Back to the No Future

The War of the Worlds and the evolution of doomsday

Independence Dayscared the hell out of me for all the wrong reasons. As I watched Los Angeles blow up and New York blow up and the freaking White House blow up, I knew I was supposed to think it was all really cool. The moviegoers around me damn near gave a standing ovation to the famous scene where those cars full of New York evacuees are blasted right off the road and one of the cars goes spiraling through the air and lands with a crunch on Harvey Fierstein's head. But instead of enjoying the carnage, I found myself sinking ever deeper into despair, thinking about all those poor people on the 405 dying in agony, about all those New Yorkers being flash-fried, about what it would do to this country if the White House were actually destroyed. The people in the film seemed to be only mildly put out by the arrival of the apocalypse; they were having almost as much fun as the people in the theater around me. Sure, there were scattered scenes of background players crying and huddled in prayer, but what you remembered was Will Smith trading lame quips with Jeff Goldblum and the unpersuasive, rally-the-troops rah-rah speeches the president was making whenever he wasn't strapping on a flight helmet and soaring into combat against the alien invaders. Yahoo! It was the end of the world as we knew it . . . and it seemed like everybody felt fine.

But me.

It occurred to me then that America was a dangerously smug and complacent country. The Cold War was over, and seemingly intelligent people were seriously talking about "the end of history," the idea being that we Americans had kicked the ass of everybody who might possibly challenge us, so it would be smooth sailing from there on in. Well, it didn't quite work out that way, did it?

Independence Day was a movie made by and for people who had precious little idea of what the apocalypse would really feel like. But just a few years later, we all had a much better idea of how we'd really react to the end of the world. When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we had no way of knowing what was coming next or just how bad this was going to get. Were nukes next? What about a biological attack? Were New York and LA going to go boom? Were we going to see the White House blow up on TV?

Nobody was throwing quips around then, although after he'd been sufficiently coached by his handlers, our leader did eventually get around to some unpersuasive, rally-the-troops rah-rah speeches. A couple of years later, he even strapped on a flight helmet and strutted around the deck of an aircraft carrier, declaring the "mission accomplished." If we'd thought Bill Pullman's performance as the commander in chief was unpersuasive, we hadn't seen anything yet.

Independence Day stole shamelessly from the alien-invasion pictures of the '50s, especially from the granddaddy of them all, The War of the Worlds. But The War of the Worldswas made not so long after Hiroshima, at a time when Americans wore a self-satisfied smile in their public lives but behind closed doors trembled at the thought of how close civilization had come to the precipice, and everybody—pinko and McCarthy-ite alike—knew in their hearts that we were one bad day away from blowing up the whole damn works. Naturally, the differences between this picture and Independence Day are profound.

In both Independence Day and The War of the Worlds, America's military responds to the alien invasion by throwing everything they have at it, all the king's horses and all the king's men, but it's to no avail. In Independence Day, Goldblum and Smith eventually save the Earth with some fancy flying and some extremely sketchy computer jiggery-piggery. We humans are clever, we are brave, we make noble sacrifices, and humanity lives to fight another day. Go us. Had Sept. 11 not happened, we probably would have seen a sequel by now—ID4 2: The Aliens Blow Up Everything They Didn't Blow Up Last Time.In War, humanity goes down fighting, but eventually we do go down. (Pardon me if I'm spoiling anything, but this movie is 51 years old.) We are not saved by our cleverness or our bravery or our noble sacrifices. We lose big, and when things finally do turn around for us, we have absolutely nothing to do with it. It is blind luck or, if you swing that way, perhaps the hand of the Almighty.

The War of the Worlds is a reminder that no matter how badass we humans may think we are, at any moment, something can fly down out of the sky and smash us to bits, and we will never see that sucker coming. In the end, none of us are diddlysquat next to a damn virus. Sure, Independence Day had more than 40 years of advances in special-effects technology on its side, but in almost every other respect, it now seems like more of a historical curio than The War of the Worlds. We may snigger at the wires holding up the Martian war machines or the sometimes-clunky dialogue . . . but the film can still send a genuine chill down your spine and at times it has a strange, tragic beauty. When the next big boom comes, we can only hope that luck and the Almighty are on our side. The War of the Worlds screens this Saturday with a deluxe Shock Theater presentation featuring a digital print, retro snack-bar clips and cartoons, a real Martian war machine in the lobby (don't get too close to that death ray!), and a special appearance by one of the film's stars, Ann Robinson. Shock Theater presents The War of the Worlds at the Cypress Family Twin, 9823 Walker St., Cypress, (714) 828-1660. Sat., 7 p.m. $10.
 
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