Battle of the Worlds
You know what I hate? House. I’ve watched an episode or two, but the main character, House, is just such an arrogant, unrepentant asshole that I couldn’t help bristling a little whenever I saw a commercial for the show. For similar reasons, I’ve never seen the appeal of Simon Cowell or Gordon Ramsay. Hence, it might be surprising that I liked Battle of the Worlds in spite of the prominent humbuggery of Professor Benson. Is it hypocrisy or because Benson gets what’s coming to him? It’s probably a little of both.
Battle of the Worlds is about a group of scientists trying to prevent a collision between an extragalactic planet that has moved into the solar system and Earth; huh, didn’t I see something like that recently? A team of scientists, including the young couple, Fred and Eve, the sour Professor Benson, and Dr. Cornfield track the trajectory of the planet, dubbed “the Outsider,” as it passes through the solar system. Sadly, Dr. Cornfield is not a superhero with a sidekick named Subsidy Lad and an archenemy named The Crow. Agricultural puns aside, Benson realizes the Outsider is not what it seems when the planet goes into orbit instead of passing Earth as he had calculated. When the United Commission, a sort of future UN, sends a scientific investigation to the planet, the investigation is decimated by a flying saucer attack. Benson realizes that aliens are piloting the planet. The military attacks the flying saucers, bringing one crashing to earth. The group of scientists takes a glowing cylinder from the ship and they decode the radio signals released by the cylinder and find out how to destroy the saucers; Benson does most of decoding because he’s such a genius. Benson and the scientists undertake a final expedition to the planet before the military blows it up, but Benson is left on the planet when the long dead alien’s defense systems turn on and he refuses to leave. Benson discovers the alien’s ancient formula, but it costs him his life when the military sends missiles to destroy the planet. Everyone lives happily ever after because Benson is dead.
The film begins with the young couple, Fred and Eve, a pair of astronomers who plan on getting married. At first, we’re led to believe that these are the main characters, but it’s not long before the film’s attention shifts to the old, irascible Professor Benson; for the first fourth or third of the film, he’s only referred to as the ‘old man’ for some reason. Even the satellite couple, Commander Bob and his wife Cathy, can’t draw the film’s attention away from Benson. Sure, we get scenes with other characters early on in the film, but as his predictions about ‘the Outsider’ come true, he gains more screen time in association with his increased role as both the head of the group of scientists and go-to man for the United Commission, which authorizes the expeditions and military attacks on the approaching planet. Admittedly, Professor Benson is smart, but the old man is a jerk to everyone all the time. Why would the filmmakers want to push away the promising young couple or the commander and wife to focus on the dick? We must examine Benson’s character closer to answer this question.
I like to take notes while watching the movies I review. My exact words for Professor Benson were, “The old man is crotchety as hell.” Unfortunately, Benson is also one of those insufferable intelligent people who are often right and can’t help telling you and everyone else that they were right. Benson makes astute conclusions that don’t always logically follow, but the conclusions always prove true because this is a bad sci fi movie. For instance, he hints that the planet is being controlled by aliens well before flying saucers come from the planet and confirm his idea; though, we later learn the saucers were unpiloted and that they were merely part of an automatic defense system. Toward the end of the movie, when Benson and the other scientists land on the planet to investigate before its scheduled demolition, they discover the corpses of aliens in the control room and Benson explains that the aliens probably died of radiation and that they were escaping a dying homeworld to try and colonize Earth; he must be awesome at forensics to tell that at a glance.
Benson is always right because he’s smart and he’s a scientist; there are no such things as biologists, chemists, physicists, etc. in sci fi movies; they’re all just scientists. Unfortunately, he believes that it’s his duty to pursue truth for its own sake, even at the expense of other people; he says something to that effect that he has no duty to the rest of humanity because he’s a scientist. Worse yet, he feels superior to his fellow scientists, displaying contempt for Dr. Cornfield in particular and for the instruments of measurement that they use. I think the writers were trying to give Benson a kind of mathematical purist kind of snootiness, since he makes all his deductions with calculations rather than observations. However, this all seems stupid when you realize all his calculations require observation and measurement. Furthermore, he brags about his powers of calculation, but specifically refers to it as being good at calculus. Maybe calculus was more impressive 50 years ago, when calculus wasn’t yet taught in high school, but bragging about being good at calculus is just amusing today.
The misanthropy, superiority complex, and strong identity as a scientist lead to his downfall. His desire for knowledge about the aliens and the Outsider is insatiable and he finds out the aliens ancient formula, even if it spells his doom to do so. Fred sums up the lesson we learn from Benson at the end of the film. “Poor Benson. If they opened up his chest, they would have found the formula where his heart should have been.” While I’m inclined to agree that human feeling is no substitute for the reckless pursuit of truth, I think there’s something admirable about it. Just as Oedipus searched for truth in spite of the pain he was told it would bring him, there’s something necessary about the pursuit of truth to its utmost reaches. Whether truth should be attained at any cost I’ll leave to a later discussion. On another note, I hope no one’s take away from the film was that the smartest scientists are all mean. House is bad enough. We don’t need people emulating him or Benson. Not that there’s much worry about people imitating Benson. I’m probably one of the few people who remember watching this film.
If I just spent an entire review analyzing a jerk and I’m not fond of jerky protagonists or sardonic critics, why do I like this film? The long and short of it is that Benson amuses me. He’s an over-the-top snobby scientist extraordinaire, but his greatest accomplishments are being good at calculus and exploding. In the end, he figures out how to destroy the saucers and make way for the military to blow up the planet, but he’s not lauded for his efforts because he was heartless, sarcastic and deserved to die. There’s probably a little bit of hypocrisy thrown into the mix as well for liking Benson over those other guys. However, the movie is also spiced up by spaceships fighting flying saucers, the unfolding mystery of the planet, and some unintentionally humorous scenes. In particular, I liked the scene where a ship tries to escape the gravity of the Outsider. The crew of this ship say things like, “increase speed to 12 gammas” and “set gyroscope to maximum,” or scrunch up their faces and jiggle in their seats when experiencing the force of acceleration. This is aside from the fact that the ship clips the planet, briefly hitting the surface, and continues flying past it, even though that’s not how gravity works; this is a clear failure of physics in the Battle of the Worlds universe. And finally, the film ends with a brief scene of Benson’s dog waiting patiently at the door for his recently deceased master to come home. It ends up seeming random and darkly comic rather than touching because the dog only appears once or twice before in the film and Benson never shows the dog any affection that would lead us to feel sorry for him or for the dog. The poor dog’s better off anyway.