‘London Has Fallen’ and the 9/11-ization of Entertainment

The sequel to ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ shows our ever-more-extravagant taste for destruction

Michael AtkinsonFebruary 25, 2016

Disaster spectacles like London Has Fallen have become cheap in more ways than one. (David Appleby / Gramercy Pictures)

So here comes Lon­don Has Fall­en, anoth­er retread block­buster promis­ing new and glo­ri­ous visions of stal­wart urban land­marks blown to smithereens. What fun. In terms of spec­ta­cle, this has become the new mat­inée par­a­digm: sky­scrap­ers old and new atom­ized by whole­sale cat­a­clysm, immense clouds of cement dust (of a kind movies weren’t ter­ri­bly famil­iar with before 2001), build­ings los­ing their cen­ter ten­sions and keel­ing over in slow motion, the ensu­ing debris rain­ing Pom­peii-like onto nar­row city streets. More build­ings and dust and hell­fire and crushing’s, cars mashed and stomped, tipped build­ing-halves col­lid­ing with oth­er build­ings and grind­ing them into storms of gran­u­lat­ed detri­tus, over and over again.

The effect is that our innocence is lost: Like everything else, images of colossal destruction are entertainment now.

For an entire gen­er­a­tion of main­stream movie­go­ers — at least, the two bil­lion born since the release of Inde­pen­dence Day (1996) — the dig­i­tized extrav­a­gan­za of urban cat­a­stro­phe has become the main course of movie going, the defin­ing prin­ci­ple of cin­e­mat­ic excite­ment.” Like any­one whose love for tequi­la straight has erased any pos­si­ble fond­ness for wine cool­ers, this gen­er­a­tion is ful­ly accli­mat­ed to the sen­sa­tion­al­ism of dis­as­ter, unim­pressed by any­thing less alarming.

Cat­a­loging the caus­es of this con­di­tion would be a dire task, from The Day After Tomor­row (2004) through the end­less Avengers, X‑Men, Dark Knight and Super­man fran­chis­es and reboots, and includ­ing War of the Worlds (2005), King Kong (2005), all Trans­form­ers films (20072014 and beyond), Han­cock (2008), 2012 (2009), the recent Ter­mi­na­tor sequels (2009, 2015), Mis­sion: Impos­si­ble- Ghost Pro­to­col (2011), Pacif­ic Rim (2013), Star Trek Into Dark­ness (2013), World War Z (2013), Obliv­ion (2013), Godzil­la (2014), San Andreas (2015), Juras­sic World (2015) and so on.

Used to be, Godzil­la would stomp on a match­stick city and we’d grin at the spec­tac­u­lar toy­ness of the whole thing. Today, com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery makes crys­talline repro­duc­tions of such calami­ties afford­able, and 911 gave the indus­try an elo­quent object les­son in how to mas­ter the details. Spec­ta­cle film­mak­ers know like nev­er before how exact­ly such cat­a­stro­phe might play out (much big­ger cement dust clouds, a clear­er sense of how build­ings fall in on their own hol­low inter­nal spaces, a keen­er notion of the weight and veloc­i­ty of pul­ver­ized build­ing mate­ri­als, etc.).

It’s a queasy exploita­tion of the event, turn­ing us all into per­pet­u­al rub­ber­neck­ers, gawk­ing from a heli­copter dis­tance. If we’re on the street, we see what­ev­er destruc­tion tran­spires in frag­ments, sliced by the view offered by the urban grid; the debris clouds explode out of side streets and come for us. It’s the 9/11-iza­tion of enter­tain­ment, scaled and paced to dupli­cate the falling of the Twin Towers.

Just as in forms of real spec­ta­cle vio­lence” like jihad videos, the human cost of the destruc­tion on the screen is not a salient issue, for the film or the spec­ta­tor. The vic­tims are face­less and unim­por­tant; only the view­er is sig­nif­i­cant. Today, we chan­nel almost all of our expe­ri­ence, con­ve­nient­ly and defen­sive­ly, through screen devices, big and small, reduc­ing it all, how­ev­er real or unre­al, to images and bite-sized text. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, the sheer unre­al­i­ty of real­i­ty” has become our world’s reign­ing prin­ci­ple, from CGI to real­i­ty shows, dig­i­tal facelifts, Pho­to­shop, embed­ded report­ing, staged news events, social media hoax­es, news-as-adver­tis­ing, prod­uct-place­ment-as-ordi­nary life, truth-twist­ing doc­u­men­taries, fact-invent­ing polit­i­cal cam­paigns, ad infinitum.

The effect is that our inno­cence is lost: Like every­thing else, images of colos­sal destruc­tion are enter­tain­ment now. Should we be wor­ried that it doesn’t dis­turb us? Close your eyes and try to imag­ine how much less thrilling fun the destruc­tion of The Avengers or Man of Steel or San Andreas would be if we knew it wasn’t all just hap­pen­ing on a hard dri­ve, but staged with real mate­ri­als in some way in the three-dimen­sion­al world. To at least some degree, we’d feel the shiv­er of a pri­mal wrong, the chill we felt on 911. It’s as if the only way we as a cul­ture could under­stand and assim­i­late 911 was by pack­ag­ing it as impact-free enter­tain­ment, and watch­ing it over and over again. We sur­ren­der our inti­ma­cy with suf­fer­ing, and become slaves to the spectacle. 

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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