Wednesday, February 9, 2011

War of the Worlds, Total Recall... Oops, Were You Expecting a Clever Title?

Key themes: Historical sci-fi, radio, class systems, sci-fi fans as an “in-group”, search for truth

War of the Worlds

Transcript of Broadcast:

“Listeners fled, clogged phone lines seeking information, prayed, went into shock, and contemplated suicide rather than die at the Martians’ hands. The crowds that flocked New York City’s streets, said one observer, outdid even the chaotic scene that had accompanied the end of World War I.”

-- Bruce Lenthall, in an excerpt from “Radio’s America: The Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture” (

Listening to this recording now, more than 70 years after the original broadcast, it’s difficult to imagine how it fooled so many people. After all, there are disclaimers at the beginning, middle, and end, and, furthermore, several parts of the broadcast contradict the illusion of a live broadcast (such as when Pierson mentions travelling for days). In an attempt to understand, I tried to apply some context.

In 1938, communication in general was much more limited—people couldn’t flip on the news or run a quick Google search to confirm what they were hearing. Also, it seems to me that radio itself can be an ambiguous medium: Listeners can’t use visual cues to gauge the severity of a situation, and there is no quick and easy way to check if a program is being aired on a news vs. an entertainment station, or, in fact, what program is running. The parts of the broadcast modeled after actual public announcements do sound quite authentic—for example, the transcript I’ve linked to above notes that the part of the Secretary of the Interior mirrored the style (including some phrasing) of speeches delivered by FDR, who was known to give radio broadcasts relatively frequently. This would have added to the illusion of authority.

In order to gain some additional perspective, I asked my grandfather (who was nine in 1938, and living in New Jersey) what he remembered about the broadcast. Although the fact that he remembered that particular night at all is a testament to its impact, I was a little disappointed when he admitted that he and his brothers had not been taken in. He did, however, remember people jumping into cars in an attempt to get away, and his own mother running into the room, demanding to know what was going on. When I asked him what he thought it was that fooled so many people, he sort of shrugged, and suggested that people simply didn’t stick around long enough to hear the disclaimers, or to properly absorb the contradictions in the timeline.

The essay that I cited above validates this theory, but adds its own, darker interpretation about the mindset that allowed for such widespread panic. Lenthall writes:

As radio brought an expanding, impersonal public sphere home to Americans, they encountered a world in which even culture and communication might be centralized and standardized. The modern culture that radio represented threatened to overpower individuals, leaving them with little control either in their own lives or in the wider world. As public intellectuals of the day lamented, that culture might be as menacing as Welles’s Martians.

While having this “public sphere” directly projected into our own homes might seem commonplace to us, it does not seem a stretch to think that the attitude of excitement and interest we associate with the rise of radio might have been tempered by a sense of confused powerlessness and even isolation, particularly coming at the heels of years of Depression.

Total Recall

I’m not normally a big fan of action-oriented sci-fi movies (or of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s…. well, I’ll be generous and call it “acting”), but several aspects of this movie caught my interest. First of all, I found the presentation of class systems to be telling. On Earth, although “Doug” seemed to work as a day laborer, he was wealthy enough to have a luxurious flat and to pay for a fancy vacation. On the other hand, the lower classes on Mars seemed barely able to survive. While a large part of this can be attributed to the regime in power on Mars, it also seemed to echo a theme I’ve seen before in science fiction: the idea that off-world colonies will regress, culturally, compared to Earth, much in the way that historical colonies have been seen as immature younger cousins of the “original”.

Speaking of common themes in science fiction, I also noticed some obvious similarities between this movie and other sci-fi movies I’ve seen. I’m not referring to overarching themes that define the genre, but rather to subtle nods. There was the pill that allowed the main character to choose between a dream life in reality (The Matrix). “The Last Resort” bore a definite resemblance to a similar place of ill-repute in Star Wars, complete with the introduction-via-advances-from-the-triple-breasted-prostitute trick (and the Google search I tried to do to confirm that might rank on the top ten awkward internet moments of my life). A quick online search reveals a couple of cameos by well-known science fiction actors. This tendency of science fiction to borrow from and make constant allusions to itself seems to me to create a sort of media sub-culture that I think we saw a bit of in class last week. It both ties lovers of the genre closer to together and, in some instances, risks ostracizing the casual fan—a trade-off that some works seem more willing to accept than others.

Finally (and I apologize so much for the length of this), I was surprised at the twist at the end of the movie. Despite the fact that a major theme throughout the film seemed to be the importance of finding the truth, in the end the “right” choice was not the “true” choice: Quaid chose to remain with his current identity, the created personality, rather than revert to Hauser.


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