Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) directed by Antoine Fuqua


Let me make one thing clear: Olympus Has Fallen is a film for morons.  It treats you with utter contempt, secure in the knowledge that if it explodes a few heads and crashes a helicopter or two you’ll goober it up, gratefully slapping your hands together like an anaesthetised seal.  But this isn’t just a shitty action film - it’s also disturbingly fascistic.

Here’s yer plot; the White House has been invaded by terrorists.  Is Gerard Butler a bad enough dude to save the President?  This would be a pretty good setup for an arcade game in 1988, but as a big budget feature film it never seems less than utterly preposterous.  Your baddies are North Korean though the film doesn’t have the guts to make them actually North Korean.  These are rogue North Koreans who have spent their life disguising themselves as South Koreans, just waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  Their convoluted plan to invade the White House hinges on about ten or twenty separate events going just right.  The ultimate goal is to activate a secret weapons system that will deactivate every nuclear weapon in the US!  Halfway through filming they must have realised that deactivating nuclear weapons isn’t really that scary, so they quickly change the secret weapons system’s function to exploding every nuclear weapon in the US and hope no-one in the audience notices or cares.

"I'll stick a knife in your brain!".. you certainly did Gerry..
This disregard for the audience extends throughout the film, from constant continuity errors to shoddy special effects.  At one point half of the White House explodes, but in subsequent scenes the damaged side switches from right to left, or just vanishes altogether.  Early in the film the Washington Monument is partially destroyed.  The special effects of it slowly collapsing are just awful, the obvious fakeness compounded by the fact that in the background, we see traffic moving about normally as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.  I can imagine someone pointing it out to the special effects team and getting the response “Ah who gives a shit?”.  Even the fake news reports have typos in them that no-one could be bothered to correct.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m looking down on this film - I love a ton of films with preposterous plots, ropey special effects and cheesy scripts.  Even when there’s mountains of problems, a film can still be saved by some imaginative direction or a charismatic performance.  But this process works in reverse too, a bad film might not ‘just’ be bad - it can be ideologically repellent too.  This is where Olympus Has Fallen lies, not only a poorly made film but a rather evil one.

Adam Eckhardt as the President.
Olympus Has Fallen transforms the executive body of the US State from political entity into sacred religious iconography.  From frame one the film adopts a unquestioning nationalistic tone, hammering the beneficence and greatness of USA.  The White House and the President himself cease to be mere tools of governance and are clad in divine imagery.  It’s notable in a film about a politicians there is zero politics, the President, neither Democrat nor Republican, may as well be an infallible god-king, which makes the film’s invoking of Mount Olympus disturbingly appropriate.  As masked, anonymous terrorists roam around the White House, ruthlessly gunning down anyone in their path, the portraits of former Presidents - secular saints of the USA - gaze down disapprovingly.  The vision of a tattered American flag fluttering to the ground in slow motion while solemn martial music plays is treated with more gravity than the hundreds of civilians shot to death in the action scenes.  The true horror here is seeing the symbols of the US State defiled, a blasphemous orgy which only cements the divinity of their real-world counterparts.

This is the ‘sacralisation of politics’, a set of propagandist tools used by regimes from the Roman Emperors right up to Nazism, Mussolini’s Italy and, appropriately, present day North Korea.  They are designed to instil in the populace a sense of religious awe for the state, enabling a final form of ultra-nationalism.  One of the primary functions of this form of propaganda is to silence dissent, if you disagree with the actions your country is taking, then you are instantly in the wrong. 

Dylan McDermott as Forbes, a special forces commando turned secret service agent turned mercenary turned Occupy protester turned North Korean commando..
In this light, Olympus Has Fallen becomes a cudgel used to beat anyone who dares question the moral divinity of the United States of America.  It’s profoundly anti-intellectual, and clumsily brutal in the way it handles any criticism of the USA.  For example, one of the villain’s henchmen is a former secret service agent who, Judas-like, has “betrayed his country”.  When quizzed by the President as to why he’s turned traitor he unconvincingly mumbles something about bankers and Wall Street, the film ham-handedly including the Occupy movement in its axis of evil.

It goes without saying that this worship of the USA inevitably leads to atrocity.  The Fox News mindset that produced this film is the same one that can justify the overthrow of democratically elected governments, fabricate reasons to invade Middle Eastern countries and one that inevitably leads to terrified men and women hooked up to car batteries being pumped for information in dingy CIA bunkers.  It probably says something about the extent to which crimes against humanity are normalised in US media that the film contains a scene where our rugged hero stabs two captive terrorists to death during an interrogation, shouting “SPEAK ENGLISH MOTHERFUCKER” and no-one bats an eyelid.

Oh yeah and Morgan Freeman's in it too.
The only faint glimmer of light in this abyss is that the film is so poorly made that its earnestly fawning nationalism looks utterly ridiculous to an international audience.  In the cheesy hand-on-heart speechifying sequences, embarrassed giggles repeatedly broke out in the crowd.  But then there are going to be thousands of people for which this affirms that mindless, reflexive nationalism is the noblest of aspirations.  If you see this film and feel a flutter of emotion in your heart, know that this is a symptom of an evil growing within you.  Emma Goldman summed it up better than I ever could:
We Americans claim to be a peace-loving people. We hate bloodshed; we are opposed to violence. Yet we go into spasms of joy over the possibility of projecting dynamite bombs from flying machines upon helpless citizens. We are ready to hang, electrocute, or lynch anyone, who, from economic necessity, will risk his own life in the attempt upon that of some industrial magnate. Yet our hearts swell with pride at the thought that America is becoming the most powerful nation on earth, and that she will eventually plant her iron foot on the necks of all other nations. Such is the logic of patriotism.” - Emma Goldman ‘What is Patriotism’ (1908)
No stars/*****

Olympus Has Fallen is on general release from April 17

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