by Preposition Joe
It’s simultaneously too horrible to say aloud, and too obvious to ignore. Osama Bin Laden based the 9/11 attacks on the films of Michael Bay.
Perhaps that’s not fair. He based 9/11 on the films of Michael Bay, and the films of Roland Emmerich and Mimi Leder. And possibly Tim Burton too.
Disaster movies were a staple of 70s popular culture, but they seem rather innocent today. Yes, there were burning buildings, crashing planes, cities in ruins. But their disasters were accidents or natural events, with no villain more sinister than a cost-cutting corporation or complacent authorities who won’t listen to the warnings of our hero. Audiences tired of the disaster movie after a while and the genre lived on only in parody.
And then, in the mid-1990s, the disaster movie had a resurgence, as the kids who’d grown up on Towering Inferno and Earthquake graduated from film school.
The new disaster movies of the 90s had a recurring motif; the destruction of recognisable buildings, from the air. Not all the destruction was intentional – in Armageddon and Deep Impact (both 1998) there were chunks of rock slamming into New York skyscrapers. But in the 90s’ biggest blockbuster of all, Independence Day, (1998) airborne and deliberate attacks blew up iconic buildings in New York and Washington. Towering Inferno (1974) blew up a fictional building. Audiences had never set foot in it themselves. No such reticence from Emmerich, Bay or Leder. They gave audiences what they wanted, striving to top each other as they destroyed school-trip favourites like the Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building, The Capitol and the White House. Godzilla (1998) destroyed much of Manhattan too. The climax of Fight Club (1999) featured the orchestrated destruction of multiple corporate buildings. Nicole Kidman and George Clooney raced against time to stop a terrorist destroying the UN Building in 1997’s The Peacemaker. Tim Burton parodied the trend in 1996 with Mars Attacks!, destroying not only Washington’s big names, but Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, downtown Tokyo, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and Mount Rushmore.
It’s common for people to think of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda as monsters in caves, primal creatures – violent, but unthinkingly so, to be feared as we fear a wild animal. But even if they despise western secular culture, terrorists are fully aware of it. It’s impossible not to think there’s a connection between the billion-dollar-grossing films of the 90s and the actual attacks. In the most terrible way imaginable, Bin Laden too was giving the public what they wanted.
The attacks were timed, directed, for maximum coverage, in both the news and the cinematic sense of the word. The thing the terrorists most wanted was the visual impact, the spectacle. The grim mechanics of the attacks on the World Trade Centers meant that thousands of cameras would be rolling to record the second plane. The composer Karlheinz Stockhausen insists he was misinterpreted, but in September 2001, he called the attacks “the greatest work of art imaginable”. He was excoriated at the time for saying the unsayable. But now that Bin Laden is dead, let’s go one step further. The attacks were, intentionally, a Hollywood blockbuster come to life.
Buildings and statues are useful shortcuts in the vocabulary of film: they stand for power: legal, financial, military, governmental. And watching the destruction of those symbols gave audiences a transgressive, guilty thrill – they laughed and even cheered as the Clinton-era White House exploded in yet another big-budget adventure. Previous science-fiction films used ruins, symbols of power brought low by time, more poetically. The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes (1968), or a ruined Washington in Logan’s Run (1976). All worldly power, we see, turns into Ozymandias in the end, not only gone but forgotten. The films of the 90s cut to the chase; worldly symbols of power are fair game, right now.
If Hollywood influenced Bin Laden, did Bin Laden influence Hollywood? Nobody makes that kind of “let’s destroy New York” film any more, for a start. It would be in bad taste. The only true post-9/11 disaster film you can make now is United 93. We still have an appetite for destruction, but we prefer it to be in the more solemn realm of the environment, the earth itself rising up or falling apart beneath us: 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, or our punishment in The Day The Earth Stood Still for not treating Gaia with more care. When Spielberg remade War of the Worlds in 2005, it wasn’t right for the enemy to simply rain fire on us from above. He made the threat rise up from beneath.
But maybe there’s one more twist to the tale.
Perhaps it wasn’t just a generation of 70s-disaster-film fans growing up to be movie-makers which brought us the spectacle of iconic buildings under attack. Because of course, the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centers were a kind of sequel. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s attack of 1993 wasn’t just an attempt to blow up a building. It was a monstrous engineering project intended to turn the two buildings into dominos – to send one crashing into the other. That disaster movie never got made, but the image filtered into the popular consciousness all the same. Many an action film maker must have admired, however guiltily, its spectacular power. And perhaps they even felt that they could improve on it … just as Osama Bin Laden was thinking the same thing.