“It looked just like a movie.” Need I say which? Independence Day, for sure. The Towering Inferno, for those who remember it. Or Titanic, the ship gone up instead of down, with no Kate Winslet to offer succor. Escape From New York. Or Batman, with the Joker set loose and no Batman to protect Gotham. Hollywood has perfected the art of the fictional disaster to such an extraordinary degree that life itself, even at its most real and most heinous, can end up looking like an imitation. Until, that is, the moment of impact is over and the happy ending goes missing, no credits roll across the screen and, worst of all, no dead spring back to life.
When real-life disasters hit, American movies tend to leave the hard work of analysis and healing to television docudramas, cable presentations and independent documentaries. Unfit for the big screen, headlines become fodder for the small one; important subjects are scorned as “movie of the week” fare. Calamities like the AIDS epidemic, for example, were covered by independent videos and films years ahead of the movie industry.
When Hollywood does move from fictional violence to the real stuff of national crisis, it usually relies on two formulas to animate its scripts: biopics of fallen heroes and the epic battlefields of war. For peacetime dramatizations of national heroes, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee fill the bill. JFK and Malcolm X explored old wounds and prompted national soul-searching. Both directors have delved into the muck of social conflict in search of new answers (Born on the Fourth of July, Bamboozled), but they are the exception in an industry more reliant on recasting its own past hits and genres.
At its best and worst–Apocalypse Now and Pearl Harbor–Hollywood loves a good battle. Even when the United States has been militarily inactive, the impulse for war has been kept alive onscreen by repeating past victories (over the Nazis and Japanese in WWII) and defeats (in Vietnam). During the cold war, spy missions captured the imagination–hence the rise of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan and the reinvention of James Bond. And when the end of the cold war created a short-term shortage of enemies, the deficit was filled by the introduction of drug lords and smugglers. With the narcotraficante cast as the new antagonist, movies were good to go, and a whole new chapter was about to begin, with Traffic as its likely opener. Now that, like the rest of life, will change.
The press has already reported that studios are hurriedly shelving or postponing the release of films on which they’ve already spent millions for fictional disaster sequences. Instantly notorious is the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage, which won’t be in theaters any time soon. Nor will Big Trouble, an ill-timed comedy based on the Dave Barry novel of the same name about a man whose life is transformed by a (ha-ha) bomb in a suitcase. Men in Black II has switched its climactic showdown from the World Trade Center to the Chrysler building. And the Spider-Man trailer has been pulled because of its sensational shot of Spiderman spinning a web between the Twin Towers. Pity LA’s midlevel execs, busy screening dailies and purging scripts, recutting trailers and shuffling opening dates. Out of respect for the American people’s great loss, yes. But equally out of fear of their own impending box-office calamity.