How Mars Fooled the World

Spielberg and Cruise to Pick up the Welles’ Tradition?

Tracks in the Martian soil made by the Spirit rover. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/OSU/Cornell

Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise will bring the classic H.G. Wells alien-invasion novel, "The War of the Worlds", to the big screen, with Cruise expected to star, according to Variety magazine. The movie version has been accelerated onto a fast track, with only 10 weeks of pre-production scheduled before the film goes into shooting later this year. DreamWorks and Paramount are co-financing "War of the Worlds" which is expected to cost around or over $100 million –with both Cruise and Spielberg opting out of fees in favor of a share of the gross. "War" is now on track for a November start date and a 2005 release.

"War of the Worlds" became permanently etched in the American popular psyche when actor and director, Orson Welles, broadcasted his radio play from the Mercury Theater in 1938. Last October 10 was the sixty-fifth anniversary of this hyper-realistic radio play depicting the imminent martian invasion, but the news of impending bad news came to radio audiences long after H.G. Wells wrote the book over forty years earlier, in 1898.

Although its magnitude has been exaggerated in historical records, a nationwide panic was played up in later recounting of the mass hysteria that greeted Welles’ mock reporting. In reality, only a few dozen people were hospitalized for ‘shock’ even though the Halloween prank is still recycled as ‘mischief night’. The psychological account was that most Halloween listeners in 1938 did not realize they were being replayed fiction at its finest.

As a radio astronomer might envision the show’s long-term effects, stellar transmissions of the 1938 broadcast should now be approaching a substantial radial distance from earth; the correctly tuned audience has reception anywhere within 66 light-years. If a powerful enough alien dish were to pick up the original Welles’ broadcast today, like a message in a bottle or as a cry from Earth for planetary rescue, our SOS transmission has already reached an estimated 4000 stars (with perhaps as many planets not responding in ways we can answer back with our best apologies that it was just a prank, our planet’s ‘mischief night’).

The radio broadcast, in this case, has unavoidably leaked from the earth’s magnetosphere into deep space. But a more direct route to Mars has also been attempted for this particular broadcast, as pointed out by Sir Arthur C. Clarke as, "a most ambitious but, alas, unsuccessful space project–the Russian MARS96 mission. Besides all its scientific equipment, the payload carried a CD/ROM disc full of sounds and images, including the whole of the famous Orson Welles ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast. (I have a recording of the only encounter between H.G. Wells and Orson, made soon after this historic demonstration of the power of the medium. Listening to the friendly banter between two of the great magicians of our age is like stepping into a time machine)."

For his hosted Mercury theater introduction, Welles’ opening credits offer an insightful look into the paranoid state of the world in 1938.

"We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s, and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood which, by chance or design, man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space.

Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30th, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios. "

Media analysts have argued that even with the best editing of falsified TV clips, no such nationwide tom-foolery could capture a similar audience today. As planetary scientist, David Grinspoon, wrote " Could this happen today? In an age of multiple media, radio has lost some of its punch, but a well-executed Internet hoax of an alien invasion might set some hearts racing."

The argument goes that we are so much more sophisticated than our grandparents and parents–at least in media terms. First, there are so many more media outlets today, most of which would feel initially scooped, then in record time investigate only a few additional sources and debunk the story. But calling foul on Welles’ broadcast might be compared today to debunking a CNN interruption of scheduled programming, since news via radio was a primary source in 1938. Some media historians have compared the timing however, and concluded that newspapers and radio had the dominant influence prior to television’s 1963 coverage of the JFK assassination–when TV particularly proved a sole source for immediate alerts. In any case, what would qualify as a public service announcement today has changed to greet a much more skeptical audience. A higher standard of falsification might need to be imprinted before a hospital received a victim of the hoax.

Martian terrain
Shadow of the Opportunity rover at martian sunset.
Credit: JPL/NASA

Secondly, expectations of what would constitute a realistic invasion today have become so tainted by the realism of science fiction and cinematic special effects. Recent images from the European Mars’ Express orbiter have such high resolution that they seem to mimic simulations done by a computer. Whether Spielberg and Cruise plan to produce a visual hyper-realism to match Welles’ audio realism remains to be discovered in 2005.

Finally, much more is known about Mars (or similar prospective invaders in our neighborhood) that–so the argument goes–dozens of scientists would immediately interrupt and discount even the most realistic emergency scenarios. But the Welles’ broadcast anticipated this skeptical view–in fact, used skepticism as a dramatic device. The 1938 radio audience had already been served disclaimers but those qualifiers were received like listening from a half-sleeping daze. As the New Jersey farmer put his initial surprise at the events happening in his backyard: " Well, as I was sayin’, I was listenin’ to the radio kinda halfways… I turned my head out the window and would have swore I was asleep and dreamin’. "

Of course, Welles’ original radio play had two particularly prominent disclaimers, one placed at the beginning and end of the broadcast, including a statement that the scenario was entirely fictional. However, radio channel surfers who came upon the program after it was already in progress became famously duped.

Modern electronic amenities would likely confound this dramatic trick today, not the least of which might be the running story tickers on the bottom of most continuous news channels; the updates might have to read ‘fictional account’ all the time rather than just during the opening and closing credits. Today, the escapade would also be short-circuited by a few simple cellphone calls and a renovated national emergency warning system. Many Hollywood screenwriters today have to take great pains to dismiss the use of a cellphone as a legitimate plot device; otherwise their actors could just call 911 and get help.

So other than these predictable technology disclaimers of how a modern viewer might approach the "War of the Worlds" broadcast, one can consider: what made the drama so inherently believable?

The ALH Meteorite, about the size of a softball and one of more than two dozen Mars samples available for study on Earth today.
Image Credit: NASA/ Johnson Space Center

The Mercury Theater couched its radio play between upbeat dance music from the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City and radio silence. The news announcer interjected unscheduled interruptions as overlay on a Spanish tango, ("Ramón Raquello leads off with ‘La Cumparsita.’").

This intercession transitioned to an emergency alert abruptly: " …a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the earth with enormous velocity. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell’s observation, and describes the phenomenon as, quote, ‘like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun,’ unquote." This alert then returned the listeners to a musical rendition of the tune, "Stardust." The justaposition of alternating high and low notes gave the emergency alerts even more contrast and alarm.

A second device used to heighten the alert was to present both sides of the ‘life on Mars’ debate. In a legal analogy, the drama chose the point of view of both prosecutor and defense on the question of life on Mars–at least initially.

In the first interview of the broadcast, a fictional, but world-famous, Princeton Professor named Pierson goes to great lengths to discount the ‘canals’ on Mars as apparitions from previous astronomers like Percival Lowell. This academic view went further to reject any questions about life on Mars when asked "Then you’re quite convinced as a scientist that living intelligence as we know it does not exist on Mars? ", to which Professor Pierson replies "I’d say the chances against it are a thousand to one."

Columbia Hills
Laser altimeter data from Mars interpreted by color representing altitudes and what once may have provided more exotic martian landforms than visible today. Credit: GSFC/NASA

Oddly, the interview then gets interrupted by a telegram announcing that an earthquake has been recorded 20 miles from Princeton. The interjection is odd, given the interview is taking place nearby and hardly seems to need the intervention of a telegram to announce itself. Unperturbed, the professor carries on with his skeptical pose, concluding that a meteor has struck the United States, precisely at 8:50 PM, eastern standard time, October 30,1938 on the Wilmuth farm in Grovers Mill, New Jersey. Modern crop circles could hardly be executed with as much precision as this fabled invasion from a hostile planet.

The ensuing panic has a fictional dual-face: half the onlookers run away, the other half gawks and comes closer. The Mercury Theater continues to set the stage for the big surprise: "Curious spectators now are pressing close to the object in spite of the efforts of the police to keep them back. They’re getting in front of my line of vision….Now some of the more daring souls are now venturing near the edge. Their silhouettes stand out against the metal sheen. One man wants to touch the thing… "

Then the action begins, as a beat reporter, Carl Phillips, announces the awe of the crowd: "Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake…" The initial response representing Earth’s hello became a white handkerchief tied to a pole. To Mars, we declared a truce.

In a final odd twist, the announcer interrupts to tally that forty people including six state troopers have been burned beyond recognition–a remarkable bit of sophistry given its precise count, identification of their job occupation, and a few gory details about their autopsy finding. The meaning behind this precision becomes clearer in light of the radio play’s attempt at hyper-realism, but culminates in later qualification that "The strange creatures, after unleashing their deadly assault, crawled back in their pit and made no attempt to prevent the efforts of the firemen to recover the bodies and extinguish the fire." Apparently when they invade other planets, the marauding, alien Martians practice good fire safety.

Both Wells (H.G.) and Welles (Orson) promoted the public test not so much as a question of what the aliens might act like (grey snakes as a special effect has seen much evolution since 1938). Their question seems directed more at what Earth might be like, when put under pressure. As David Grinspoon points out, a big assumption that is squarely in the "War" series can be posed rhetorically as "Why would aliens even want our Earth?"

The answer may not just be a challenge to an anthropocentric view of our place in the universe, but also a statistical argument that there are just so many other places to invade, so what advanced species has the time for another round of mass hysteria and planetary interloping today.

Related Web Pages

Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
Genesis Project
Mars: Goldilocks’ Oasis?
Squyres, Martian Chronicles, Parts 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 * 9 * 10 * 11 * 12 * 13
Great Terraforming Debate: Part I
Great Terraforming Debate: Part II
Great Terraforming Debate: Part III
Great Terraforming Debate: Part IV
Great Terraforming Debate: Part V
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VI
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VII