'London Has Fallen' is ill-timed, reckless terror flick

Landmarks in the British capital are the targets of terrorists in the upcoming movie "London Has Fallen."

Story highlights

  • Lewis Beale calls new movie "London Has Fallen" irresponsible at time of heightened fears
  • He says Hollywood has history of holding back or altering films, such as after 9/11
  • Creative types need to start asking themselves what purpose such films serve, Beale says

Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The new film "London Has Fallen" is obviously meant to be an action-filled popcorn flick, but there's something about its upcoming March release that strikes me as profoundly irresponsible.

Lewis Beale
After recent terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Paris, Burkina Faso and other places too numerous to mention, you have to wonder why a Hollywood studio would put out a film such as this one, which is practically guaranteed to ratchet up the paranoia factor. It is, after all, hitting theaters at a time when fear of terrorist attacks is at an all-time high.
"London Has Fallen" stars Gerard Butler as a Secret Service agent entrusted with the care of the U.S. president, played by Aaron Eckhart, who is in London to attend the funeral of a British prime minister. Terrorists disrupt the event, proceeding to blow up what looks like most of central London, including several Thames bridges and the Houses of Parliament. (The poster for the film even features a picture of Big Ben being blown to pieces.)
Not content to stop there, the terrorist leader, who has the Arabic-sounding name of Barkawi (and is played, ironically, by Israeli actor Alon Aboutboul), threatens to create the same havoc in every major world city unless the president is turned over to him, so he can be tortured and killed on live TV.
The plot is, of course, overwrought and absurd -- so far it doesn't appear there is any terrorist organization that can commit this kind of coordinated, massive global mayhem. It's basically Tom Clancy meets terror porn. But tell that to most Americans, who harbor outsize fears, even though they will likely never be personally touched by a terror attack.
It's been estimated that the odds of dying in a terrorist attack are 1 in 9.3 million. A recent poll found that a whopping 83% of registered voters believe a terrorist attack involving a large number of casualties will occur in the United States in the near future.
It's the old "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" syndrome -- and it turns out we have plenty of that. Films such as "London Has Fallen" are helpfully supplying more.
So I'm wondering: What is the filmmaker's responsibility here. The studio's? Could Gramercy Pictures (a subsidiary of Focus Features, which is owned by Universal Studios) move back the release date? Re-edit the film to take out the London carnage? Release it directly to pay-per-view or home video, thereby limiting its impact?
It's not as if there isn't precedent for altering films or delaying releases after terrorist attacks or mass murders. A slew of movies, including "Zoolander," "Spider-Man" and "Men In Black II" eliminated shots of the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks.
"The Bourne Identity" was extensively re-edited because of a storyline that involved terrorism. The release of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film "Collateral Damage" was postponed for four months because it featured a terrorist bombing in Los Angeles.
And in at least one instance (the 2011 film "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close") a movie was trashed by critics in part because some footage referring to 9/11 was left in -- bodies falling from the twin towers.
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One more? After the 2012 movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado, the release of the film "Gangster Squad," which featured a shootout in a cinema, was pushed back several months, and the sequence entirely re-shot.
It can be done.
It's not that filmmakers have some sort of responsibility to comfort the public in stressful times. Movies reflect a vision, and filmmakers are entitled to it. But movies such as "London Has Fallen" conjure a "What in God's name were they thinking?" feeling -- especially at a time of heightened terror fear (which is, granted, the new normal), and in a season in which major presidential candidates are spouting anti-Islamic and anti-Middle Eastern prejudices.
I'm not advocating censorship, and I understand Gramercy's need to earn back its production costs. But maybe the creative types need to start asking themselves what purpose such films serve. Are they really just mindless entertainment? Or are they a cynical attempt to make money by playing on our worst fears?
My guess: It is a combination of the two.
But that answer only shines a light on Tinseltown's cluelessness about the psychological effect of some of its product. A film such as "London Has Fallen" might provide two hours of cheap thrills, but it will most certainly not make us feel better about the Middle East, and safer in our beds at night.
Maybe we should just send Hollywood a message and not see it at all.