Thursday, June 30, 2005

Star Wars, War of the Worlds, and our Humanity

One of the great pleasures of a vacation is time to do some of the things that usually get squeezed out of the schedule when working -- and going to the movies is one of those delights. Just before leaving for England I saw the latest Star Wars blockbuster, and today we took in a matinee performance of "War of the Worlds," Spielberg's remake of the classic sci-fi story by H. G. Wells -- hoping that it might hurry our granddaughter into the light of day.

This last of the "Star Wars" pieces was better than its two predecessors, although my complaint was that they went on a little too long showing off just how clever they were with special effects. As is usually the case with a Spielberg production, the visual effects of "War of the Worlds" were brilliant, but alas the subtleties of Wells's story were missing. I enjoyed it, and there were times when it got my adrenalin pumping nicely, but as is so often the case with a an over-hyped production, it promised far more than it was ever able to deliver.

What you have got in the last paragraph I wrote is neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down on either of these movies, something more of a neutral judgement. Seeing these movies wouldn't be right up the top of my priority list of summer activities unless you are looking for somewhere cool to beat the heat, or (as here in England) avoid the showers.

As I sat this afternoon mulling over these two films, I came up with a commonality that intrigued me -- each in its own way is about the superiority of the human being, even in our weaknesses, over other ways there might be of existing. In "Star Wars" we are treated to Anakin Skywalker being transformed from a loving husband and loyal Jedi knight into the cyber-being Darth Vader, the Emperor's loyal lieutenant. In "War of the Worlds," the story is more about alien invaders who are felled by their immunity to the various bacteria and tiny organisms that are part and parcel of life on this planet.

In the former we watch a warm caring human lose his humanity and become a part-machine monster, in the latter we see humans, seemingly out-gunned and out-powered by these ghastly creatures in their tripod-legged war machines eventually beaten by the kind of germs that batter you and me every day. Coming from different directions, each movie is saying something affirmative about humanity while minimizing the alternatives.

Darth Vader seems so much stronger, so much more commanding when he ceases to be Skywalker, but actually he is diminished. All the characteristics that have made us delight in him, especially his love for his wife in her pregnancy, have been wiped from his character and something far less attractive has taken their place. When the Dark Side takes control of a being, and when he is so damaged that he needs to be rebuilt in a cross between a laboratory and an operating room, the outcome is not something greater but something far less. In a way we are being warned.

In Spielberg's work, from the moment that the aliens with their moving war platforms break from the ground in the New Jersey suburbs of New York, we are rooting for the humans not for the invaders. The director does all in his power to affirm their weakness when compared to the might of their enemy, and also how desirable it is that the human race is saved. Indeed, it is the flaws that make up their humanity that is so endearing -- as an aside, this is just about the first Tom Cruise movie I can remember seeing in which the man actually breaks down and cries.

The question that I have found myself turning over is if we so much appreciate all that it is that makes us human -- and weak humans at that -- then why is our culture so ambivalent about this? I want a long life, but I don't wish to live for ever, and I certainly have no desire that my body or brain should be enhanced, yet in a society that is confused about what comes next, we are constantly being prodded to want something like this.

I have believed for a long time that science fiction is often the very best "pre-evangelism" because it forces people to ask questions about themselves, their origins, and their destinies, that they might not have been willing to look squarely in the face until this point.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Hi Richard - great blog, I was pointed here by Graeme Codrington, I am a regular reader of his TT.biz blog.

We have kicked off a young adults blog, called "idle banter", it would be wonderful if you could pop in from time to time to comment (www.idlebanter.blogspot.com)