In the summer of 2010, Hollywood studio MGM had the film “Red Dawn” in the bag and ready for release. There was one little problem, though: The movie — a remake of the 1984 film of the same name, a Cold War paranoid-fantasy about a Soviet invasion of America — had rebooted itself by imagining a more contemporary adversary: China.
A leaked copy of the script had led to an outraged editorial in a Chinese Communist Party-controlled newspaper, and the last thing MGM wanted as it struggled out of bankruptcy was to be shut out of the fastest-growing box office in the world, access to which was strictly controlled by the CCP. So MGM spent an extra $1 million on post-production to digitally erase all Chinese flags and military emblems, and change them to those of a new adversary: North Korea.
And why not? At the time, China was the fifth-largest movie market in the world and growing quickly (it’s now No. 2), whereas North Korea was not even on the movie map. China had shown its ability to mess with Hollywood studios over content they disapproved of — such as “Kundun,” “Red Corner” and “Seven Years In Tibet” — while North Korea could do little more than have its puppet newscasters squeal in outrage like trapped weasels. Hell, “Team America: World Police” got away with impaling Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il in 2004, before revealing that he was an alien cockroach.
MGM’s shift was a no-brainer, and it seemed like the North Koreans were destined for a long stint as the bad guys of last resort. “Red Dawn” finally came out in Japan in 2014, which also saw the domestic release of “Olympus Has Fallen,” a movie that portrayed the isolated and impoverished nation as capable of seizing the White House in a precision military assault.
Then along came “The Interview” — the Seth Rogen comedy that made a joke out of blasting Dear Leader Kim Jong Un to smithereens. The retaliatory cyberattack against the film’s studio, Sony, and veiled death threats made against anyone who went to see the film, changed the world overnight.
Hollywood won’t have Kim to kick around anymore, but the problem remains of who to cast as the bad guy. Once upon a time in America, it was so simple: Nazis and communists and, ahem, “Indians” — real-world enemies in wars both hot and cold. The Russians, in particular, were clearly the go-to bad guys for decades, portrayed in characters such as brutal spy Krebs in “Walk A Crooked Mile” (1948), butch KGB assassin Rosa Klebb in “From Russia With Love” (1963), and ubermensch boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV” (1985). Yet when the Berlin wall fell in 1989, things got complicated.
While drug lords and Arab terrorists picked up some of the slack, more typical were the villains in films such as “Die Hard,” which featured a motley assortment of criminals with vaguely European accents — “foreign,” without being specific. The idea of the “enemy within” had also been on the rise since Watergate, in the form of amoral corporations or rogue elements of the military-industrial complex, but it gained steam after Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
Yet things got so confused in the new millennium that in 2008, a baffled Sylvester Stallone turned to the U.N. for suggestions as to which regime in the world would be the most deserving of getting “Rambo”-ed. Their answer: Burma, which is where the fourth “Rambo” film remains banned. Taking a cue from North Korea, state-controlled media in Myanmar attacked Stallone as a “lunatic” and “fat with sagging breasts.” (And people think my reviews are harsh! )
While the Russians have made a bit of a comeback in the era of President Vladimir Putin, figuring out who to cast as the bad guys has become an even bigger problem in an era of globalization and political correctness; no matter who you choose to demonize, you’re guaranteed to tick off someone and lose part of your market, which may in no small part explain Hollywood’s massive turn toward fantasy and superhero villains: No one is going to riot or boycott a film for its clearly biased and stereotypical portrayal of the goblin community.
In Hollywood, the box office used to be viewed as divided in two: America and “everywhere else.” But by 2004, the foreign box office had overtaken the U.S., and now it’s twice as large. The studios have shown an increasing reliance on foreign markets, which can often be counted on to make even domestic flops turn a profit (“After Earth” and “Pacific Rim” are but two examples), and they have been increasingly catering to them.
To consider how this has affected filmmaking, let’s look at Japan. In Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor,” the theoretical bad guys — sneak-attacking Japanese Zero fighter pilots — are depicted as being decent chaps who go out of their way to avoid machine-gunning little kids. Then there’s Clint Eastwood, who followed up his World War II battle film “Flags of Our Fathers” with a second film, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which sympathetically told the story of the same battle from the Japanese soldiers’ point of view. One doubts we will get a sequel to Eastwood’s “American Sniper” told from the Iraqi side, and a cynic would note the size of Japan’s box office — then second only to the U.S. — as a motivating factor in moral objectivity. Note that Angelina Jolie’s new film, “Unbroken,” which depicts torture in Japan’s POW camps unambiguously, probably will not even open in Japan.
Combine this fear of offending anyone for economic reasons with the threat of real-world retaliation, such as the Sony cyberattack or the recent murders of the staff of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, and the likely result is an insidious increase in self-censorship, and a decrease in potential movie villains.
Would a film like Sacha Baron Cohen’s “The Dictator” (2012) — a veiled satire of then-ruling Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi — make it into development today? Probably not. But looking on the bright side, neither would “Red Dawn.”
Welcome to the era of one-world cinema, where the only enemy is whatever reduces the bottom line.
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