Spielberg invades Bayonne

The Steven Spielberg Book of the Dead

Several key areas to look for in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of War of the World center on the nobility of the invading aliens and - as usual - the ability of children to better understand and communicate with other worlds.

In the H.G. Wells novel, the death of an alien becomes a huge and significant event - having little to do with their actual size.

In the 1953 movie, partly in reaction to the arrogance of human kind after acquiring the key to nuclear technology, aliens were indestructible by ordinary means - even the use of an atomic bomb.

This was not the case in Wells, whose main character actually witnessed the death of once such creature at the hands of artillery.

With Spielberg gloaming the novel for images previously not exploiting such as the use of weapons like Black Smoke and the environmental catastrophe called red weed, this death of an alien looms large, especially as a means of characterizing the aliens as some form of superior beings.

In a scene that has echoes of Homer's Iliad, the Alien stride out into the battlefield to recover their former comrade, carrying his body back to their haven. While the Aliens made eek savage slaughter on inferior humans, they seem to respect and mourn their own dying.

"I saw them dimly, colossal figures of gray, magnified by the mist," the main character said in Wells' book. "They had passed by me, and two were stooping over the frothing, tumultuous ruins of their comrade I have a dim memory of the foot of a Martian coming down within a score of yards of my head, driving straight into the loose gravel, whirling it this way and that, and lifting again, of a long suspense and then of the other four carrying the debris of their comrade between them, now clear and then presently faint through the veil of smoke, receding interminable, as it seemed to me, across a vast space of river and meadow."

How a species treats its death is often the thing that separates animal from civilized being. This is not a new theme to Spielberg's work, and if he is perusing the pages of Wells' book, he may well find this theme again suited to a movie so filled with outrageous slaughter.

Since he has expressed sympathies for aliens in past films, this show of reverence for a deceased comrade may well be suited for giving the aliens a sense of "humanity" needed to show they are not merely some unthinking force of nature, or some cruel aspect of evil, but a species driven to conquest by threat to their own existence back on Mars.

Part of Wells book focused on this aspect of intelligence and civilization, showing how aliens might treat our best and brightest cultures with the same contempt Colonial powers of the 1890s were treating Africans and Native American Indians.

With death such a huge part of his film, Spielberg must somehow address this issue again, and a look back at how he handled it in one film, Poltergeist, may provide us with clues as to how he will address it in his latest creation.

My wife clued me into one of the basic theme of Poltergeist since I have made her suffer through each viewing of that handful of Spielberg films we own.

She kept thinking of the dead Canary early in the movie and its foreshadowing of what was to follow.

Spielberg frequently gives clues like these, sometimes offering keys to a plot devise he intends to use later - such as the girl's ability with computers in Jurassic Park and ET's lifting of the bicycle in a symbolic flight across the night sky and full moon.

The death of the canary in Poltergeist becomes a symbolic representation of the movie, a moral reference point against which the rest of the characters are judged and a foreshadowing of events that would follow.

The mother of the movie finds the girl's canary dead in its cage. In an homage to Hitchcock's birds showing the shadow of the bird as she attempts to flush it, the mother is halted by the girl, who instructs her in the proper way to treat the dead and walks her through the appropriate rituals of death - as poignant as any of those found in Ancient Egypt. First, you must have a cigar box. Then in with the bird, you must put a little blanket in case the bird gets cold, a picture of the family in case the bird gets lonely, and a lollypop in case the bird is struck with hunger.

The girl - who is to become the target of spirits beyond the grave - is telling people there is an afterlife, and this power - her life force - may be the reason why she is so attractive to the trapped spirits in the house.

While she halts the dog from digging up the box after it has been buried in the yard (an animal doesn't know better, but humans should), she does not see the bulldozer that rips up the box and digs up the lawn in preparation for installing a swimming pool. This, too, is a foreshadowing of things to come, and perhaps the spark that forces the spirits to act as their remains are stirred up from beneath the house - remains that had been part of a cemetery which the evil developer had covered over without reverence. In the rain later, the bones would pop up out of the water in a procession of outrage that flashes back to this canary and the needed rituals humanity must maintain.

Considering the massive symbolism which Wells has invested in his book, and the use of such symbolism in all of Spielberg's films, we must expect to find similar parallel passages the new film, testing what it means to be civilized. Indeed, when push comes to shove in scenes already filmed (and clearly reflecting the passages Wells wrote in his book), when pushed to the edge, when existence is threatened, the mob running from the aliens resort to the same tactics as the aliens in their need to survive. In fact, the mob may in some sense lack even the most basic human compassion the aliens show for their own.

But how Spielberg will represent this symbolically in the earliest portions of the movie and will the children become the vehicle for human salvation as they had in past Spielberg movies remain richly anticipated mysteries that can only be resolved with the opening of the movie on June 29.

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