Think you can escape the world's troubles by heading to the multiplex this summer?
Terrorist schemes have a starring role in the season's action movies, triggering an assortment of mayhem — collapsing skyscrapers, spaceships flying into densely populated cities and bombers run amok.
Coming out Friday,
Twelve years after the Sept. 11 attacks made such plots commercially unthinkable, Hollywood is no longer shying away from story lines involving terrorists bent on harming civilians and destroying landmarks. Filmmakers say the trend reflects their attempt to give fantasy films some real-world relevance. And now, with the terror attacks more than a decade in the past, they say they no longer have to worry about alienating audiences.
"The way I process things is that I write about them, and you write about the times you live in," said James Vanderbilt, the screenwriter of "White House Down," which stars
"I was always fascinated with the idea of how you could take over the country — who would be able to do that," said Vanderbilt, who previously developed (but was unable to make) a movie based on Richard Clarke's memoir "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror."
The crop of movies represents a 180-degree turn from the immediate wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when the film business put a freeze on movies that had the vaguest connection to terrorism and even shelved projects that had negative depictions of emergency personnel.
Some movies considered too topical — like
Just as Hollywood didn't start examining the
"People have very short memories, and what was verboten 10 years ago no longer is today," said Michael Taylor, a veteran movie producer and the chair of film and television production at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. "Hollywood will always use what's in the zeitgeist to entertain people, and terror is in the zeitgeist."
Indeed, audiences seem entranced by the terrorist ties.
"Iron Man 3" is the year's biggest blockbuster, with a worldwide gross in excess of $1.2 billion. The latest
"Man of Steel" has perhaps the starkest visual ties to the 9/11 attacks, with its images of countless metropolitan buildings tumbling down, coating the people and streets below in ghostly residue.
"They're helping us understand the weird psychological and big horrible events that happen all the time. These guys deal with them in a dream-like way that makes it OK," the filmmaker said. "A modern problem — a city getting destroyed — a superhero can help you understand that."
In the latest "Star Trek" sequel, the action may unfold in the future but its terror elements — including a spaceship taking out a major city — are intended to remind audiences of the present.
"The film is about earthbound terror," said
Shane Black, the director and co-writer of "Iron Man 3," said the character of the Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley and filmed by Black as if he were in a video leaked to
"He's one of these guys who's become a warrior-philosopher, who sees the game of terrorism as this grand philosophical construct and has probably gone a little insane and has probably been witness to in his time a great many atrocities over which he may have presided," Black said. "But now he's sociopathic but at the same time has this driving hatred for America which fuels his rhetoric with which he recruits these legions of followers."
While terrorism may work well as a plot device, USC's Taylor says he wishes filmmakers would go a little deeper — using their platforms to explore how the root causes of terrorism and its consequences might be addressed.
"Maybe there is a missed opportunity — where they can include an issue of positive social change in the narrative," said Taylor, who founded USC's Media Institute for Social Change. "What can we be doing about terrorism, and how do we feel about it?"
That audiences are flocking to these movies represents a turnaround from just a few years ago, when moviegoers showed little interest in watching films that referenced any real conflict.
Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," the true tale of two first responders who survived the attack, was a modest commercial and critical success in 2006, but a slew of other recent movies about the Middle East largely fizzled, including "The Green Zone," "
Director Kathryn Bigelow's
Roland Emmerich, who directed "White House Down," balances the hostility of his radicals with comic moments. All the same, he didn't want to shy away from graphic scenes, including the downing of a jumbo jet filled with people and the shooting down of military helicopters.
"I always try," the director said, "to make provocative images."
Times staff writers