'E.T.' Turns Invader in 'War of the Worlds'

Steven Spielberg (search), once the self-named "ambassador for alienkind" who vowed never to make a movie about evil, invading aliens, says he's convinced that today's moviegoers have outgrown cutesy "E.T."-like creatures and are eager for a "War of the Worlds." (search)

"It seemed like the time was right for me as a filmmaker to let the audience experience an alien that is a little less pleasant than E.T.," Spielberg told a press conference at the movie's world premiere in Japan.

"Today, in the shadow of 9/11, I think the film has found a place in society," he said.

Spielberg also discussed how "War of the Worlds," which opens Wednesday, always seems to appear during times of international crisis: the radio version played upon fears of Nazi Germany; the first movie version of the story came out at the height of the Cold War; and today's film hits theaters amid the specter of terrorism.

In each form, the aliens can be seen to represent a new enemy.

"All occurred at a time of great unease in the world," Spielberg said.

The new movie, based on H.G. Wells' (search) classic 1898 book about a Martian invasion of Earth, does seem to fit well with tumultuous times of uncertainty and war.

"The aliens are seen to be entirely evil," said William Luhr, professor of English and film at Saint Peter's College in New Jersey. "The approach becomes that you must destroy the alien creatures, it's the only way to deal with them," he added, drawing a parallel to the War on Terror.

Wells' novel, seen as an indictment of the colonialism of the late 1800s and a prediction of the horrors of the world wars to come, became infamous in 1938 when Orson Welles (search) put together a radio broadcast of the story.

Many Americans thought the radio show was broadcasting the details of a genuine alien invasion, and began evacuating in a panic. Scores were treated for shock and hysteria, while thousands more flooded newspapers, radio stations and government offices with phone calls.

"He [Welles] wanted to structure it as a radio broadcast," Luhr said. "It touched upon fears at the time of death from above; air power had become a dominant threat and there were fears of a Nazi air attack."

With the release of the original film version of the story in 1953, the alien forces had evolved to represent "one of the cinematic themes of the Cold War — we are being invaded by forces thinly veiled as representations of the communists," said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall.

The film "ends with one of the survivors of the attack saying, 'keep watching the sky, stay vigilant against another attack,'" he said. "That's the message of '50s Cold War cinema, almost a kind of propaganda saying we have to be on guard."

The representation of outer-space raiders as the threat du jour was shaped throughout the '50s.

"The Thing" (search), in 1951, told the story of scientists digging up a spaceship buried in the Arctic ice and the blood-sucking creature that emerges and tries to destroy humanity.

"Godzilla" (search), in 1954, showed the people of Japan confronted by the monstrous result of American nuclear experiments; "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (search), in 1956, depicted the arrival of alien pods that seek to subjugate the world by creating duplicates of themselves.

Alien movies since that time have developed to offer two opposing portrayals of visitors from outer space: benign explorers and vicious invaders.

Luhr said George Lucas' "Star Wars" (search) in 1977 first toyed with the idea of friendly helpful aliens such as Chewbacca while still depicting many extraterrestrials as frightening monsters.

Spielberg refined the idea of the benevolent intergalactic visitor in the '80s with "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (search) and "E.T." (search)

"At this point in the '80s you end up with two distinct paths: benign visitors and malicious aliens. The best recent example of the later approach would be the 'Alien' (search) movie in the '70s and its sequels," Luhr said.

The alien monsters of Spielberg's new "War of the Worlds" take on a whole new significance in a world filled with new fears after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing war in their aftermath.

Actor Tim Robbins' line — "they've been planning this for a million years" — and the movie's slogan "they're already here" show how much the story's themes have evolved to suit the uncertainties of a world gripped by fears of a sudden terror attack.

In the '50s "they who were already here would have been communists, that was one of J. Edgar Hoover's main theories," Luhr said. "Now, after 9/11, the people who flew those planes into the World Trade Center were already inside the country, they were already here."

Alien Arrivals: Good vs. Bad

With the "ambassador for alienkind" turning against representations of kindly, cuddly alien encounters, the question must be asked: Would intergalactic arrivals most likely take the form of benevolent good Samaritans, or a dark army of assailants?

Spielberg himself has said he believes the most likely scenario would be a compassionate "meeting of the minds."

"I have to certainly believe what my heart tells me," he told The Associated Press. "That the first time there is a meeting of the minds between extraterrestrials and human beings, it's going to be friendly."

Spielberg said movies portraying malevolent aliens say more about people than about extraterrestrials.

"We tend to project our own human aggression into outer space," he told the AP. "It doesn't necessarily mean there is aggression out there."

Movie fans seem split on what interpretation of alien visitors they prefer on the big screen. Some say they prefer the mystery of curious, well-intentioned guests from another world.

"I think I like the mystery of the aliens best in Spielberg's other movies like 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,'" (search) said Eric Zuckerman, who has a bit part in "War of the Worlds" as the "doomsday guy." "Where you don't know exactly what the aliens want, and you're scared of them, but you're also kind of intrigued."

However, many sci-fi fans strongly prefer alien encounters of the gooey, tentacled, malicious persuasion.

"I prefer alien monsters because they're scary," said Matthew Hancock, a New York City-based theater director. "In real life, I believe if an alien came here, he'd probably want to mess with us."

Despite the tone of his latest work, Spielberg strongly disagrees, telling the AP he believes any extraterrestrial race that has developed the technology to travel across the galaxy would have to come with peaceful intentions.

"I can't believe anybody would travel such vast distances bent on destruction," he said. "I believe anybody who would travel such vast distances are curious explorers, not conquerors. Carrying weapons a 100,000 light-years is quite a schlep. I believe it's easier to travel 100,000 light-years with their versions of the Bible."

Spielberg's biggest challenge may have been avoiding the depiction of one-dimensional, cartoonish evil alien creatures in his new film.

"If the film is sophisticated in any way, it will have to go to the classic horror theme: 'We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us.' It's not so easy to pinpoint the monster; the monster could be us," Sharrett said.

It will also have to make audiences think, he added.

"I think in Spielberg there's a tendency for less than meets the eye," he said. "If he wants to make a movie that's topical — with what's going on in the world — how much it challenges the audience to confront the idea of the evil other, the evil monster, is what the real test of the movie's quality will be."