Thursday, April 18, 2013

Real Tragedy vs. Reel Tragedy: A History of Films Released in the Shadow of Non-Fiction Horror

For much of the last six months, many hardcore Star Trek fans have been somewhat annoyed that the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness has been marketed as a somewhat generic grim-n-gritty 'dark sequel' focused not on space exploration but on Kirk and his crew pursuing a seemingly unstoppable super villain (Benedict Cumberbatch).  I've jokingly referred to the marketing as Skyfall Into The Dark Knight, but the irony is that Paramount may now be regretting their 'sell this to generic action fans' approach.  If, and this is a big "if", the perpetrator behind Monday's Boston Marathon attack turns out to be a domestic terrorist with a grudge against allegedly tyrannical government forces, how will Paramount handle their prime summer tent pole, which has been centered around a domestic terrorist with an apparent grudge against Starfleet blowing up populated areas?  This is sadly not the first time we've had this kind of discussion.  But it's worth noting that it's having to happen with increasing frequency.

Almost 18 years to the day, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, which was at the time the largest terrorist attack on US soil. 20th Century Fox was in an odd position of marketing their prime summer tent pole, the bomb-filled Die Hard: With a Vengeance.  Bruce Willis famously said that he didn't want to trivialize the tragedy by discussing it in terms of a fictional action picture, which is probably what Paramount needs to say.  Press on, perhaps show a few less explosions and a few more outer-space flying shots to the TV campaign, let the press ask everyone about it during the junket, and move on accordingly.  Star Trek Into Darkness's box office probably won't be harmed by the real-life similarities any more than The Dark Knight Rises was negatively affected by the Aurora Colorado shooting that took place during a midnight screening of said movie.  Columnists and pundits hemmed and hawed about the movie that really had no connection to the kind of random violence committed during that midnight showing, but the Chris Nolan Batman finale still pulled in $448 million domestic and over $1 billion worldwide.

Films like Iron Man 3 (which pits Tony Stark against an apparently international terrorist in the Bin Laden mold played by Ben Kingsley) and Star Trek Into Darkness are probably too big to be all-that-affected by negative current events surrounding their release.  In terms of real-life events negatively effecting the reception of upcoming films, it's usually the smaller films that get hit hardest.  Those who wanted to see The Dark Knight Rises surely went even as they may have had a token amount of fear in the back of their minds about a copycat shooter.  After all, in layman's terms, it was The Dark Knight Rises! But you were genuinely concerned about a copycat assailant over the next week or two, was it really that urgent for you to see The Watch, which came out the next weekend?  The Watch of course got hit twice by current events, having to change its title from Neighborhood Watch and its marketing emphasis to sci-fi after the Treyvon Martin shooting several months prior by someone claiming to be a member of the local neighborhood watch. We'll see what if any effect Monday's news has on Tom Cruise's Oblivion, which has the luxury of having absolutely nothing to do with current events.

Tom Cruise's last film, Jack Reacher, had the misfortune of being the first guns-and-ammo action picture to be released after the Newtown school shooting.  The irony is that the film arguably suffered at the box office because it actually took its violence seriously.  The film, which opened with a brutal and disturbing sniper attack on random bystanders and made a point to focus on the aftermath of said random violence, was viewed in a wholly different light my many critics than it would have been had it been released on December 7th instead of December 21st.  The slightly disappointing film (in terms of box office-wise, with $80 million domestic), which contained light commentary on America's gun culture, arguably paid a price for being prescient and taking its bloodshed more seriously than most pure action thrillers.  And who is to say if the flurry of flop R-rated action films from Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger  and Jason Statham had anything to do with America's alleged post-Newtown opinions on arbitrary cinematic slaughter?  I'm inclined to say no, as the insanely violent Olympus Has Fallen just crossed $80 million over the weekend with $100 million domestic in its grasp, but it certainly didn't help.

Post-9/11, the big-budget Sum of All Fears, which starred Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan and featured Baltimore being nuked by a group of renegade neo-Nazi terrorists, did just fine in summer 2002 (about $120 million domestic).     Spider-Man arguably benefited from the terrorist attack that occurred several months prior to release.  It became a quintessential American entertainment, featuring a definitively American underdog superhero rescuing New York (with help from brave New Yorkers in the film's corniest moment) from random violence and super villain threats. I've long theorized that had Michael Bay's (deservedly panned) Pearl Harbor debuted in November 2001 instead of May 2001, it would have gotten more of a pass from critics and challenged Titanic for the domestic box office crown.  

But a flurry of smaller films that had a loose connection to the tragedy (Big TroubleA View From the Top, Bad CompanyCollateral Damage, etc.) were delayed and all bombed pretty hard. Small films often can't stand the heat of being associated with negative current events.  Idle Hands (a horror comedy about a stoner who gets possessed and slaughters his fellow high-schoolers) would likely have been DOA regardless, but its release soon after the Columbine shootings didn't help. Meanwhile, the already successful The Matrix didn't suffer one iota from being (wrongly) tagged as a kind of theoretical inspiration for the kind of shooting spree that Klebold and Harris committed.  But I'd argue bigger films are not only mostly unaffected by an 'life imitates art' situation. They can actually benefit from it.

I've already discussed Spider-Man, but did the 9/11 attacks help audiences and critics view Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and especially The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring in a slightly different light?  Did their epic respective journeys of young heroes grieving loved ones struck down by evil and forced into horrible circumstances purely due to the times they happened to be living in resonate more with audiences due to the events that preceded them? I can only speculate, and much of their respective successes came from the fact that they were exceptional fantasy adventures.  But surely they were the kind of mournful, thoughtful, yet ultimately hopeful and optimistic heroes' journeys that resonated just a bit more in light of current events. 

Relative quality and successful marketing aside, they were arguably the films we needed at the time we needed them.  Will Star Trek Into Darkness's tale of a young Captain Kirk chasing a lone wolf  terrorist operate as a prescient parable for current events?  Will Tony Stark's face-off with The Mandarin resonate as more than just a superhero smack down?  Will Man of Steel be precisely the film we need during this somewhat dark hour, an inspirational and ultimately optimistic ode to the classic ideals of Americana and the best potential in humanity?  Will these films, like Spider-Man eleven years ago, connect on a larger scale than predicted due to their theoretical cathartic potential?

We can only speculate until we know for sure, and there is certainly no tasteful way for studios to intentionally inspire this kind of sentiment.  Attempts post-9/11 at selling films like The Majestic or television shows like The Agency as 'what America needed' failed spectacularly and earned demerits for poor taste.    What's worth noting is how frequently we seem to be having the 'How will the most recent real-life tragedy affect this upcoming movie?' conversation.  What used to be a periodic conversation after seemingly monumental tragedies (the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the Columbine shootings in 1999, the 9/11 attacks in 2001) has now become almost routine as these acts of mass violence become almost routine.  In less than a year, we've had three such shocking incidents of mass murder, in July and December of last year and now this week. 

I have little else to offer, aside from the hope that this is the last time we'll have to talk about this for a long time.

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