H. G. Wells was a Darwinian but he wasn’t smug about it. His novel War of the Worlds portrays humankind’s panic at discovering it is not at the top of nature’s hierarchy. Martians invade earth and quickly, almost casually, brush aside all our defenses. Perched on ambulatory tripods that emit heat-rays and poisonous gas, these octopus-like creatures have a thing or two to teach Edwardian England about imperialism. But while the British entertained hopes of educating subdued Indians and Africans into becoming reasonable facsimiles of the English, the Martians have no such idealism; they simply covet our land, our atmosphere, and our nutritious blood. Wells writes compassionately of the men and women caught up in the chaos but, as a scientist manqué, he can’t help being fascinated by the superior technology of the invaders. In the midst of chaos and despite his own hungry wretchedness, the novel’s narrator maintains a willingness to see matters from the Martian point of view, and this gives the book a perdurable creepiness.

There is no such “objectivity” in Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation. He has used the Wells classic the way Jonathan Demme used The Manchurian Candidate: to create a hyperbolic vision of post-9/11 America. Wells’s theme was the vastness of the universe smacking aside the provinciality of human concerns. Spielberg’s theme is terror itself, the terror that comes from being in the midst of an upheaval in which any move you make might get you killed. The flawed but decent dock-worker hero (Tom Cruise) doesn’t speculate about extraterrestrial anatomy; he merely wants to get himself and his children out of harm’s way. Alas, the entire world has become Harm’s Way and only dumb luck can save him. He can run fast but faster runners ahead of him get zapped by the heat ray. Get on the ferry? But there’s a whirlpool ahead. So stay off the ferry? But the tripods are coming! Accept the offer of shelter in a basement with a kindly seeming gent? But the fellow turns out to be a crypto-paramilitary madman. The world has turned into a nightmare of fortuitousness.

For C. S. Lewis, the real magic of Wells’s novel lay in “the idea of being attacked by something utterly ‘outside’....If the Martian invaders are merely dangerous—if we once become mainly concerned with the fact that they can kill us—why, then a burglar or a bacillus can do as much...extra-terrestrial is the key word of the whole story. And in the later horrors, excellently as they are done, we lose the feeling of it.” Thirty years ago, the young Spielberg, director of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, might have shared Lewis’s feelings. But the middle-aged director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan is a very different sort of filmmaker. He has become more humane and more interested in the mundane, less empathetic with children (he here uses the freakishly gnome-like child Dakota Fanning as a scream machine) and more sympathetic toward care-laden adults.

Extraterrestrialness no longer turns him on. The invaders (they can’t be Martians for obvious reasons) seem strictly functional here as the bringers of death and chaos. Spielberg doesn’t show the sort of fascination with their physical otherness that was part of the charm of his E.T. or of the ghastliness of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Nor, despite its thunderousness, is the initial attack remarkable. We might be watching Independence Day or even non-science-fiction disaster fare like Twister. The director and his special-effects wizards fill our eyes and deafen our ears about as well as Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor) or Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) could, but this is a dull competence and disappointing coming from such an original talent. It’s as if George Gershwin aspired to be Marvin Hamlisch or Lucille Ball strove to emulate Roseanne Barr.

Since Spielberg wanted to modernize and Americanize the story, his scriptwriters, Josh Friedman and David Koepp, had to update the science, too. Since the capsules nowadays couldn’t get past our missile-warning systems, the scenarists have it that the war machine tripods were buried under the earth’s crust millions of years ago before humans existed, and now they crash upwards at the techno-instigation of the aliens, who then transport themselves down to the tripods via electric currents. Well, that’s pretty cool, but how did the aliens know there would be missile warning systems to be avoided millions of years after their first arrival? And, since we hear that all the major cities—New York, Tokyo, Paris—are under attack, how did the creatures know where New York, Tokyo, etc. would be?

In later scenes, the very ones that C. S. Lewis considered too mundane, Spielberg creates a vision of Northeastern America reduced to a sort of mid-1990s Bosnia. The long sequence in the basement with the paramilitary maniac, complexly rendered by Tim Robbins as part gentle giant and part paranoid monster, is a little masterpiece in itself, full of harrowing episodes. In one, the invaders, their hearing apparently impaired on earth, try to suss out the humans in the basement. Robbins wants to use his gun but Cruise, knowing that a single shot will betray their whereabouts, silently pleads, then struggles with his erstwhile rescuer, while Cruise’s daughter is so spellbound by the approach of the aliens that she doesn’t notice the combat of the adults. It’s a balletic scene in which the steady prowling of the aliens is staged in counterpoint to the scurrying and scuffling of the men and the transfixed fascination of the girl, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s camera floating and darting between the stalkers and the stalked.

Later, Spielberg’s flair for magic and monstrousness momentarily revives when the aliens send a mechanical detector into the basement. This sensor-serpent with its long, synthetic neck and vacuum-cleaner head is both a neat piece of technology and Fafnir the Worm of Norse mythology. Simultaneously looking forward and feeling backward is one of the great things science fiction can do. If Steven Spielberg can do it only intermittently in his latest movie, it may be because his imagination went to too many grim places while making Schindler’s List and Private Ryan, and now it’s difficult for him to recover the youthful mischief of Jaws and E.T. Imaginatively speaking, he can’t go home again.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved (by children) and reviled (by critics and librarians) book, is quirky, well acted, often hilarious, and visually sumptuous, but don’t go to it expecting sweetness in anything except the title. Dahl and Burton understand that kids can hate. Bullies, nerds, fatsoes, spoiled rich kids, overachievers—all can become objects of hatred for the child who considers himself both normal and victimized (and most children consider themselves victims since they can’t control their own lives). Dahl’s novels are lyrical tales of vengeance and/or self-defense. If Charlie has aroused keener ire among adult readers than the other Dahls, it may be because it is so methodical, so orderly in its punitiveness. Furthermore, unlike, say, The Witches or Matilda, the revenge is directed almost exclusively against other children, and mostly for what they are rather than for some specific harm they have done the hero.

Five children are brought to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: Augustus Gloop (gluttony), Veruca Salt (greed), Mike Teavee (techno-nerdiness), Violet Beauregarde (pride), and Charlie Bucket (plain decency). Invited to explore the factory, which is really a garden of temptations, the first four kids succumb to their own bad characters and are picked off one by one, in garish ways right before the eyes of their horrified parents, while Charlie survives and gets rewarded for his decency. Charlie needn’t fight back against his sneering, coddled companions; the sinister and witty Wonka does it for him, unasked. Though the brats are finally allowed to survive, too, they have been soundly punished and, in some cases, reconfigured. Burton’s flair for the grotesque clarifies the essence of the book: it is a horror story with a safety net. Surely it’s no accident that, in the flashback to Wonka’s youth, Christopher Lee, Count Dracula himself, plays his lowering dentist of a father, and the retainer he uses to straighten his son’s teeth looks like Hannibal Lecter’s bite-prohibiting headgear in The Silence of the Lambs. As Johnny Depp plays him (brilliantly), Wonka is more psychotic than elfish. He has acid reflux whenever he says the word parents, fires all his employees when only one has betrayed his recipes to competitors, and offers Charlie the chocolate fortune only if the lad disowns his own family. Our hero does the right thing, of course, but the considerable artistry of this film—its Dickensian performances, digital wizardry, Philippe Rousselot’s icily beautiful cinematography, Danny Elfman’s clever mimicry of different kinds of rock ’n’ roll—is devoted not to placing us inside Charlie’s head and letting us view the marvels through his eyes, but to letting us feast on Wonka’s oddities, henchmen (the grim-faced and not-at-all endearing Oompa Loompas), and inventions (which turn into instruments of torture). Like Wonka, the movie is a piece of twisted genius. I rejoice in a children’s film that avoids gooeyness, but if The Fantastic Four is the box-office hit of the summer, it may be because kids nowadays prefer straightforward, dumb heroics. If I’m right about that, I’d like to turn Willy Wonka loose on an entire generation.

Published in the 2005-08-12 issue: View Contents
Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.
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