September 11th, July 7th: Echoes of terrorism on the big screen, by Kirsty Hemsworth

Burning skyscrapers, survivors pouring onto the streets of Manhattan, bystanders slack-jawed, pointing up at some unseen threat amidst the smoke and ash. This could well be a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster, an action-packed, special-effects thriller released in time for the school holidays. Yet it could equally describe the scenes that unfolded on television screens across the globe on September 11th 2001.

At the time, it was argued that “the media are now so full of orchestrated spectacles and public violence on a daily basis, that many people had a hard time seeing media coverage of 9/11 as a document of anything sincere.” [1] This is not to suggest that television viewers were unable to divide fantasy from reality as they watched the twin towers fall, but that it was difficult to find any authenticity of experience through the safety of a television screen, via a medium of expression that so frequently bombards viewers with images of destruction, violence and human loss.

In many ways, the high definition, close-up, technicolour destruction of New York was nothing new to its spectators. Countless Hollywood blockbusters have chronicled the fall of the city, some, such as The Towering Inferno (1974), Die Hard (1988) and Independence Day (1996) even foreshadowing the destruction of New York’s tallest structures.

The damaged WTC in the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. (Image courtesy of: http://wtcinmovies.tripod.com/i.html)

The damaged WTC in the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. (Image courtesy of: http://wtcinmovies.tripod.com/i.html)

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, fiction writers and critical theorists alike would articulate what was widely felt as a strange sense of déjà-vu, and of guilt, felt by countless spectators, safely ensconced in their living rooms and protected by the cold transparency of the television screen. For many, the fall of the twin towers led to the conflation of what is unreal and what is, in a sense, too real. As any cinema-goers could testify, the cinematic scale of the spectacle was anything but unimaginable, and of course, it would be reimagined. Soon after the attacks, a seemingly imperceptible shift in perspective meant that New York was, once more, fair game for film directors looking for a city to destroy and a global audience to entertain. The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Cloverfield (2008), and even The Avengers (2012) all witness the wholesale destruction of New York City by forces as invasive, destructive and unforeseen as any terrorist insurgent.

An eerily-familiar gap smoulders on the Manhattan skyline in Cloverfield. (Image courtesy of collider.com: http://cdn.collider.com/wp-content/uploads/cloverfield-poster.jpg)

An eerily-familiar gap smoulders on the Manhattan skyline in Cloverfield.
(Image courtesy of collider.com: http://cdn.collider.com/wp-content/uploads/cloverfield-poster.jpg)

However, the response to the recent release of the cinematic trailer for Babak Najafi’s upcoming film London Has Fallen suggests that post-7/7 London might not be as forgiving as its American counterpart. Last week, one representative of an organisation created to commemorate the victims of the 2005 terrorist attacks on the British capital described the trailer – a 60 second montage of London’s most recognisable landmarks exploding to the sinister soundtrack of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ – as “highly insensitive”. [2] There were similar rumblings on Twitter, with users questioning the decision to premiere the trailer just days before nationwide services to commemorate those killed in the 7/7 attacks.

One quote in particular, from the same representative of the commemorative organisation, jumped out at me: “I have seen an image of Big Ben with the clock face blown out, that’s also insensitive.” What, I wonder, makes this image so offensive? London has not been entirely absolved of the terrorist threat by film and television directors in the post-7/7 era, perhaps most notably in series 3 of BBC’s Sherlock, where the protagonists must defuse a train carriage rigged with explosives in an abandoned tube station close to the Houses of Parliament.

Yet by depicting the destruction of the capital’s monuments, the trailer touches on more complex and contentious discourses surrounding national identity, iconicism and architecture, and the threat of the terrorist Other. As literary theorist Neil Leach argued of September 11th, “the attack struck at the very heart of the American psyche, since it was an assault on one of the very iconic references around which an American way of life has been formulated.” [3] By the same token, that we so quickly jump from images of national monuments being destroyed, to terrorism, to those identities and individuals with which we associate the term, says as much about our own perceptions of national identity, and national spaces, as it does about Hollywood’s ability to tap into our fears and fantasies.

I think that same sense of guilt and déjà-vu triggered by the visual spectacle of the fall of the twin towers is at work in this most recent cinematic trailer. From the destruction of contemporary cities by aliens, superheroes and monsters alike, to the detonation of trains beneath the streets of London, to the decimated clock face of Big Ben: somewhere an indelible line has been drawn between reality and fantasy, with the on-screen depiction of terrorism and urban destruction capable of collapsing the divide.

Perhaps then, what the trailer captures so well, and what has struck a nerve in the July of 2015, is the ease with which we can all imagine the real-world destruction of London’s monuments. After all, we’ve seen it all before.

London Has Fallen promo poster. (Image courtesy of: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/35557/new-posters-ant-man-and-london-has-fallen)

London Has Fallen promo poster. (Image courtesy of: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/35557/new-posters-ant-man-and-london-has-fallen)

 

 

[1] Lynn Spigel, ‘Entertainment Wars: Television Culture after 9/11’, American Quarterly, 56.2 (2004), p. 257.
[2] Ben Child, ‘London Has Fallen attacked for ‘insensitivity’ by 7/7 victims’ trust’, The Guardian, 2 July 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jul/02/london-has-fallen-attacked-for-insensitivity-by-77-victims-trust
[3] Neil Leach, ‘Topophilia/topophobia: The role of the environment in the formation of identity’. Ed. Xing Ruan and Hogben, P. Topophilia and topophobia: Reflections on twentieth-century human habitat. London: Routledge, 2007.

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