Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Lights, Camera, Terrorism!

Last week I saw both Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3. The Internet's already overstuffed with commentary about the two films so I'll keep my analysis to a minimum. Star Trek at least manages to resemble a better than average episode of the original TV show. The banter and byplay between the crew members, especially Kirk and Spock, works well, and the only flaw in the film is that it's simply crammed with far too many hairsbreadth, last nanosecond, by the skin of their teeth escapes from certain death. The crew of the Enterprise don't get anything accomplished until the last possible moment; Star Trek Into Tardiness may have been a more apt title. The problem with Iron Man 3 is that it doesn't resemble anything except a two-hour GIF consisting of every action movie cliche of the past ten years. A barometer of its overall lack of imagination is that the action finale takes place on a container dock. A container dock! I can only surmise that the container dock was chosen because there were no abandoned warehouses or derelict factories available at the time. The rest of the movie is just plain old tired. Tony Stark's jokey insouciance is stale and poorly written, and the other cast members have even less to work with. The low point of the film comes when Tony has to befriend a, "Gee whiz, are you Tony Stark?!" little kid. It's a sequence that feels far too Disneyfied for its own good. So in summation, see Star Trek, skip Iron Man.

Both films, interestingly enough, have terrorism as a theme. In Star Trek the villain, named Harrison, is initially seen as a terrorist but is then revealed to be Khan, a kind of superman who was cryogenically frozen and has been thawed out to further the war aims of a renegade Starfleet admiral. In Iron Man, the vaguely Muslim villain called the Mandarin is revealed to be nothing more than a slimy version of the great and powerful Oz. The Mandarin is just an actor who has been hired to play the part of a terrorist by an evil scientist who's interested (the film doesn't make this very clear) in creating a market for his bio-engineered soldiers. And in the original Iron Man the bad guy was manipulating terrorists in order to drive sales of weaponry to both sides.

Both films, I'd argue, are trying to domesticate and emasculate terrorism. What makes political or religious terrorism frightening (aside from the violence) is that it's trying to effect permanent and total change in a society or region. A real world terrorist, the kind who detonates a car bomb beside a Sunni religious procession in Iraq, or blows themselves and others up on a bus in Tel Aviv, or even a government that's employing drone strikes, is aiming for wholesale and long-lasting change. Terrorism based in faith or ideology is scary because it can't be argued against or bought off; it has to be faced up to, often at great cost. Films like Iron Man and Star Trek take the scary edge off terrorism by showing us terrorists who are either phony or easily manipulated by canny capitalists and politicians. In the film world, terrorism has no roots, no philosophy, it's merely a chess move that's part of some short-term plan to make money or reach a strategic political goal. Audiences are comfortable with this kind of terrorism; it reflects our corporate, capitalist view of how the world should work. It's equivalent to a child being told that those spooky noises he hears at night are just so many windy branches and creaky stairs. It's too much to expect summer blockbusters to take a nuanced or sophisticated view of terrorism, but it's interesting that they choose to turn it into a kind of psychological comfort food.

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