Remediating the apocalypse

Collateral Damage & Black Hawk Down

Collateral Damage director Andrew Davis tried hard to spin his Arnold Schwaznegger revenge thriller as a “heartfelt” film with “soul” that in spite of its many literally explosive moments was actually anti-violence. He told CNN:

Well, I think people understand what the term collateral damage means now. It's about innocent people being killed, getting caught in the crossfire of conflicts. And so in that sense, the film is more significant, it's more important….I don't think that films that use violence as exploitive kind of entertainment are going to be tolerated. And I don't think that's what this film is about. I think it's about a real character who's going on a very heartfelt journey. (CNN 7/2/02)

This is not of course how most reviewers saw it. Todd Anthony put it succinctly: “It follows the basic plot trajectory of nearly every Schwarzenegger film: Someone crosses Arnie. Arnie blows things up.” (Anthony n.d.)

Schwarzenegger plays Gordy a fire fighter whose wife and child are killed in a terrorist bombing. When he sees that the official investigation is not progressing he decides to go to Columbia and take matters into his own hands. Although in interviews for the film's release the action star is duly deferential to the memory of September 11 and laudatory about the heroism of real life fire fighters, he is refreshingly direct about the film's basic structure and impact.

Movies are movies. It's based on reality, but then you have to go the extra step. You want to make it entertaining and make it heroic, because that's what people want to see. They want a positive outcome. They want revenge. People are very loud and clear about what they want. When we tested our movie in November, they wanted to see a positive ending, they wanted us to kick the butts of the terrorists. Because in real life it's all so complicated. You know? Where are they? Have we found them all? We've found some of them. But bin Laden is still out there, some other guys are still out there. So there's still a dissatisfaction. But in a movie you close the deal. You close the chapter. Movies bring a certain kind of closure, a fantasy that makes people feel good afterwards.

This impulse towards closure operates at a number of levels. In both Collateral Damage and Black Hawk Down the terrorist leaders are given the opportunity to make set speeches about American imperialism and the justice of their respective causes. They are passionate and if accepted would open up entirely different readings of these films. However these moments are quickly erased, because the characters are literally and metaphorically not allowed to live. The thrust of both films quickly returns to the bodies of its respective heroes, their courage, their heroism and their saving actions.

There is no characterisation of the Somalis in Black Hawk Down they literally provide only a background against which the American's fight. The Somali rebels are portrayed as an animalistic mass against which the individual lives of the American soldiers are either won or lost.

The Somalis and the Columbians are in Bush's terms “evil-doers” who must be cast out. David Frum the speechwriter who is credited with creating the phrase “axis of evil” has said that the language of good and evil came naturally to the President. According to Frum it was a deliberate attempt to answer back the commentators who were asking whether America's past actions made it deserving of the attacks in some way. “He wanted to cut that off right away and make it clear that he saw absolutely no moral equivalence. So he reached right into the Psalms for that word.” Frum said (quoted in Fineman 2003).

Similarly Collateral Damage and Black Hawk Down make it clear that no matter what their histories there is no moral equivalence between the Somali rebels or the Columbian terrorists and the films' equally violent protagonists.

As Schwazenegger argued Collateral Damage, is a fantasy that promises closure, other post-September 11 films which didn't fare so well in this new environment such as the Quiet American were disturbingly open to interpretation.

The post 9/11 image of the fire fighter gave an added symbolic relevance to Arnie's heroics in Collateral Damage and the “no man left behind” heroism of the American soldiers in Black Hawk Down sparred off the patriotism of a nation at war. However The Quiet American opened the pathway between a complex set of “ancient” and “modern” histories.

Both its form - which is character driven rather than action driven - and its subject matter - which is personal as well as political - cohere to dispel any sense of easy closure. The film links viewers to a cycle of history played out ambiguously in the stories of individual lives rather than entertaining them with a formulaic, incident-based drama.

This web project is an evolving space exploring contemporary manifestations of the apocalyptic in current affairs and popular culture. It is being developed in association with my Ph.D. research and is both a research method and a presentation of that research. In exploring the apocalyptic I am particularly interested in mapping a series of multimodal mythic clusters that are evolving through a process of remediation which I identify as a key cultural logic for an age in which electracy is the new literacy of nomadic subjects. This hypertextual presentation foregrounds affiliational logic and although I hope the project accumulates meaning it does not seek to present a single, formal, linear argument. I have presented some of these ideas in more traditional academic formats in other places. Although the navigational choices are the user's own these tips may be useful. Feedback is very welcome.

Marcus O'Donnell 2005-2006