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.

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.

The tragedies of 9/11 are evoked most vividly at the beginning of the film, when Tom Cruise's character heads for home in a New Jersey suburb like the kind in which many Sept.11 victims lived. The aliens attack from the sky, barely visible as they access the killing machines they buried on Earth eons ago--shades of sleeper cells. Shots of panicky crowds running for their lives continue the theme of random devastation. Later, part of the invasion is replayed on a journalist's video hookup, much as happened on television four years ago.

In its publicity, Paramount Pictures quotes a descendant of H.G. Wells, who wrote "The War of the Worlds" in 1898, saying the plot's premise seems especially relevant "each time there is a fear of an invasion" that shakes our sense of security. Historically, he's right. Britain was on edge about Germany when the novel was published. Orson Welles's radio adaptation--so realistic that many listeners fled their homes--aired in 1938, as world-war fears were escalating. Hollywood's first version debuted in 1953, amid uncertainties of the postwar period. And now we have Spielberg's take.

Tapping into our anxieties for horror-flick thrills
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  • In his New York Times review of Spielberg's movie, A.O. Scott divides alien-invasion fantasies into two categories. On one side are those like "War of the Worlds" as Wells and Welles envisioned it, where Martians serve as "allegorical crystallizations" of real threats; on the other side are eye-candy entertainments like "Men in Black" and "Independence Day," where aliens are "temporary diversions from our true fears."

    I think there's also a third category: stories that manifest actual anxieties, cloaking them in distortions and disguises less difficult to decode than those of the average dream. Spielberg's picture fits that category well, sometimes bringing its 9/11 subtext right into the open. "Is it the terrorists?" wails the hero's ten-year-old daughter as they first take flight from the monsters.

    Numerous pundits have already chastised Spielberg for using "unspeakable things just to add some extra spice to a sci-fi movie," as a New Jersey reviewer put it. Similar criticism was leveled at his Holocaust drama, "Schindler's List," which tackles the 20th century's most abominable crime via suspense-movie devices aimed more at stirring viewers' emotions than prompting thought about history and morality. I think melodramas like "Schindler's List" and "War of the Worlds" have legitimate value as reminders--if near-subliminal ones--of very real evils in the very real world. What's different in the new movie is its eagerness to churn up inchoate fears of an enemy that's mostly undefined except for its sheer genocidal otherness.

    In exploring the ethics of movies rooted in real-life horror, it's useful to compare films with 9/11 connections to the long history of movies about the Holocaust, especially those not interested in the "entertainment" angles that made "Schindler's List" controversial. These very different works raise similar philosophical questions in my mind: Can motion pictures capture the essence of events more vast and horrifying than anything encountered in the so-called normal world? And is it decent, or even morally permissible, to try?

    Implicitly addressing these questions, Claude Lanzmann uses no archival or "atrocity" footage in his nine-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah," suggesting that while the Holocaust must always be investigated and interpreted afresh, oral testimony does this more reliably than images, which may carry an inadvertent aesthetic power, especially when projected on the screen.

    The same goes for Holocaust filmmaker Marcel Ophuls, who feels audiences have become desensitized to overused atrocity images--they "don't get the job done anymore," he once told me--and who doesn't use narrators in films like "The Sorrow and the Pity" and "Hotel Terminus," since this might turn them into mere "editorials."

    Spielberg doesn't mind editorializing, but he's far more eager to entertain. I have defended "Schindler's List" as a worthwhile educational tool, given the alarming lack of Holocaust awareness among young people. Although it has far less artistic ambition, "War of the Worlds" also serves as an indirect reminder of a trauma we can't allow ourselves to repress or minimize.

    It's a sign of the times that while films about the Holocaust have tended toward increasingly rigorous approaches, commercial movies evoking 9/11 appear to be molded--so far, at least--by Hollywood's investment in spectacle and histrionics. This certainly goes for Spielberg's thinly veiled fable, which is often closer to the horror-flick genre than to science fiction in its more speculative, imaginative forms. If its hysterical, Other-hating vision has any value beyond roller-coaster thrills, it's because this is the closest popular culture has come to giving 9/11 the urgent attention it demands.

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