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Hollywood Is Blowing Up London Because It's So Bland

The new action film London Has Fallen is a stupid, frightening vision of where the capital may as well be headed.

by Sam Kriss
15 March 2016, 7:00am

London Has Fallen – Official Teaser Trailer

Most of the time, Hollywood likes to blow up New York. A transcontinental rivalry playing out in cinema screens across the world: every so often, Los Angeles gets tired of that line about its only cultural advantage being the ability to turn right on a red light, and it looses its fury on a CGI model of New York City. The city is pulverised, over and over again, by aliens, by terrorists, by zombies, by Godzilla. All those brittle towers stacked so closely together almost seem to invite it, like splinter-ready matchsticks; they look great when they crumble. There's a kind of displacement at work too: LA is sitting directly on an enormous geological faultline, ready to crumble at any moment; it helps to project that buried terror onto your rival on the other coast. Most of all, American audiences will tend to identify in some way with New York; which is why seeing it destroyed brings out that giddy combination of shock and satisfaction. They love New York, which is why we keep seeing it flattened.

But lately, Hollywood has started attacking London as well. London was invaded by something called the Aether in 2013's godawful Thor: The Dark World; that same year we were obliterated entirely by a satellite-launched weapon in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and if the Super Bowl trailer's anything to go by, we'll soon be crushed by a falling Burj Khalifa in the Independence Day sequel. In the meantime, there's London Has Fallen , a gleefully stupid action film in which the British capital has various bits smashed off it by a gang of evil arms dealers. Which, in a way, makes us proud. We don't want to admit it, but for a lot of British people the height of success is being recognised by Americans. We, pathetic and grasping, want them to love us. And if they have to kill us first, then so be it.

There isn't one London in London Has Fallen, though, but three. There's the real London, much of it shot by the film crew, but some of it appears to be taken from a stock footage library – leading to some very weird moments, in which we cut away from gunfights and explosions to a shot of a red bus dawdling along a street full of ordinary people as if nothing were happening. There's the fake London provided by Sofia, Bulgaria, where filming is cheaper and whose grimy streets look passably London-y if you squint enough. And then there's the CGI London in which, as one of the film's newsreaders puts it, various bombs have "decimated most of the known landmarks of the British capital". (In fact, they mostly just destroy the Chelsea Bridge and Westminster Abbey – even Big Ben only takes minor damage. The London Eye, in impressively fiery ruins on one poster, is untouched.)

The result is a lot of geographic confusion. A bulletproof jeep races through Westminster, then the City, then along the Embankment, and then back through Westminster again. Our heroes escape into a Charing Cross tube station that is clearly not Charing Cross. (Actually, it's Moorgate, with the sign changed – but why?) A dying terrorist reveals that their secret base is at "Broadwick and Lexington", which is not how addresses work in any city without a grid plan. And in one shot, we see an enormous telecommunications tower standing over the city, one that absolutely does not exist.

Despite getting the title role, London is not really a major feature in the plot. It turns out that the baddies are really interested in getting to the US President and cutting his head off over a live Internet stream, a plan to which London is entirely incidental. Usually, when Hollywood destroys a city in lingering slow-motion, we get a few scenes of ordinary people cowering or being crushed; here, the only life that matters is the President's. I'm relegated to backdrop. There's no effort to show any of the life in London that's about to be brutally cut short; the only British characters are cops, MI6 agents, or SAS grunts, all talking in the strained speech of orders and official communications ("Southpaw is down." "I read you."), and dying in anonymous dozens.

At first I was annoyed by this – if you're going to destroy my city with such evident enjoyment, at least show everyone what it is you're wiping out first. But what would they actually show? Office workers lining up for sandwiches at Pret a Manger? Scruffy-haired media interns searching for coins under the sofa to pay their rent? Commuters staring glassy-eyed at the Evening Standard, reading the same short sentence 20 times as they try not to fall asleep on the train? In the film, London is figured as being a kind of Anywhere, Planet Earth – and this is actually pretty accurate, because that's exactly what London is trying to be.

New York might be the financial capital of the world, but London is the international financial capital. When deals are done across national borders, an impressive portion of them are done in London, because London has carved out a niche for itself in the global economic system as neutral ground. We might leave refugees stranded in Calais, but the city will always be open to money from anywhere in the world. Our geographic position means that working hours in London overlap with those in both America and East Asia, and our punitive libel laws and the hat-doffing legacy of the class system keeps the global super-rich feeling safe and at home. There might still be some pockets of resistance, but London is effectively turning itself into Nowhere, with any lingering distinctiveness mostly tied up in a few famous landmarks. So when London Has Fallen blows them up, it's just finishing the job that we started.

@sam_kriss

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