A Technologist Reviews the Plot of Spielberg's War of the Worlds

(posted 7/8/2005) - I just watched Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds interpretation and enjoyed the experience.

Unlike H. G. Wells' novel and the 1953 movie adaptation directed by Byron Haskin which posited an interplanetary invasion by Martians using ballistic entry space craft, Spielberg's version throws the technical minded some real curveballs.

This is not a plot review in the traditional sense, it is instead an attempt to rationalize the tidbits of information gleaned from our fly on the wall position as we follow Ray Ferrier in his flight from the invader's technology. It is also in response to what I think are some rather naive critical comments that I've seen published to-date (non-techies all, I'm afraid).

First Question: How did the invader's move their equipment to Earth?

For some reason, every critic harks to the monologue at the beginning, and one character's subsequent comment to the effect that the tripods must have been put underground years before humans populated the planet, as evidence that the invader's technology was brought to earth approximately 1-million earth years before the invasion.

This begs a very big question: If you move all your equipment planet-side before Homo Sapiens is dominant, why bury your weaponry and presumably go back home to wait?

I offer the following alternative interpretation. The invasion was a long time in planning. Since it is commonly believed today that launching/landing in a planet's gravity well is ungodly expensive, I propose that an advanced civilization would use what we refer to as nano-technology and self-replicating artificial intelligences to first seed, then build replication facilities on the target world using that world's own resources.

Obviously, if your moral code allows for destruction of indigenous intelligent life, you build out of sight of the natives (underground now makes sense). It might reasonably take centuries to boot-strap an underground manufacturing facility capable of creating the finshed Tripods in the large numbers referenced in the novel and the screen adaptations.

Second Question: How do you deliver your aliens to their weapon systems? In H. G. Wells' novel, the aliens arive ballistically, with their equipment and erect their tripods (same in 1953 movie adaptation). Spielberg, perhaps chaffing at the energy penalty to move such a large invading force via physical craft, takes a very different approach. He wisely provides no elaboration on the technology used to download the Tripod drivers, except for one tantalizing scene.

In this tease scene a newscaster shows a stop-action shot of a 'lightning' strike, with what appears to be a capsule like object being convected to a buried Tripod.

I propose we think of a technology that supports matter streaming, or at least massive quantumn information transport. Instead of launching space-ships, the invaders direct information from a remote transporter (based on their home world), to an earth-side assembled transponder (collocated with a Tripod). The local discharge coronas we see are likely collatoral light-shows, not the real conveyences of matter or information.

Third Question: Several critics ranted about the Tripod design; one saying 'everyone knows a 3-legged device is inherently unstable.' Yeah, and us 2-legged humans are always falling over too. My response is to say that with proper controls and feedback a civilization can (and does) design anthropomorphic technology. The invaders were tripodal, and had three flexible digits (all opposable, thank you). So it seems quite reasonable to me that they might design Tripod weapons systems.

The Really Big Question: How could the invaders be so stupid as to become infected by Earth virii or bacteria?

The answers to such a question are legion. Only a non-technical mind assumes that advances in one area of physical science implies equal advances in all branches of science (in this case the biological sciences).

Even assuming that the invaders were perfectly aware of the lethality of local biologicals. It is not unthinkable that, just as our NASA quarantines can fail, so could an invader's quarantine strategy. If they in-fact used matter streaming technologies all it would take is one high-level meeting attended by a contagious individual to spread an infection quickly.

Note that H. G. Wells' novel and the film adaptations all imply the invasion was unsuccessful, but none of the characters ever say directly that all the invaders are known to have died. This may just be round one, folks.