Skirts are getting longer. Movies are getting darker. The country seems a bit on edge, as if it waiting for another shoe to drop, after 9/11. Stories abound of a real estate bubble. Bush's polls are much below where Reagan or Clinton were at this point, down to the abysmal levels of Nixon's second term. Support for Iraq is where it was for Vietnam in 1968 when the country turned against the war. Even that icon of the bull market, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is at such low poll numbers it is doubtful if he will run for re-election. Into this comes a very different type of Spielberg sci-fi movie. A dark one, a pessimistic one. One in which the aliens come out of the blue, from beneath the ground (from China, perhaps?). What does this say about the social mood of the US?
It has often been noted that skirts get shorter in bull markets, and get longer in bear markets. In a Bull, colors are brighter, suits are cut for power, gender roles get exaggerated; in a Bear, colors tend to earth tones, clothes look androgynous (think of the style of Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall"), and gender roles blur. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" is a bear market type of show; Alan Alda, the paradigmatic Sensitive Man of the '70s, is a bear market kind of guy.
What is less well known is that music and film also closely track the same social mood that creates and extends bull and bear markets. During the Bull, science and reason is celebrated; in a Bear, religion and the occult rule. It should be no surprise then that "The Exorcist", "The Omen" and many similar movies thrived in the '70s but vanished in the '80s and '90s. It might then be troubling that they are back. Scan the broadcast channels today and you will find shows of witches, mediums, and vampire slayers. There have been not one but two prequels to "The Exorcist." The prequel scripts languished during the '90s but found two receptive studios in the '00s after the stock market crash of 2000. The new Willie Wonka movie is much darker and moodier than the original.
Science Fiction is particularly responsive to social mood. "Star Trek" is a bull market phenom. It came during the '60s bull market, and went at the start of the '70s bear market; and then came back in the '80s and morphed into multiple spinoffs in the bubble of the '90s. It is now off the air. In it, spaceships are clean, and crews disciplined. Reason and good sense rule. Aliens are often misunderstood - during the '80s we even made peace with our arch-enemy, the Klingons. Bear market science fiction is dark. The spaceships are rusted, and grungy. The aliens truly horrific. "Star Wars" first came out in the Bear, and startled us with the decay and mess of its space ships. The temperamental Millennium Falcon failed when it was needed most. By the third movie, in the '80s, the spaceships were clean, the people heroes, the aliens cuddly, and even the Millennium Falcon worked fine.
No where is this movies-as-a social-barometer captured better than in the history of the "War of the Worlds." The book came out in 1898, at the peak of European Civilization, and told a cautionary tale not to fall in love with all of our marvelous machines. The aliens in science fiction movies are of course not truly aliens, but metaphors for whomever are our enemies. In the case of H. G. Well's book, the enemy was us. His book presages WWI, where we turned our terrible toys on ourselves, and ripped apart society. The Orson Welles famed radio broadcast came out in 1938, as we in the US watched in horror as Europe seemed on the brink of war again. Given we were then in a terrible bear market, it was a dark and frightening treatment of the book. The aliens suddenly invading New Jersey were the Nazi's, of course, with their new weapons of war. Ironic then that this radio broadcast presaged Pearl Harbor, and the invaders turned out to come from a different direction. The first movie version of the book came out in 1953 when the US was wrapped up in an inordinate fear of communism; the aliens were the Red Scare. We had created the first super weapon, the atomic bomb; but the Russians had not only caught up, they had built even bigger ones. Could their science suddenly bring them to our shores with technical breakthroughs we could not defeat? The hero of that treatment was a scientist, and we were ever hopeful our science could keep us safe. That movie presaged Sputnik, where the Russian trumped the US and created the ICBM, which could bring these terrible weapons to our shores. The Space Race was on. It culminated with the moon landing in 1969, and brought is a great bull market movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey," where the spaceships were antiseptic and the aliens our own creations, artificial intelligent computers.
Spielberg has done science fiction before, with a paradigmatic bull market movie in 1982: "E.T.," where the alien was misunderstood, and friendly, and our government was the enemy. Now he brings us a dark and different type of "War of the Worlds." The hero is an ordinary man, divorced, self-centered, angry, and dismissive of his kids. He does not want to save the world, just his family; and he argues with his son, who wishes to join the fight. The treatment is all about his personal battle, not the larger war with the aliens. A very different approach than the 1953 movie. All of our weapons and science fail us. As a people we do not act heroically, but as a mob, or as unbalanced. In the end, one of God's creations saves humanity.
The aliens in this movie are of course terrorists, the enemy du jour. In the opening sequence, the initial alien destruction rains dust on our hero, reminding us of the vast dust which covered NYC after the collapse of the twin towers. The clothes of the dead often flutter from the sky, as we saw the paper debris drifting down after the collapse of the towers. The people fleeing the aliens put up bulletin boards looking for missing ones, as also happened in NYC after 9/11. The movie refers to events post 9/11, in particular the invasion of Iraq. References abound to continued resistance against the alien invaders despite their technical advantage - and thus by implication to the resistance the Iraqi insurgents against us. Even the son's forgotten homework assignment is topical - the failure of the French occupation in Algeria.
The aliens themselves look like the invaders in a bull market sci-fi movie, "Independence Day." Is this simply a paean to an earlier blockbuster? In that movie, the aliens are interplanetary locusts, who come and strip a planet, and move on. Perhaps there is more to this, given our war with Islamism. It was once asked of a 14th Century Muslim Philosopher, why do Muslims prefer deserts? His answer was that Muslims create deserts. Hence an allusion to locust-like aliens is somehow fitting, if not very politically correct. (But then, political correctness is a bull market phenomenon. In a bear market, ethnic humor will re-emerge, from below ground, as it were.)
But there is more to these aliens than a reflection of 9/11. They are an event or enemy yet undefined - something that is about to happen. In the movie, the aliens emerge inexplicably from underground, from where they lay in wait for millennia. Perhaps presaging another terrorist attack, but perhaps something else.
When Tolkien began Lord of the Rings, Nazism was on the rise, but the atomic bomb in the future. As he developed the story, the bomb fell. He denied that the ring was the bomb, and indeed his art surpasses easy analogies. The ring is any great source of power, which Man is not to be trusted with. After all, the moment we had it in 1945, we used it. (WWII was our first nuclear war.) And the moment Bush had the most pre-eminent info-tech army since the Roman Legion, he found cause to use it, in Iraq.
Similarly, Spielberg's treatment of "War of the Worlds" both riffs on 9/11 and goes beyond it. In doing so, it captures the social mood - the sense that we are on a razor's edge, that something bad is about to occur? Can you feel it? You will, after seeing this movie.