War of the Worlds as Species Reversal

Still from War of the Worlds. (Paramount Pictures)

I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds at a movie theater in Lima, Peru. My dad and I had been mountaineering in the country for two weeks, and, if memory serves, we were waiting for our flight home when we decided to catch the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel.

My most recent viewing wasn’t quite as unique. I was sitting in my Connecticut house, watching the 2005 film on a cracked iPad screen. But when the credits rolled, I started thinking about something I remember astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson saying. He seems to have made the point a number of times over the years.

In his view, alien invasion movies are fundamentally a projection of our fear that extraterrestrials would treat us in the way we have treated lower-status humans throughout history. I recall Tyson adding they could also reflect our fears of being treated in the way we have treated animals, however I can’t find the quote.

I vaguely remember the astrophysicist in conversation with Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and being surprisingly receptive to an anti-speciesist message. So it wouldn’t be out of character, but perhaps I made the animal connection myself. Regardless, I think it’s accurate.

War of the Worlds and the book it’s based on compare the alien invasion to human domination of other humans and human domination of animals fairly explicitly. For instance, in the movie, Tim Robbins plays a man having a mental breakdown, named Harlan Ogilvy, who repeatedly describes the situation as an occupation.

I don’t think it’s an accident we learn early in the picture that Robbie Ferrier, played by Justin Chatwin, has a history paper due on the French occupation of Algiers. As many reviewers have noted, this seems to be a movie of its time, processing the September 11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq.

Similarly, the film makes the species reversal, in which humans are treated like animals, plain in a number of ways. As the narrator, Morgan Freeman compares humanity to tiny creatures under a microscope. Further along, Ogilvy says humans will be exterminated like maggots.

It’s not exactly clear what the aliens are doing with humans, but there are a couple of scenes in which the extraterrestrials appear to harvest people in some way, which could make humans akin to ‘food’ animals. In one sequence, for example, an alien tripod sucks the blood out of a person, before venting it out.

In another, Ray Ferrier, played by Tom Cruise, is trapped in a small cage with a large number of other humans on the undercarriage of a tripod. Eventually, the machine tries to swallow him whole and the group prevents this only through a coordinated effort. Ray brings down the tripod by stuffing grenades into its mouth-like opening.

While I haven’t read the novel, in learning about the movie, I came across a number of passages from the text that compare the alien invasion to colonialism or refer to humans’ changed place in the species hierarchy. If anything, these connections seem like they might be more pronounced in the book.

“Before we judge [the aliens] too harshly,”  the narrator says, “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races… Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Later on, the narrator laments a loss of status. “I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martian heel,” he says. “The fear and empire of man had passed away.”

Reviews of Spielberg’s film seem to have generally been positive. However, Roger Ebert, the preeminent critic of the era, was not impressed. His piece on the movie seemed disproportionately focused on the tripod design, which he thought was an old-fashioned and impractical.

The design was apparently faithful to original illustrations for the novel. Honestly, I found it interesting. I wonder if Ebert wasn’t holding Spielberg to an unfair standard. At one point, the critic compares a scene to one from the director’s own oeuvre, Jurassic Park, and finds the former lacking.

But most scenes in most movies aren’t going to stack up well against the 1993 title. Jurassic Park is a classic! Minority Report, which I haven’t seen for a while, is probably the better collaboration between Spielberg and Cruise, but War of the Worlds is good.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com.