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Top Genome

By Annalee Newitz

HOW COULD I resist seeing War of the Worlds? First of all, it's based on a public-domain 19th-century novel, and I've been obsessively reading a lot of those lately (including George Eliot's Middlemarch, which contains no monsters but does feature a very nasty classics scholar).

War of the Worlds is also full of cool aliens who drive giant robotic tripods that bust out of the ground after huge lightning storms and have big lasers. And then there are the freaky blood-sucking tripod nozzles and the aliens' red weed and Tom Cruise running around pretending to be straight. What could be better?

I was amply rewarded for my faith in the power of Hollywood and Steven Spielberg to deliver an action-packed anti-alien epic, complete with a divorced dad ("straight" Tom) who regains his children's respect after murdering some creepy guy with a shovel and tucking a couple of hand grenades inside a massive tripod sphincter. Talk about kicking ass!

The main ingredients of the story are, of course, as old as H.G. Wells' novel. There's a scary, unknown alien menace that invades Earth—supposedly because the aliens are "envious" of our superduper nice planet—using vessels that cannot be felled by any weapon known to humanity. Combat forces are scattered and burned; EMI bursts have destroyed our communications and transportation infrastructure.

But unlike a 1950s movie, or indeed even the 1996 Independence Day, the world is not saved by a combination of clear-eyed political leadership and the bravery of a few plucky soldiers. Instead, it's saved by sheer dumb luck. Or rather, as this early 21st-century version of the novel would have it, the superiority of the human genome.

Just as the humans are on the verge of being nothing more than weed food, the tripods start falling over. Alien bodies tumble out, their skin gooey and mouths drooling. A voiceover from Morgan Freeman explains, as the film comes to an abrupt close, that "microbes" have done the aliens in. Sure, they had cool ships, but they didn't have hepa filters. Quoting from Wells' novel, Freeman intones, "By the toll of a billion deaths, man has bought his birthright of the Earth, and it is his against all comers; it would still be his were the Martians 10 times as mighty as they are. For neither do men live nor die in vain."

Turns out all our evolving to be disease-resistant wasn't in vain. Our tough old genomes can kick the asses of alien genomes. Meanwhile, as if in illustration of this principle, our manly hero, Tom, has successfully conveyed his little blonde daughter from Brooklyn to Boston, rescuing her from countless dangers along the way (and losing her annoying teenage brother at some point). When he arrives at his ex-wife's family home in what looks like Beacon Hill, we discover that the whole family is safe—and improbably, the annoying teenager has come through OK, too.

As everybody embraces, Tom's estranged son finally calls him "Dad." Ah yes, the balance of things has been restored: for, after all, as the voice-over explains, "Man has bought his birthright of the Earth." There is no mention of woman. Doesn't it seem weird that a movie which has updated the entire 19th-century scenario of War of the Worlds—moving it from 1898 London to 2005 Brooklyn—doesn't update the repeated use of the word "man" to describe all of humanity? I mean, while you're transforming your main character from an effete writer to a burly dock worker, why not say that "humanity has bought its birthright of the Earth"?

I'll tell you why. This is a movie about family values, damn it, and everybody knows that fathers rule the family. And men rule the earth. Women are there to be protected, hopefully somewhere far away like Boston. It's all part the greatness of our genome, which is after all the thing that supplies the family in family values.

I think it's telling that this movie about our genomic superiority got remade at a time in human history when we're so narcissistically obsessed with how everything is caused by our genes. Why do we make war? It's a genetic predisposition to aggression. Rape? In the genome. Religion? Probably there's a gene that makes some people more religious than others. There are even studies demonstrating that things like propensity to trauma and love of sweets are hard-coded into those groovy amino acids that make us tick.

No wonder our favorite fantasies have us doing genome-to-genome combat with icky aliens and winning. We are our genomes! And the perfect representation of our genome in this flick is a tough, all-American, white male who uses violence to protect his "birthright." Some things have changed since the 19th century, and some have not.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wishes Mary Garth and Dorothea Casaubon would get married and move to Boston.

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From the July 13-19, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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