Science fiction as a genre is not known for being particularly friendly towards religion. Especially in contemporary sci-fi, which is highly secularized, religion is at best ignored or scorned as the relic of an unenlightened past best forgotten. At worst it is treated with naked hostility, reviled as an enemy of freedom and progress. That’s why I find it so refreshing to watch the classic 1953 sci-fi film The War of the Worlds, based on the 1898 novel of the same name, by science-fiction pioneer H.G. Wells. Endlessly imitated—and even remade in 2005 by Steven Spielberg—but never equaled, the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds remains a classic of the sci-fi genre as well as an emotionally gripping and visually stunning film. But most striking to a modern viewer is the movie’s unapologetic embrace of a Judeo-Christian worldview. Christianity and prayer are portrayed throughout as positive forces. God’s love for mankind and his providential care as Creator of the universe are integral to the resolution of the story.
As Martian space capsules begin to descend on rural California, we are introduced to several key characters. Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Gene Barry) is a prominent nuclear physicist. While inspecting the impact site of the first spacecraft to arrive on earth, he meets local college teacher Sylvia Van Buren (played by Ann Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin).
In many science fiction and fantasy films today, Christian clergy, and devout believers in general, are objects of derision, or are portrayed as bumpkins or downright villainous caricatures. In marked contrast, Pastor Collins is a kind, generous, intelligent, and upright man, a pillar of his community.
The Martians quickly prove hostile, vaporizing several people without provocation. The military is called in to repel the invaders. As the Marines prepare to open fire, Pastor Collins is troubled, believing that a peaceful resolution to this interplanetary conflict is still possible. He advances resolutely toward the alien fighting machines, reciting Psalm 23 and holding aloft a pocket copy of the Scriptures. In return for this gesture of peace, attempting to proclaim the Word of God to an alien culture, Pastor Collins is martyred, cruelly cut down by the Martians’ heat-ray.
The Marines retaliate with machine guns, artillery, and tanks, but to no avail. In most alien-invasion films, plucky humanity, harnessing its sheer cleverness and determination, is eventually able to defeat the technologically superior invaders. Not so in The War of the Worlds. A chilling montage of war footage makes starkly apparent the heroic but ultimately futile nature of military resistance to the aliens. As the Martian war machines systematically annihilate one nation after another, a grim voice-over declares: “It was the beginning of the rout of civilization, of the massacre of humanity.” There is no hope in a military solution.
Despite this, in a last-ditch effort to destroy the invaders by force, the American military unleashes the power of the atomic bomb on a concentration of Martian forces outside Los Angeles. Mankind’s most awesome weapon of annihilation proves as harmless as a cap gun against the Martians, whose impregnable force shields leave them unscathed.
Now humanity’s “only hope” lies in science. Forrester and his colleagues rush to establish a base from which they can research and develop new weapons to resist the aliens.
One of the scientists solemnly predicts that the Martians will conquer the earth in six days. This intentionally symbolic upending of God’s six-day work of creation in Genesis 1 reinforces the symbolism of the Martians as a literally diabolical force. Unable to create or build anything of his own, the devil can only tear down, disfigure, and destroy.
With all earthly resistance quickly evanescing, the Martians lay siege to Los Angeles and the ensuing chaos brings out the very worst in humanity. Violent mobs loot and pillage, trampling innocent bystanders and fighting amongst themselves for the spoils. Clayton and Sylvia get separated as the rioters attack a caravan of scientists. All of their crucial technical equipment, including irreplaceable samples of Martian blood, are destroyed in the tumult. Mankind’s last hopes are dashed.
As Los Angeles burns, Clayton wanders the rubble-strewn streets in a desperate frenzy, going from church to church, searching for Sylvia, who he suspects might take refuge there. If the impending obliteration of the city has brought out the worst in humanity, it has also brought out the best. Houses of worship are packed with believers, imploring God for deliverance. In a Spanish-speaking Catholic church, a priest leads families in praying the Rosary.
Clayton is finally reunited with Sylvia in a crowded cathedral as a Martian fighting machine looms outside. But at that very moment, the alien craft lists wildly and crashes to the ground! As Clayton, Sylvia, and a curious crowd emerge from the safety of the church, a hatch opens and a Martian attempts to crawl out of its vehicle, but it dies on the spot. One by one, other alien machines begin to fall across the city—and around the world! The Martians have been slain by earthly bacteria and viruses, common germs that humans have long been immune to. As church bells ring triumphantly across the City of Angels, Clayton remarks solemnly, “We were all praying for a miracle.”
The film’s ending narration paraphrases a line from the H.G. Wells novel: “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in his wisdom, had put upon this earth.” In the final analysis, political structures and systems cannot save us, military force cannot save us, scientific progress cannot save us. Our salvation lies in the power and love of God who enters into his own Creation. For our God is not a Deist God who set the world in motion and then left it to its own devices. Our God is the very ground of all being. Our God creates and sustains the entire universe and all its inhabitants as an act of pure, selfless love. Our God is an incarnational God who formed and entered into all Creation and became a member of the human race in order to save and reconcile a fallen humanity.
In recent years, a few notable science-fiction movies have explored deeper philosophical themes and moral questions in a manner compatible with the Gospel—Arrival (2016) and A Quiet Place (2018) come to mind. However, such an explicit and positive dialogue with the Judeo-Christian tradition as portrayed in The War of the Worlds is almost unheard of in contemporary sci-fi cinema. The genre is poorer for it.