Mary Conti’s review published on Letterboxd:
When 9/11 happened, I was in middle school. I was 13. When the first plane hit, I was just getting settled into second period. At about 9:15, the principal turned on the speaker and delivered the news. But we didn't hear about the planes, because at that point, there wasn't enough information to know about the planes in the first place. All we heard were the buzzwords: "Terrorists" "Attack" "Explosion" So the school was to be evacuated for safety precautions, of course.
It was one of the scariest moments of my life. I saw no explosions that day. I didn't see any death. I just saw the people in my life and strangers completely freaking out, and it wasn't until later that night when I was finally home that I could calm down.
The scariest part of any attack like that isn't the attacks themselves. It's the panic. It was the running around the school talking with friends and trying to figure out what happened. It was my teachers trying to remain stoic throughout this event, making sure that everyone was accounted for. It was me waiting for someone, anyone, to come pick me up. It was the way my father rushed towards me and hurried me into his car. It was the stressed out look on his face as he tried to keep me calm, while listening to the radio trying to make sense of what was going on. It was the way his new apartment felt uneasy, like the world around us was going to hell and there I was trapped in a dark room. It was the civil conversation my mother and father had, as for once they seemed to stop fighting just glad I was safe. It was the silent dinner I had with my mother at home. It was the way she tucked me into bed even though I was 13 and she hadn't done this since I was 6.
Panic brings down society. All at once the social contract is made null and void. Anything can happen. The disasters themselves might be frightful, but only in the sense that they can happen on any day. But the panic is always real.
And I don't think any modern film communicates this better than War of the Worlds.
I remember sitting in an especially dark theater somewhere in Orlando, FL when I saw it. I remember the way my heart felt like it was beating way too fast the whole time. I remember microcosmic moments in the film seeming way too real. "Didn't my father have the same conversation?" I think to myself in a scene where Cruise happens to walk by an old friend who comes in and out of the film. Don't these images seem frighteningly familiar? I
"It's not even the aliens that make this film scary. It's all the people running in fear."
If it is true that the best Horror films encapsulate the fears of the modern world, then I don't see why War of the Worlds shouldn't be considered one of the great horror films of the modern era. Disaster films tend to focus on spectacle for the sheer sake of giving the audience something to marvel at, but this is a cynical way of looking at it (and I'm a sucker for them anyways). But War of the Worlds is different.
Spielberg's camera may swoop in and out, or gaze at destructive scenes, but it's never for titillation, always to add to the effect. In fact, it's mostly reserved. Most of the destruction happens in the background, or in the case of one scene, completely off screen. Yet for most of the film's runtime, we are focused on Cruise and his family simply trying to survive.
I wish Cruise would work more with Spielberg, as both Minority Report (also a potent and important post-9/11 film) and this find the actor reaching for his greatest talents, and War of the Worlds finds our last great superstar actor challenging himself more than he did in Magnolia. Ray Ferrier is the antithesis of an action hero. He works a boring job, he's a lazy bum of a dad, and he's absolutely selfish. Most films would take the opportunity to turn Ray into a likable character, if not at the beginning then in the form of an arc. But Ray remains mostly the same throughout the film. Ray doesn't just stay selfish throughout the entire film, it's arguably what saves him and his family. Small moments test his ability to remain strong for his kids so that he can protect them, because he knows that's what he's supposed to do. But the truth is that he's the least able person for this job, and the sheer panic of it all scares him. Cruise bears the face of a man trying to keep his resolve but slowly losing his soul, even after the threat has long disappeared.
Any disaster can feel like we've lost ourselves, and at times it feels as if the world is apocalyptic (Spielberg's images of a red fern covered Earth rivals any image from films actually about the Apocalypse). And after it's over, it feels like we've suffered for something so senseless. That all we lost will mean nothing.
All we can do is come home and hope we can move on.