About the time I was a teen-ager, Disney Animation fell into a rut. When I was a child, they had a long list of solid animated feature films — Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan — that captured something of the mythic dimension of these old stories. Then sometime in the 1970’s, they started cranking out formula films that looked and felt more like Saturday morning cartoons than mythology. Their animation release schedule slowed to a crawl, and their live-action films were, if anything, even more formulaic and insipid than their animations. It wasn’t until Beauty and the Beast, in 1991, that they recovered something of the old Disney magic.
Recently, both Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas have predicted the imminent demise of the Big Blockbuster studio model, in part because the blockbuster films are in a rut, just like Disney was in the 1970’s. The big-budget Olympus has Fallen has been listed among the examples of the kinds of flops that are dragging down the genre.
I watched it last night, mostly out of curiosity.
My curiosity was sated: nothing else. The only virtue of this particular movie is that you won’t fall asleep watching it, partly due to the violent action, partly from grinding your teeth in indignation over having your intelligence so systematically insulted.
We don’t discover until about two-thirds of the way into the film that this is actually a standard Doomsday Machine story. The US Military-Industrial Complex has created a computer system called Cerberus, which allows mistakenly-launched nuclear ICBMs to be destroyed in flight with a computer-generated “kill code.”
Now the kill codes are only to be used for missiles in flight: if used while the nukes are still in their silos, they’ll explode (in a nuclear way, of course) and each take out a huge hunk of US real estate: an itty-bitty design flaw that must be documented in a footnote on page 997 of the Cerberus manual, which no one has read, since it comes as a complete shock to everyone when it becomes clear that this is about to happen.
This fail-safe Cerberus system is, itself, constructed entirely without fail-safes, and can only be controlled from within The Bunker under the White House: you know, the impregnable, nuclear-bomb-proof shelter they haul the President into any time the White House is under attack. The only security for Cerberus, apart from being hidden away in its secure crypt, is three magic talismans — er, I mean pass codes, each possessed by a different person, which must each be fitted into the magic artifact — er, I mean computer system.
This is what the Evil Sorcerer, Kang — er, I mean Evil Terrorist, Kang — is after: he wants to blow up all the nukes at once and destroy the US with its own weapons.
It’s a time-honored plot. One of the oldest versions I can think of is the tale of Aladdin and the djinn: too much power in careless or wicked hands is not a good thing. It is at the core of Lord of the Rings, in the forging of the Rings of Power, and the One Ring. It shows up as the Deathly Hallows of the Harry Potter series. Doomsday machines were a staple of the 1970’s and 1980’s, from Colossus of The Forbin Project, to WOPR of War Games, to the Death Star of Star Wars.
With so much to work from in the way of examples, good and bad, you’d think script writers would understand at least the basics. Whoever wrote/produced/directed Olympus clearly didn’t.
To start with, we have the dumb-idea-to-beat-all-dumb-ideas of Cerberus itself. A kill code for nuclear missiles, in case they are accidentally launched? Oh, excuse me, we just lobbed an armed nuclear device at Paris, we’re so sorry, we’ll blow it up before it gets there. The gun went off while we were cleaning it. Honest. It could have happened to anyone.
It’s the kind of thing you expect in a Bond movie from the Roger Moore period. Giant space lasers and Nazis on the moon and an evil minion with steel teeth. Plus a good dose of unpretentious self-mockery that makes such concepts fun. There be none o’ that here: this is a film that takes itself very seriously indeed.
Then there are the three magic talismans — er, I mean pass codes, which three people (who must be with the President in The Bunker) must memorize and be able to spit out on demand while under DEFCON 1 stress levels, which makes about as much sense as a brick with feathers. Even the surveillance cameras in the White House (in the movie) have a biometric security system: if your fingerprint isn’t on file, you don’t get to point a bloody camera, much less blow up a nuke. Yet this nuclear missile killer relies on three passwords that could be entered by anyone who overheard them in a bar, yet if even one of the three people forgets his/her password or is hospitalized or just plain gets locked out of The Bunker, the whole system is worthless. It’s ridiculous.
Then there are the exploding nukes. I shudder to think that people still think you can set off a nuclear bomb with a match and a fuse, but I have to let this one go, because people still think that way, and probably can’t be educated.
Fine. The film makes my Inner Geek gag. Most people won’t have that problem: it’s nukes and computers, which are Magic as far as most people are concerned.
But then there are all the implausible behaviors.
The White House is attacked while the President is entertaining the South Korean President, and the Secret Service breaks protocol — so they say in the film — by dragging the entire South Korean entourage into The Bunker with the President. Why? Because The President tells them it’s okay. Right.
Once in The Bunker, it is revealed that the staff members of the South Korean President are Not Who We Think They Are, and they quickly kill all the Secret Service agents and take everyone hostage. Right.
Meanwhile, up top, a small army of highly trained terrorists assaults the White House with clockwork precision, and only one man — Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) — manages to slip inside the White House ahead of them. He stays alive through the brilliant strategy of retreating upstairs, while the rest of the Secret Service agents posture at the front door and are mowed down like ducky targets at the local carnival. Right.
By the time we get to where Banning tells the brass hats, “For God’s sake, call off the helicopters, they have a f***ing Hydra 6.1 on the roof,” and the brass hats say, “Nope, we’re going in anyway, because we’ve sent the best of the best of the best and they can take it because they’re real men” (they get slaughtered), my suspension of disbelief has precipitated into a cold, hard lump in the pit of my stomach, and I’m starting to wonder if I can pass it without surgery.
But it only gets worse: the central, morally bankrupt core of the story that unfolds down in The Bunker.
Does anyone remember Die Hard? Remember Alan Rickman as the Bad Guy? Now he was scary. Bad dreams and wake-up-screaming scary. The terrorist Kang in Olympus is, by comparison, a posturing idiot. “I shall not underestimate you again, Mister Bond — er, I mean Banning,” he says, as he proceeds to underestimate him yet again.
The Evil Kang grabs Pass Code Contestant One, a uniformed general (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I think), puts a knife to his throat, and says, “Tell me the pass code.”
The general looks pleadingly at the President. “Never!” he squeaks. “You’re not my father! I’ll never join you!”
The Evil Kang tightens his grip. “Tell me!” he demands.
“Ackk!” says the general. “Never!” He continues to gaze at the President with puppy-dog eyes, eyes that say, “Please don’t let this nasty man with a knife hurt me!”
Then a most disturbing thing happens. “Tell him,” the President says. “It doesn’t matter. He needs all three codes, and he shall never get my code out of me!” And just like that, the general spits out his pass code.
Just in case we didn’t notice it the first time, this happens again. Pass Code Contestant Two is a woman, the Secretary of Defense, and Kang starts to beat her up. She offers him a vulgar and unimaginative suggestion. He beats her up some more. She spits blood and repeats her suggestion. He beats her up some more. She gazes soulfully at the President with puppy-dog eyes that say, “Please don’t let this nasty man with his big North Korean shoes hurt me!”
“Tell him,” the President pleads. “It doesn’t matter. He needs all three codes, and he shall never get my code out of me!” And just like that, the Secretary of Defense spits out her pass code.
Yes, it’s starting to sound a bit like a shaggy dog story.
We are now expecting some seriously sadistic fun-and-games with the President, but it turns out that Kang’s cyberpunk expert is able to guess the third code (oh, right, we needed a clever plot-twist right about now, thank you).
At this point, I have no idea which end of my alimentary tract is going to disgorge the congealed suspension-of-disbelief in my gut, but either way, I know it’s going to hurt.
However, the film thankfully degenerates into boilerplate farce from here. Cerberus, of course, goes into “countdown mode” — whatever happened to the simple “Destroy the world: are you sure? (Y/N)” prompt? — which gives Mr. Banning five minutes to defeat the bad guy and save the nation. Five minutes isn’t enough time to slip out for a smoke, much less escape a continent-wide nuclear armageddon; the sensible thing for the terrorists to do is to sit tight in the bomb-proof Bunker until it’s all over. Especially since they know the never-to-be-underestimated-again Mr. Banning is out there, waiting for them to open the door.
So of course they open the door.
Sure enough, there is Mr. Bon– er, Banning, who shoots everyone except Kang, whom he has to defeat mano a mano. It’s the usual tiresome and gentlemanly affair, where they knock each other down and then wait, smirking, for the other to get up so they can resume kicking the crap out of each other according to Marquis of Queensbury rules. Meanwhile, the President slowly bleeds his life away after being shot in the stomach, and Cerberus calmly ticks down toward oblivion in the other room.
Yes, thank you for asking, the timer does indeed keep ticking after the abort code is entered, then stops with three seconds remaining on the timer. I kept waiting for a mechanical female voice to say, “Apocalypse aborted. Have a nice day.”
Fortunately, this ludicrous ending caused my suspension of disbelief to evaporate into a foul-smelling but otherwise harmless gas that escaped via the usual route, startling the dog, who left the room with his tail between his legs and an expression of betrayal in his eyes.
Every film and play and novel — every story — draws from and shapes the culture it exists within. The ancient Greek tragedies, for instance, are wrapped around the ideas of arete and fate, ideas that obsessed the Greeks but which are largely unknown to modern audiences. Even the almost-modern Shakespeare is becoming dated: try fielding a production of The Taming of the Shrew without leaving your audience silent and uncomfortable.
I’ve been trying to boil the flaws in Olympus down to their essence, because I think there are some interesting thoughts to explore. But it’s difficult, because the whole story-line is a poorly-crafted muddle: Die Hard meets War Games, with a sprinkling of Blackhawk Down mixed with Doctor Strangelove. That seems to be the formula the big-budget films want to follow: let’s take successful movies from the past and mash them together randomly to create new blockbusters.
This is typical of corporate executive thinking. There’s an old story about a writer, a director, and a producer who go to a restaurant famed for its carrot soup. The writer tastes his soup, and exclaims, “This is perfect! It’s the best carrot soup I’ve ever tasted!” The director tastes his, and exclaims, “Fabulous! With a pinch less salt and a touch of cayenne, it would be perfect!” The producer tastes his, and says, “This is very good! Say, I’ve got an idea! Let’s pee in it!”
I can easily see the actors crowding around the director during filming, scripts in hand, demanding, “What’s my motivation? Why am I saying this? Why would I do that?”
There’s a point in the film where the former-Secret-Service-agent-turned-evil-private-sector-contractor, who has just tried to kill Banning, is asked, “Why? Why did you do it?”
“Oh, fuck, Mike,” is his only answer, and a tear runs down his cheek. I think that puts the whole motivational structure of the film into the clearest possible expression. The writers made me do it, Mike, and I don’t know why.
Apart from that confusion, there are a few deeper themes to be teased out.
Someone recently pointed out how much the Vietnam War changed America, in ways we don’t usually think about. Look at any of the US newsreels or propaganda pieces of the 1940’s, while the US was involved in WWII. The goal of war in the 1940’s was winning, and it was widely understood that involved a lot of killing: the Germans, the Japanese, all the Axis powers. In the process, a lot of young American men were also going to get killed, and that was just fine: they’d get posthumous medals, and their parents could be proud of their service to their country.
By the end of the Vietnam War, a profound but subtle shift had occurred. War was now about limiting casualties. First, American soldiers, but also enemy civilians and even enemy combatants. Look at the news reports of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars: the first and most prominent thing published was always the casualty count for the day, or week, or month, or year. Who got killed, and how, and why? We now analyze wars, not in terms of victory or defeat, but casualty counts.
This probably had a lot to do with the Vietnam War itself, but I suspect it also had a lot to do with the normalization of perpetual war as business. It’s bad for business to be killing off mothers’ sons. It’s inefficient. And it’s terrible Public Relations.
This shift seems to have been more or less concurrent with the glorification of “saving lives” through modern medicine, and the rise of Youth Culture: that advertising-promoted Promised Land where cremes and ointments and diets and exercise products will keep us young forever.
This has warped our collective moral compass something awful.
What runs through this film is an absolute obsession with personal survival. This is at the root of the whole twisted morality play in The Bunker: sure, give up the keys to nuclear Armageddon — it’s okay because you saved a life.
The entire War room decides to pull out of the Korean DMZ, just to save the President’s life, even though it is in the hands of someone who is by no stretch of the imagination going to return him alive. But they have to try, don’t they?
Even the Evil Kang is subject to what this film promotes as the indomitable human urge to save one’s own skin. Kang is painted as an ideologue with a single-minded goal of destroying the US. Members of his entourage and army drop like feathers from a molting duck during the assault; he, himself, faces death implacably in the struggle to take The Bunker. He’s holed up in an impregnable fortress with the one thing that could undo all his work, should anyone from the outside gain access to it, so what does he do? He opens the door and tries to escape, five precious minutes before his life’s work is done. He even takes a hostage (the President) to “ensure his safety.”
In any other time or place in human history, this obsession with personal survival would have been deemed simple cowardice. This cowardice running across the entire US government leadership, contrasted against Banning’s old-school tough-guy heroism, is what gives the film it’s Strangelovian flavor.
Another deep theme in this film is the failure of the American spirit. Yes, the film opens with a shot of Old Glory waving in the sunlight as dramatic music swells, and it closes the same way, after an embarrassingly tedious speech by the President about how little obstacles like this just make the US stronger, we are the nation of the best of the best of the best on which the sun never sets, blah, blah, blah. It tries to paint itself as a celebration of the American spirit.
There’s a basic rule of modern fiction writing: show, don’t tell. All of the celebration of the American spirit in this film is done through telling. What is shown is something else entirely.
We need a child-safety cap on our nuclear arsenal? What does it mean that we might let a nuclear missile slip out accidentally? It means our nuclear systems, and the government that runs it, cannot be trusted.
This is very different from the nuclear themes of the past, like Doctor Strangelove, where the moral question was whether humankind as a whole could be trusted with nuclear weapons. Here, we see a fragmented US that cannot secure its own weapons against theft or usurpation or plain stupidity: the solution is to place a final veto power in the hands of a sentimental coward, so that even if the nukes are used, they won’t actually kill anyone.
Speaking of Doctor Strangelove, the circle of leaders around the DoD war table is also quite evocative of Kubrick’s film. At one point, the interim President tells the Army Chief of Staff to shut his mouth and not say another word unless someone asks him a question; Banning blows him off, too; every decision the general makes is both idiotic (he’s the “best of the best of the best” guy) and leads to catastrophe. There’s some guy in an untucked shirt with horn-rim glasses who bounces around making inappropriate comments, like Air Traffic Controller Johnny in Airplane. The only character with any gravitas is the interim President (Speaker of the House), but that’s because it’s Morgan Freeman playing the part, not because of the script.
The one smart, strong person in the whole morality play is Mike Banning, who — for some completely mysterious reason — looks up to the President and his other bosses. The dissonance was so strong that I half-hoped a chorus line of naked cartoon monks would dance across the credits singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It would have made so much more sense out of the movie.
I think it is good that the film was a financial flop. It says that the film is not quite in sync with the culture, which is a good thing: I’d hate to think that most Americans would agree with the image portrayed in this film.
I’d also like to think that producers would take a hint and get their heads out of their assets and pay more attention to basic story-telling, which is what movies are about.
But I suspect the lesson will be lost on them: they would rather pee in the carrot soup.