War of the Worlds


Sari and I caught a showing of War of the Worlds on Sat. nite and we were unexpectedly overwhelmed. I had read a pan of the flick from Ebert, and a qualified “thumbs-up” from A.O. Scott of the Times, so my expectations were fairly low. But being a fairly dedicated fan of both Spielberg and Cruise, I figured it would at least be an exciting and fun way to take in two hours of movie theater air-conditioning.

Instead, I found myself having a profound emotional experience. As a native New Yorker who was in the city on September 11, 2001, I’ve long struggled with coming to grips with that day. It was truly such a shocking, unbelievable event that in many ways I feel like I never processed it. For me, the movie was actually cathartic, in the truest sense of the word. That terms get thrown around rather loosely, but in this case I think it actually applies.

Yes, on Sept. 11 our city was attacked — but neither I nor Sari were ever in personal danger. Yes, the Twin Towers were destroyed — but I had only visited them once, when I was a kid. Yes, thousands of people died — but I didn’t know any of them. And as much as I wanted to do something to help in the aftermath, there really was no opportunity (other than helping to gather and sort donations, which I did, and contribute a story to one of the 9/11 benefit books, which I also did).

Nevertheless, for many months after Sept. 11, I awoke in a panic imagining more planes were coming, this time for me; or I nearly jumped out of my chair any time a truck back-fired or an ambulance sped by. But then eventually, those feelings deadened as I got back the business of living my own little life. So settling in to see a movie of sci-fi escapism, I was shocked to see how much the movie paralleled September 11, right down to its New York-area location (in fact, some scenes were shot in nearby Park Slope).

The scenes of Tom Cruise running in pure terror as the aliens begin zapping — vaporizing — everyone around him, buildings crashing around him, was right out of the Towers falling. And when he scrambles back to his apartment to find his hair and clothes covered in ash — most of it the remains of his fellow human beings — that was truly chilling. And watching this all happen, I was as terrified as any of the film’s characters. For real moments during the movie, I actually forgot I was a viewer and that it wasn’t real.

I won’t spoil the film for those of you who haven’t read the book or seen the film yet, but there’s one more point to make. In a departure from typical summer blockbusting, this film does not feature a “hero” as its central character. Besides being a failed husband and father, Tom Cruise’s character is basically just a “regular guy.” He doesn’t end up leading the rebellion to repel the invaders. He doesn’t discover their secret weakness. He doesn’t pilot an F-14 into the mother ship and destroy its central command. For the most part, he’s just a working class guy caught up in protecting his family, trying to survive.

I think this was a brilliant decision by Spielberg and I can’t help but imagine that he was thinking of not only Sept. 11 but Schindler’s List when he put this film together. It was important for him to show helplessness, to have us truly comprehend that sometimes we can’t control our destiny, that the heroic individual doesn’t buck all odds and triumph. This is an important lesson — it teaches us empathy.

Sari and I came out of the film in some sort of shock. We hadn’t been prepared to feel that strongly — that’s why the film was so cathartic. Yes, it was a silly sci-fi popcorn flick. But because Spielberg has a heart (and a brain), and because Tom Cruise was willing to play this type of character, they helped me work through my emotions about a real life act of horror, unplugging a stoppage and letting emotions flow. This may be an indictment of me, or our media-based society, but I’m just glad it happened. Film is a powerful medium, and when it’s used in the right way, for “moral” purposes, it can be a potent force for good.

0 thoughts on “War of the Worlds

  1. i felt the same way at some points. my body reacted before my mind did (as it usually does), and i started to cry quietly. i felt like i was suffocating – pure panic attack. i lived off of sixth and helped some people get to st. vincents – alot of them very confused. one in particular whose nightmare i can’t even imagine is my nightmare.
    for months i had dreams of planes as well – and the noises od daily ny life shook me off. i still get chills when i smell rubber burning or an undue amt. of gasoline…i still see planes out of the corner of my eyes – real ones, i mean. it’s as if i take note of every single take off and landing at jfk-lga-nwk, on watch to see if they’re too low.
    i read in one of the papers that hwood is “testing” the audiences to see how much 9/11 they can handle as a spate of 9/11 films from the shelves are potentially going to get green-lit. they don’t understand. they’ll bever understand ny, just as they never did…

    1. whew. see, those of you in manhattan must’ve felt it all much more viscerally than little ol’ me in brooklyn.
      i’m so glad to hear that you responded to the movie in a similar way! if sept. 11 had never happened, i think i would have laughed at the film and found the whole thing so implausible, but that’s the thing i’ll always take with me from 9/11, that in an instant the implausible, the impossible, the unimaginable — came to be.
      the moment i thought was so well directed was when the zapper popped up out of the street in Bayonne, the way the people just moved backward little by little, never quite panicking and turning tail ’til it was much too late. that silent shock. so familiar, from the video i’ve seen of people near the towers as they started to come down…

      1. a generation forever changed
        wha- brooklyn got some really bad stuff!!like all that smoke and shmutz those first few hours! for all of us i think the feeling of utter, UTTER helplessness was just too much, hard to even put into words.
        truth is, i ultimately didn’t like the movie though i have respect for spielberg the technician, as i usually do with films of his i don’t like. that one moment you mentioned – yeah, that was supremely well done. that silent shock, that what the fuck could this be? not us, not here, this is america, we can do anything – that was killer. and all the “dust” – done well, not slick, which was good.
        i’m glad you posted this b/c i thought i was crazy having the reaction i did, but i guess we all will to certain things for a while, you know?

  2. Damn. I was confident in my intense dislike for anything spielberg and/or cruise that i would never ever see WotW. But now you’ve convinced me otherwise…Damn.

    1. i’m completely prepared for you to hate it. if you’ll notice, i tried very hard to not actually review the film. at this point, it’s too difficult to divorce my emotional response, but if i had seen it w/o there having been a 9/11, i may have found it a bit unrelenting and dark. giving ebert credit, there is a certain “clunkiness” to the story. also, much is left unexplained. however, i appreciated both of those qualities, because in my opinion they made the film that more effective, that much more “real.”
      the martians are coming! the martians are coming!

        1. ha! i LOVED Minority Report‘s vision of the future, but i was really disappointed how the story turned into a prosaic, even-clichéd police procedural, completely glossing over the film’s much more interesting moral issues.
          i can’t compare apples to oranges, though. i mean, Philip K. Dick vs. H.G. Wells? that’s a tough one…

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