It was in 1980 that Ronald Reagan said that it was morning in America and put an optimistic populism on the political agenda. Two years later, lifelong Democrat Spielberg made ET and provided Reagan with an exemplary cultural text in which the values of small town America and the cosmos are at one. A generation later, Spielberg ends a War of the Worlds in which we have watched death on an epic scale with a close-up on a dead hand slithering down from inside one of the alien machines that have proved so lethal. The iconography is clear – we've been dealing with kissing cousins of ET and it must be midnight in America.
In 1898, HG Wells published his story of London being overrun by Martians and provided a prescient vision of the total war that was to overwhelm Europe within two decades. The book witnesses the breakdown of an ordered social world in the face of the application of technologically refined violence. The world that Spielberg portrays has broken down long before the Martians arrive. Tom Cruise lives in a bachelor apartment of unmade beds and a foodless kitchen and works sealed off from any real contact with the world. True, his pregnant ex-wife and her new husband represent the American dream but they disappear at the beginning, having deposited Cruise's two kids for the weekend, and reappear only for the most unconvincing of happy endings.
Spielberg has always been good at unhappy families – think of Richard Dreyfuss going mad at the beginning of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but he really outdoes himself in this film. Cruise's children are advertisements to avoid parenthood. The elder, Robbie, is an average adolescent nightmare – crude, rude and stealing his father's car before the movie is five minutes old. The younger, Rachel, is a precocious brat already deep in therapy and always ready to scream at some inconvenient moment. The beginning of the film as Cruise tries to play Happy Families is classically dysfunctional – a theme that culminates later in the plot with a glorious scene when both children refuse the peanut butter sandwiches that their father has prepared for them.
By then the movie is under way as the aliens arrive to pick up – a departure from Wells – the machines that they have buried deep in the earth some time before Homo sapiens came down from the trees. The scenes where they erupt out of the ground show that Spielberg has lost none of his ability to frame a scene, particularly if it is a scene of paranoia. Arguably, Spielberg's finest movie was his first – the made for TV Duel, in which the frame for the majority of the film was provided by the driver's rearview mirror in which the mysterious, murderous lorry always reappeared. There is no single device as compelling, but the film does provide a series of energised paranoid images as the alien tripods stalk the world wasting anything in their path.
What is striking about the world in which Cruise and his two children go on the run is that it displays no social cohesion whatsoever. From the minute they start driving, Cruise is as terrified of his fellow humans as he is of the aliens. One of the the movie's narrative climaxes – Cruise's murder of the rambling, lunatic Tim Robbins, who has offered him and his daughter shelter – is so terrifying that we, like his innocent daughter, are not allowed to see it. Not that we have any innocence to lose. Rarely can a film have enjoyed a sexual symbolism so lurid. The aliens appear to be equipped with huge prehensile penises, which come with ready attached cameras that can seek out victims in the most secure of hideouts. Once the victims have been caught they are transferred to baskets inside the pods which top the aliens' three-legged structure – faithfully updated from Byron Haskins' 1953 version. From the baskets they are fed to what looks like the largest and most aggressive vagina in the history of the planet. Cruise disappears into this alarming embrace clutching two hand grenades and does the business to such effect that he notches up a rare human kill.
Like Wells's novel the film is relatively plotless – the aliens arrive, they kill a lot of people and damage a lot of real estate and then succumb to the bacteria of Planet Earth but whereas Wells's subject-matter is the disintegration of a functioning society, Spielberg paints a picture of a society both hopeless and helpless – already at the end of its tether. This is nowhere more apparent than in its treatment of guns, that elixir of the American imagination. When Cruise goes on the run with his children, ostensibly to link up with their mother, great attention is paid to the gun that he takes with him. In fact, however, this gun, like the shotgun Robbins clings to like a drowning man and like the guns that the military deploy to no effect, is absolutely useless. The film shows us a world in which significant action is impossible and where we are at the mercy of alien and incomprehensible terror. The film's final words, in a voiceover from Morgan Freeman doubling for God, tell us that man has not lived or died in vain. This is because it is our lives and deaths which have produced the bacteria that have seen off the baddies. Man cannot succeed at either the individual or the social level but his biology redeems him.
It will be interesting to see whether this dark and dismal tale, which a younger Spielberg would not have touched with a bargepole, will perform well at the box office. As always, Spielberg is a master of spectacle and the aliens' eruption from the earth and the capsizing of the boat on which Cruise and children are trying to escape are by themselves worth the price of the ticket. Cruise, too, turns in an effective performance from his narrow range until the embarrassing and silly end. But the message of the film is despair and nothing suggests that modern audiences want to go to the cinema to feel bad. It is interesting to note that already this summer we have had George Lucas tell us a story of virtuous republic transformed to evil empire, now Spielberg gives us a movie which could be described as Operation Shock and Awe from the point of view of an Iraqi. It will never be glad confident morning again.
The writer is professor of English at the University of Exeter, and edits 'Critical Quarterly'