Playing on Our Fears

In 'War of the Worlds,' Steven Spielberg uses 9/11 to ramp up the horror factor--not to explore the human response to terror.

In his new version of "War of the Worlds," filmmaker Steven Spielberg uses the memory of September 11, 2001, to boost the movie's power as both an alien-invasion parable and an exercise in horror for its own nerve-jangling sake. "Paranoia is what happens when you're afraid that something is coming at you right around the corner, but it never materializes," he told the Los Angeles Times during production, adding, "Our story starts with paranoia, which is very quickly realized."



It sure is--and that terror gained new currency with last week's horrific bombings in London.

Spielberg's fascination with making paranoia come true is especially revealing for a filmmaker who once stood as the reigning optimist of sci-fi cinema, with movies like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial" portraying outer space as a source of potential friends and benefactors. "9/11 set the tone," he said in that same L.A. Times interview, "and made it worth my time and the audience's time to see this. story treated in this way."

What bothers me more than the movie's paranoia is the xenophobia it revels in. This is common in science fiction, where all kind of slimy-clawed monsters have stood in for all kinds of enemies du jour, from communists to immigrants to you name it. In "War of the Worlds," fear and loathing of the Other is explicitly based on dread of an older, smarter culture that's eager to wipe out "real humans" as ruthlessly and callously as possible. Given the movie's 9/11 links, it's hard not to see Islamic militancy as the metaphoric foe.

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Moviegoers are debating Spielberg's decision to start the horrors in a New York City suburb. Some find this a legitimate mood-setting device, while others see it as tactless exploitation. I think it's some of both, but Spielberg seems far more interested in roiling up scary shocks than exploring the structures of contemporary fear.

As someone who lived a minute's walk from the Twin Towers when they were annihilated, I don't think drawing on 9/11 is unscrupulous in itself. Little has changed in American culture since then, despite the vaguely defined "war on terror" it provoked, and there's a chance that mass-media treatments, including camouflaged ones like this, will renew the urge to ponder the cataclysm's causes and implications. The worrisome aspect of Spielberg's approach is the dread of outsiders it also stirs up, on visceral levels that Hollywood is all too skilled at reaching.

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