When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,
and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?”
Steven Spielberg taught us in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to look up with anticipation, not fear, that the skies were friendly skies. That was 1977. Now, almost 30 years later in his adaptation of H.G. Well’s sci-fi novel, the skies—and the earth below—are anything but friendly. Apocalyptic scenes—truly breathtaking special effects on the big screen—tumble forth, each one filled with a menace that threatens the lives of our hero and his two children and thousands of others. Although not divinely inspired, the terrifying events in which hundreds of lives are snuffed out in a minute might well prompt one to echo the Scriptural question, “Who can stand before it?”
Like the central character of CE3, Roy Neary, Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier is an ordinary working guy, operating a huge crane on a New York City dock. For some time he has been separated from his wife Mary Ann (Miranda Otto), who aspires to higher things than a life revolving around a six-pack and televised sports. He has so neglected his young daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and teenaged son Robbie (Justin Chatwin) that their mother has to force the two to spend the weekend with him. The sight of his sloppy apartment and lack of food in the refrigerator disgusts her, proving once more that he had not, as usual, planned ahead for the children’s stay-over, or thought of anyone but himself. This is a Peter Pan-guy who has a lot of growing up to do—and we see in the rush of subsequent events that he has little time to do it in.
There are Spielberg-patented signs and wonders—strange clouds and lightning in the skies—so Ray orders his children to stay in his apartment while he goes down the street to investigate. In a sequence with astonishing special effects, space ships appear above the city, and the streets shake, buckle, and crack as a giant, three-legged machine arises from the ground, wreaking destruction upon a church. Soon Ray and children are fleeing for their lives, along with thousands of other terrified citizens, many of whom never make it far before they are either destroyed by the aliens’ death rays or snatched up by tentacle-like arms of the machines. (Having been caught during several weekends trying to enter or exit NYC, the traffic flow reduced to stop and go, I marveled at how quickly and easily the Ferriers were able to escape from the city.) Along the way, the Ferriers find refuge in the basement of survivalist Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins), but his savage, negative views convince Ray that they must leave as soon as possible. Ray’s intent is to make it up to Maine where the children’s new home is located, but will they make it before one of the huge alien machines catch and destroy them as if they were insignificant insects?
As spectacle, the film is terrifying, and there is real suspense when one curious alien enters the basement where the humans are trying to hide. And by focusing in on one family, the film becomes more than just a special effects generated thriller. Cruise and Fanning are very believable as frightened father and daughter trying to stay alive as long as possible against incredible odds. (Ray reluctantly has had to allow son Robbie to launch out on his own in what seems like a futile quest to fight back against the invaders.) I do wonder, however, how beings who could create such technically advanced machines would be so cruel and heartless. Maybe that is what such a movie as this can best achieve—lead us into asking such questions and reflecting on how we too have treated what Kipling called the “lesser breeds.”
1) The film depicts people fleeing from an intelligence-directed calamity: what natural forces have created similar fears and flights? How have people reacted to earthquakes; tsunamis; hurricanes?
2) How are Ray and his family typical of a secularized culture? That is, do you ever see them turning to prayer or other supports of faith? How might such affect or enhance their actions?
3) Spielberg now has taken both sides as to the possible nature of a “close encounter of the third kind.” Which do you thinks is the more likely? Benevolent, or malevolent?
4) Given such advanced technological advances, do you think an alien civilization would treat other life forms so cruelly? What about our own history? How have Europeans treated other cultures and civilizations the past 500 years? Do you think the ethics of Christ (or a Buddha) are just for Christians—or is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of Christ as “the Omega point” for the universe valid?