When something goes wrong, particularly events that are almost too tragic to fathom, we seek solace though our media. After September 11th, 2001, likely the most tragic event any U.S. reader of Topless Robot would have lived through, there was a long period before the subject would be touched, and even longer before it would be focused on directly. Instead, creators focused on allegory to tell stories that touched on the tragedy of that September morning when lived changed around the world.
One of the first genres to tackle the subject of September 11th was science fiction. Earth was attacked by the Xindi in Star Trek: Enterprise, Fringe showed us a universe in which the attacks were foiled, and we experience unparalleled devastation when the Cylons attacked the Twelve Colonies of Kobol. Of course, for every good allegorical reference, there are some that don’t quite work. Here are eight September 11th allegories that got it wrong.
8. Doctor Who: “Aliens of London”
If there are any enemies that could be easily forgotten in the revival of Doctor Who, it would be the Slitheen. These overweight, flatulent green aliens – who’d love to have Buffalo Bill as their tailor – engineer a crisis in which a spaceship comes down on London, crashing into one of the city’s oldest and most recognizable landmarks: Big Ben. As all eyes look to the sky, the series shows us newscasts from around the world, eerily similar to what was seen on September 11th. We get a look inside a seemingly inept British government, who, other than Harriet Jones, MP for Flydale North, are completely duped by a plan that sounds like it was written by a bad Bond villain.
It fails as allegory for not having any meat. Big Ben as a target is about as safe a choice as the producers could make, and the absurdity of the villains just takes any bit of credibility out of the episode. If that weren’t enough, it’s likely the worst episode of Doctor Who since the revival, except for maybe “Love and Monsters”.
J.J. Abrams’ found footage epic Cloverfield unleashed a 25- foot tall creature on the city that never sleeps. The going-away party for the Japan-bound Rob gets interrupted by the severed head of Lady Liberty, removed Sub-Zero-style by a monster that apparently has issues with tall women. As the intrepid band of co-eds traverses the city in search of Rob’s lost love, they follow Clover on a roaring rampage of revenge.
Between Clover and the military, the Big Apple gets a massive chunk bitten out of it. It could almost be looked at as a criticism of the armed forces, who, when the situation gets out of control, unleash nuclear weapons on American soil as a last ditch effort. The collateral damage includes most of the city as well as our protagonists.
Why doesn’t the allegory work? There’s a lack of soul behind it. Like other films on this list, it has an almost complete lack of accountability. The big picture is somewhat ignored for the sake of a few angst-filled yuppies who are frankly hard to care about, a mistake corrected in similarly themed films like the reinvention of Godzilla or Pacific Rim.
6. War of the Worlds
It was obvious from the start that Stephen Spielberg’s take on the H.G. Wells classic would be a big budget spectacular featuring tons of Tom Cruise running moments. As the invasion begins, we are treated with the wanton destruction we’ve come to expect from a summer tentpole feature: explosions, death rays, and countless dead.
While all of this could bring thoughts of September 11th into one’s head, the image most disturbing is when Tom Cruise’s character walks back into his family home after escaping the first salvo of tripod attacks. Covered in more white powder than Tony Montana, his image is reminiscent of 9/11 survivors walking the streets of New York covered in dust and debris. The difference for Cruise’s character: he’s covered in the dehydrated remains of humans. The scene seems more at home in a Michael Bay Transformers movie than a Spielberg film, and is borderline profane.
5. Star Trek Into Darkness
Captain Lensflare’s second entry on this list is his needless re-imagining of the best film in the Star Trek franchise. The film begins with a pair of terror attacks on Starfleet itself, first against a top secret research facility, then against the heart of Starfleet Command’s senior officers. Can anyone say Pentagon?
Captain Kirk’s feverish manhunt for Khan mirrors what many Americans felt in the aftermath of the attacks, with only Vulcan logic stopping him from potentially starting an all-out war with the Klingon Empire.
An interesting observation, particularly in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, is the amount of surveillance Starfleet has on the citizens of Earth. When Kirk is looking at the video evidence of the London attack, every single person visible is identified by name. As hopeful as Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was, the Abrams interpretation shows that even in the 23rd century, the government will be watching, likely more closely than today.
If that weren’t enough, the plot is just plain lazy. The destruction of Vulcan in the first film, one of the centerpieces of the Federation, is a far superior allegorical reference to 9/11 than the multiple attempts Into Darkness makes at playing with your patriotic heartstrings, with Khan’s last ditch effort to crash the U.S.S. Vengeance into Starfleet Headquarters the final straw. The only way they could have been less subtle would have been for Khan to target New York.
4. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder
Rather than reference the attacks on America, this direct-to-DVD continuation of the series attempts to focus on post-9/11 America and the almost rabid need for vengeance felt by many in the aftermath. Throughout the series we’ve seen an almost radical devotion of the proletariat towards the crusade against the Arachnid species, but the third film in the series brings that devotion to levels the Westboro Baptist Church would envy.
Since our last outing with the Mobile Infantry, religion has been almost banned, replaced with a fanatical worship of the government. People who speak out are hanged or simply executed on the spot, while military leaders double as pop stars. It’s a twisted, farcical look into the patriotic mentality adopted immediately after September 11th.
While patriotism indeed was at a high point in the days that followed the 11th, Marauder seems to be more closely tied to the first Persian Gulf war than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While people proudly waved their flags and largely supported the effort to bring those responsible to justice, it was in the early ’90’s that you could buy Operation Desert Storm trading cards, action figures, and die-cast metal vehicle replicas. The rampant commercialism of the Desert Storm era is perfectly replicated in Starship Troopers 3, while it was years before we saw the first 9/11 collectible coin or commemorative cheese tray.
3. Every Transformers Movie…That’s Right, Every Single One
Michael Bay is certainly a master of explosives, with all of the grace and subtlety of Gilbert Gottfried reading Goodnight Moon. Each one of his Transformers films ups the ante in terms of wanton destruction, and while the series makes no attempt to masquerade as high art, it’s obvious that the images of destruction are supposed to evoke memories of that fateful day in September.
While the films haven’t left Dinobot-sized footprints on New York or Washington D.C. yet (it’s only a matter of time), they’ve demolished enough cities (Bay must have a hard-on for Chicago) and Wonders of the World for two lifetimes. The root failure in any attempt at allegory here is the stylization of the carnage. Buildings topple, fires burn out of control, set to blaring rock and slow motion scenes of our characters posing and exposing as much cleavage as a PG-13 rating will get you. It’s a blend of the disaster exploitation films of the ’70s, porn, and the presentation style of the NFL, and for that, it can’t begin to be taken seriously, despite whatever social commentary the producers think they’ve packed into it.
2. Battlestar Galactica: “Occupation”
I’ll be the first person to defend Ron Moore’s vision of Battlestar Galactica until the bitter end, though the only time my faith in the series has wavered was with the season three opener, “Occupation.”
The series kicked off with one of the best September 11th allegories in all of fiction, with the Twelve Colonies of Kobol suffering a devastating attack rendering humanity an endangered species. As season two ends, the remnants of the human race are living a meager existence on the bleak world of New Caprica, when the Cylons arrive to occupy the planet.
If the mini-series was to be an allegory on 9/11, “Occupation” sets out to make the viewers look to the other side of the coin at the subsequent invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. As things get progressively worse on the planet, the human resistance takes the extreme route of using suicide bombers to send a message to their Cylon captors. It’s trying to give a level of perspective to those watching at home unable to fathom the amounts of suicide bombings taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The reason it doesn’t work is that, no matter what tragedy we as Americans experienced on September 11th, there hasn’t been an occupying force on American soil for ages. It’s trying to force a perspective on people who, for all intents, have no perspective on what it’s like to live in an occupied country. We are fortunate as Americans to have never suffered through such a period, especially as a consequence for actions committed by such a small minority of people, and it’s almost impossible as an American to grasp the concept of having to blow yourself up to make a point. The freedom to make a statement without exploding is one we all take for granted.
1. Man of Steel
Out of all of the shows and films on this list, none of them displays wanton destruction like Zack Snyder’s dark and moody take of Superman, Man of Steel. As Supes takes on General Zod, all traditional Superman values are broken faster than a Kryptonian’s neck.
Accountability is left by the wayside as our hero goes toe to toe with Zod, a major flaw in the whole concept of referencing September 11th. The aftermath paints a scene of devastation not unlike the streets of New York, just on a much grander scale, but without displaying the consequences at least in terms of the obvious tens of thousands dead. In fact, studies were conducted to estimate the damage and death toll from the climactic battle, with absolutely staggering results. Hundreds of thousands killed and missing, a million injured, and over 700 billion dollars in damages according to Watson Technical Consulting, but at least Clark and Lois get to hug it out in the end.
In closing, I’d like to take a moment to personally remember that day. I was working on a military base as a civilian contractor, in a bad mood for some unknown reason. It was likely due to a fight with a now ex-girlfriend, or I was late to work, but something had me feeling sour that morning. In an instant all of that vanished, as civilians, enlisted and officers gathered around the projector of our teleconference room to view the events unfolding. We watched and wondered what would happen. Communications were restricted so we couldn’t reach out to family or friends. We all knew people at the Pentagon. Most of us didn’t leave our posts for days, some of us for weeks. As tragic an event as it was, I did see the most magnificent coming together of people from all walks of life, both in that room and on TV. In what will likely be my generation’s darkest hour, there was a beautiful union of souls; a display of such utter kindness between people. As much as we pause to reflect on the tragedy of that day, remember the kindness it inspired as well, for we really do have the ability to be excellent to each other.
Previously by Jason Helton
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