, it is only the narrator who uses God’s power as the explaining force for the virus that kills the aliens, in contradiction to the other evidences that natural biology as understood by science is the savior of humankind. Putting that explanation aside for a moment, the myth of a powerful creator who is involved in humanity’s preservation is very powerful in creating a myth of human superiority, through the intermediary of their God. In terms of interplanetary conquest, the action of destroying the aliens sends a message that the Earth is protected and will not be easily conquered or colonized. This “superiority” of the human race is read as victory from a human perspective, a proof in the myth that the humans of planet earth are powerful and morally justified in defending themselves, even to the extermination of any invader. This allows them to use every method possible to protect themselves, because the audience identifies with the human heroes or protagonist. (Torry, 1994)
In keeping with the understanding of anti-human or “the Other”, this film also creates a myth about the humans and their characteristics. This is especially seen in the treatment of gender relations, as well as character’s economic status. The character Sylvia, despite the invasion and associated panic, never alters from her simplistic identity as the American woman of the 1950s. She has an education and a career, but even that is minimalized in Dr. Forrester's comment about her thesis on modern scientists: "Did it do you any good?", alluding to the worthlessness of education for women, especially education which distracts from her womanly role and duties.
Sylvia’s preoccupation with Dr. Forrester and her romantic intentions toward him are obvious from their first encounter, with a comedic moment of mistaken identity to lighten the moment. Throughout the alien invasion, she depends on him absolutely, deferring to his expertise and judgment without fail. She is one of the few female characters, a character whose purpose seems to be to demonstrate the hero (Dr. Forrester)’s machismo and heroic attempts to save humanity.After crash landing the plane, she even falls asleep in his arms, forgetting for a moment about the aliens, and demonstrating her complete faith in his masculine and scientific abilities. When he is knocked unconscious by the collapsing farm house, she takes on the typically female role of nursing him back to health, waiting for his masculine decision making skills, rather than take on any responsibility herself.
Nagl (1983) notes that in science fiction, “a love story, although secondary to the plot [can be]... utilized both for emotional relief from the thrills and as a thread by which to hang the plot” (p. 265). In War of the Worlds, this type of emotional relief can be seem in the seemingly random domestic scene in which Sylvia and Dr. Forrester are stuck in an abandoned farm house and play out a relatively normal dinner, Sylvia completing her ‘wifely’ duties preparing food and talking about family, Forrester playing the strong figure. This scene provides an emotional intermission within the film, an opportunity to reflect on what has happened, while imagining the future of these two people whose lives have been so violently interrupted. She even tells the story of being lost and "praying for the one who loved me best to find me", setting up the climactic finale in which Forrester finds her in a church and they wait for destruction together. These types of scenes, the church scene, and the farm house scene all work together to inject reminders of the character's humanity compared to that of the aliens. They do this by using and creating myths about human characteristics that will cause the audience to identify with the human characters.
The character Sylvia has a few close encounters with the aliens, at one point even coming face to face with one of them. She is terrified and rants about how the aliens seem to “murder everything that moves”. Which brings up the issue, how or why is it that Sylvia survives these encounters? She is not the powerful scientist hero (as depicted by Dr. Forrester) and her primary purpose as a character is to provide him heroic opportunities to display his brilliance. But why is it that she is the character that seems to have the closest interaction with an alien being and yet survives? On the examination of the eye that Dr. Forrester brings back for scientific analysis, one of the scientists comments, “let’s see why they are so interested in you”, referring to Sylvia. The issue is never explicitly resolved, as the escape from Los Angeles takes precedence in the plot.
One explanation for the alien’s lack of interest and assault is her identification as a woman, and therefore an “unpredictable alien in a patriarchal world” (Mitchell, 2006, p. 120). Women have historical and culturally be seen as a threat to the status quo of male domination. Both Sylvia and the alien characters can be characterized as ‘alien’, defined as a “position [of] someone or something at the margins or on the outside, to indicate that they are, paradoxically both powerless and a threat” (Mitchell, 2006, p. 120). It is glaringly evident that Sylvia, as a woman does not have power, either to save herself or anyone else, but also a threat to the patriarchal order, especially with her educational background, independence and career. Thus, while the alien genuinely terrifies her, within the plot of the film she does not come to any physical harm by the alien, because of the social alignment of women as an “Other” similar to the alien “Other”. This is a very intriguing example of science fiction “shift[ing] the scope of the culturally intelligible, revealing the non-naturalness” of the human notion of status and power of females. (Mitchell, 2006, p. 116)
Science fiction has a role within current culture in exploring gender, culture, race, identity, authority and power, how they are manifest and experienced by humans by creating myths justifying human behavior. “Rather than attempting to posit ideal future worlds, science fiction can help us to grapple with some of the conundrums of our present world by working through their possible conclusions and outcomes” (p.125). War of the Worlds has influenced science fiction films since its release in 1953, as the classic story of alien invasion. Films such as Independence Day (1996) have reflected on many of the same issues, but with different myths and outcomes through the plot of “alien arrival/alien attack/ ineffective human counter-attack/alien defeat through the agency of a virus” (Pirro, 2011, p. 32). In the case of Independence Day, the lack of a religious intervention is blatant, as humanity creates their own virus to defeat the aliens, a computer virus further projecting humanity’s ability to save it’s self and not rely on divine intervention. Defining the enemy as “the Other”, with specific physical traits and motivation, intrinsically defines what it means to be human, for better or worse, especially in terms of power and morally justified violence, as seen in War of the Worlds.
Booker, M. K. (2006). Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
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Hughes, R. (2013). The Ends of the Earth: Nature, Narrative, and Identity in Dystopian Film. Critical survey., 25(2), 22–39.
Kelley-Romano, S. (2006). Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives. Communication Quarterly, 54(3), 383–406. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=22898096&site=ehost-live
Mitchell, K. (2006). Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body. Science Fiction Studies, 33(1), 109–128. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=19907611&site=ehost-live
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Pirro, R. (2011). Luftkrieg and alien invasion: Unacknowledged themes of German wartime suffering in the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day. European Journal of American Culture, 30(1), 19–32. doi:10.1386/ejac.30.1.19_1