Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cerebrus & the Gates Of Hell: Olympus Has Fallen

A reader, Love SMS, wrote, "The premise is most repeated one in Hollywood. A terrorist situation and an ex hero with a troubled incident / past returning as a saviour. Nothing new in the movie," and to some degree, of course I agree, but we can say that regarding nearly every movie made; if these were our standards, who on earth would bother to go see anything? It's always easiest to make the case that there is nothing original in any work of art (and there are certainly bad re-hashes), but there are numerous original elements in this "vehicle" and the greater intellectual feat is always to find the contemporary elements reflecting our culture and our time in history. Olympus Has Fallen converges a basic plot as a vehicle with details and specifics reflecting us today: what unique features reveal our culture to ourselves and make this film stand out from other films utilizing the same premise? The most obvious: the downfall of the most powerful residence on earth, the White House.
We have to mention this: a portion of how you view this film will depend upon your view of politics today. Those supporting President Obama and socialism are bound to look at this, and GI Joe Retaliation, as ridiculous; however, those supporting capitalism and the traditions of America are bound to feel a great sense of emotional turmoil watching how easy it is for these communists to enter the most heavily guarded residence on earth, a thought that has been inconceivable until Obama took office, so, if you are a liberal, oh, wait, if you are a liberal, the film they are making for you comes out this summer starring Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum, called White House Down. Never mind.  We have to ask, regarding North Korea, is this film prophetic? Did the film do so well because it focuses on the North Koreans and they are currently threatening nuclear aggression against us? We have dealt with this issue in the past with Taken 2, coinciding with the Benghazi attacks and the incredible opening weekend haul that film made; did Olympus Has Fallen do so well because of threats from North Korea? It's my position that great art is great because it best understands and condenses the issues in society and the turmoil brewing in culture and connects the artistic with the concrete, just as Taken 2 did with Americans' increasing fear of violence in the Middle East from Muslims and Red Dawn with instability in North Korea.
There is a lot to be said for NOT being original, it's important in art to know the visual vocabulary creating debate with other works of art and how such images, like Abraham Lincoln, for example, fuel that debate and communicate--even subliminally--to the audience. The opening image and closing image is of the American flag, a symbol that still means everything about being American to a lot of us. Then, there is the sweeping images of the trees in winter,... how many films have we seen so far thus who have placed a falling/failing kingdom in winter? Mirror, Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Rise Of the Guardians, the poster of Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters, the upcoming Captain America the Winter Soldier as well as wintry scenes in Iron Man 3. More importantly, how many car crashes have taken place in the last year, and how many times have we seen someone fall into icy water? The President's wife (Ashley Judd) dies after something crashes into them, then their car crashes, falling into icy water? These are important themes, but I want to focus on a knife, a haircut and a plane; the plane, first.
In this scene, between the President (Aaron Eckhart) and the First Lady (Ashley Judd), they are on their way to the billionaire's Christmas party; she gives him his Christmas present early and it's his grandfather's watch. Why? Right before she dies, and she doesn't get to open his present to her, why does this scene take place? A watch usually symbolizes history or memory, and in this case, it can easily carry both interpretations; that it's his grandfather's is probably generic for the "founding fathers" because older men (especially if they are deceased) symbolize the founders or long-held traditions, a cultural identity. Given the countless portraits of the president we see throughout the film, it's probably not so much the President's own grandfather as the grandfathers of this country, the grandfathers of all of us and what they fought for and died for, i.e., defeating communism. So her giving him this watch is like a reminder of the history of this country right before the country "dies" (this isn't so dire, but we have to admit, something in America died in 2008). Before this scene, they are getting ready to leave and she asks the guys' advice on whether she should wear the long earrings or the short ones, and in spite of the guys telling her to wear the short ones, she wears the long ones (pictured in the image above); why? Notice that the long earring draw attention to her ears, and as they are in the car, she believes her husband isn't listening to what she is saying (about shaving her head); like the president, we might not "hear" what she is saying, so the earrings are meant to draw attention to the necessity of hearing what is being said by the film. In this scene, something (never identified in the film as far as I remember) hits the car, it goes out of control, skids off the bridge and hangs on the side; Michael Banning (Gerard Butler) cuts the president loose from his seat belt with his knife but the First Lady has all ready passed out and the car with her in it plunges below into the icy water. Long time readers of this blog should be able to decode all this: the crash we see invokes the "economic crash" of 2008 when we lost control of the country and America "died" (women symbolize the "motherland"); how many crashes have we seen? The Grey (plane crashes), Flight (plane crashes), The Collection (car crash), Margin Call (company crashes), Red Dawn, Arbitrage, The Descendants (boat crash), Stoker, Mama and other; Olympus Has Fallen keeps in step with other films we have seen this year, and wants to make sure we are listening to the message it sends us as it details where we are and what we have to do. But where else have we seen someone plunge into icy water? The Dark Knight Rises, Skyfall, Lawless, Resident Evil Retribution, Rise Of the Guardians and others. The common idea these films debate is what happens when America goes "under," can she survive? Red Dawn and House At the End Of the Street featured snow globes which, to me, invokes the same concept, HATES specifically using the  snow globe to invoke the "under water" housing market in the area, just as Project X did with a helicopter dumping water on a burning house. In Olympus Has Fallen, the First Lady dying in the icy water coalesces the First Lady as the image of the motherland (she's a mother and, as the First Lady, the mother of the country) and the icy water being the accumulating woes throughout all stratas of society.
The plane being flown by two of the communists from North Korea (they are not members of the North Korean government, but they are from that country) is the C-130 Hercules, which was developed specifically for the new needs of the American military in the Korean War. Where else have we seen Korean War armaments? Battleship, and the "Mighty Mo," the USS Missouri. But here's an important difference between the two films, and why comparing non-original elements helps us to sift the gold we might miss otherwise: whereas the Might Mo delivers the fatal blow to the invading aliens in Battleship, the C130 Hercules delivers blows at the White House in Olympus Has Fallen. How low has the United States fallen in the stature of the world that we can't even defend ourselves against the puny North Koreans? Then again, the C130 and Mighty Mo are also in different positions in the two films.  
Sometimes, it takes a foreigner to remind us of the important things of our country. Gerard Butler, one of the producers who also stars as Michael Banning, said the idea of the White House being attacked was important to him because it's the most powerful residence on earth and, because of that, it doesn't belong just to America, but to the whole world. Throughout the film, countless presidential portraits are shown, reminding us of all the great men who have occupied the great office.  Due to the accident, the President not wanting to be reminded of his wife's death every time he sees Mike, Banning is taken off duty as the president's personal bodyguard. Whats important is that Mike is put on duty at the US Treasury Department, the department keeping track of the $16+trillion dollar debt which has racked up and is symbolically invoked by other films with water and drowning (which, again, shows up in the death of the First Lady). In this sense, we could compare Mike Banning to Jason Bateman's Sandy Patterson, an accountant in Identity Thief, whose identity is stolen by Diane (Melissa McCarthy) whose spending sprees and size make her symbolize the over sized-government spending that is out of control and he brings her in. So what about his name, Michael Banning? We know that Michael is the name of the Archangel, the Protector, a fitting name for the President's bodyguard, and Banning might refer to "bane" because Mike is so good at his job, it's a bane to him in getting moved to the Treasury Department, but hes also the bane of Kang, keeping him from succeeding with his plans.
The Mighty Mo, delivering the last shot against the aliens, defends the world; the C-130, turned against us, doesn't symbolize a part of our historical past and American victories, like the USS Missouri or even the President's watch from his grandfather given to him by his wife, rather, that our own virtue has been turned against us, just as Forbes (Dylan McDermott) turns against the US, just as Kang's master plan is to explode our nukes on US soil, using our defense system as an offense against us. In other words, (I hope you read the caption about what Micheal Banning means), our strength and ingenuity is our "bane" just as it is our strength, if we weren't so powerful and successful, everyone wouldn't hate us so much, and that's the second reason why the terrorists fly in on a Korean-era war plane.
Identities are a tricky thing in art. Dave Forbes starts out being a bodyguard to the president, then goes into private service with the South Korean government and arrives with them on the day of the attacks on the White House. It turns out that Forbes works with the North Korean communists and never liked the President anyway. Seeing what a wacko Kang, the communist leader is, when he's sent to kill Banning, Banning gets the best of him but, before dying, Forbes calls Kang and tells him Banning's dead so Kang will stop looking for him, buying Banning some time. What do you think of when you hear "Forbes?" The magazine? And when you think of the magazine, what do you think of? The annual list of the billionaires or the world's richest people? Recall, if you will, that when the film opens, the First Family is on their way to a billionaire's Christmas party. Maybe, like myself, you have asked why so many rich people support Obama since he just wants to take their money away from them? Like Theodora in Oz the Great and Powerful, or Princess Merida in Brave, or Eric in the Evil Dead, we can see Forbes as one who started out going for Obama because he is a socialist and the Democrats have become the Communist Party, there is just no arguing with that--but then, seeing Kang as he really is (when Forbes realizes Kang is crazy and doesn't want to be a part of the plot any longer), he switches back. Characters with unstable identities are going to become increasingly popular (like the president who isn't the president in GI Joe Retaliation, the numerous names of Diane (Melissa McCarthy) in Identity Thief, or possessed Mia vs the real Mia in Evil Dead).  
So where does the hair cut come in?
When the President and First Lady are on their way to the Christmas party, the President absently talks to his wife while being more focused on his speech for the night; knowing he isn't listening, she jokingly says she has been "thinking about shaving my head." Why is this important? Please refer back to the discussion in the caption above on why she choose the longer earrings, the longer earrings accentuate the ear, the listening function, and the President isn't listening to her (so she thinks, she realizes he is in a moment) but where else have we seen someone shaving their head recently?
The cancer drama, 50/50.
While a simple film, it's got numerous important points. Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is only 27 and develops a cancerous tumor on his spine, he has only a 50/50 chance of recovering. Chemotherapy doesn't work so he has to undergo a dangerous operation. One of the strange aspects of the film--if one doesn't decode symbols the way we do--is that Adam doesn't drive, he depends on others to take him to his work and appointments. So what do we have here? The film deserves its own post, however, this generalization will have to suffice. A young adult male will symbolize the active principle of the economy, or economic forces; this interpretation just happens to be echoed by two other important elements of the film, the greyhound Skeletor (a racing dog, also a symbol of the economy) and the volcano he was doing a story on "coming back to life" as a metaphor for his own recovery. The disease he contracts reflects, of course, the economic disasters of the last several years and, because nothing damages the body's immune system (natural, inherent means of recovering from illness) more than chemotherapy, the chemo could be taken as the Obama Administration's attempts at applying economic chemo at unemployment through stimulus packages, which has only make the problem worse, just like Adam's weakened condition. Like Natalie cutting off her arm and Mia pulling off her hand from under the jeep in Evil Dead, the tumor has to be cut out from Adam's body, because only then can real recovery take place. So why doesn't Adam drive? The economy doesn't "drive itself," other forces always drive the economy. Again, there are many elements to the film, but this will suffice for now.
Because he has cancer, Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shaves his head as he prepares to go in for chemotherapy. In Olympus Has Fallen, because we think the President isn't listening, isn't "heeding the warning signs" coming up throughout the motherland of the impending economic doom the death of the First Lady symbolizes, the simple scene takes on a complex meaning as she's about to die: she's reminded her husband of his history through her gift of the watch to him, and there's this reference to shaving her head as a sign of illness. But we must remember, this is Christmas, a time of birth, not of death, and if we can take the "shaving her head" comment to subconsciously refer to the economic cancer in the land, the film makers suggest that she was all ready dying and her "plunge" over the bridge was the cutting off of a system that was no longer sustainable to give birth to a new system, a new motherland, a new America.
As always, children symbolize the future, and Connor, the president's son, specifically so. As a young male, like Adam in 50/50, he also symbolizes the economy, or the future of the economy, being hunted by the communist terrorists. It's not just a coincidence that Banning tells Kang Connor is on his way to a baseball game after Connor is secure, because what is the most recent (before 42 about Jackie Robinson coming out, more on this below) baseball film? Moneyball, about capitalism, because capitalism is like a game and competition, so now that Connor has experience the dangers and evils of socialism first-hand, he will preserve the freedom of capitalism. This is a theme we have seen discussed in Expendables 2, Red Dawn and A Good Day to Die Hard, that Generations X and Y are sluggish about socialism because we haven't experienced World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War so we don't understand the threat as being real, just mythical. That's what Banning means when he tells Connor, "You're one of us now," and gives Connor his Secret Service badge, you have earned your badge as an anti-communist and you will fight against it in the future, in your future. But where is it Connor is hiding? The best place he can be, inside the bedroom walls of the Abraham Lincoln. How many times as Lincoln been referenced in the past year? While the liberals have done their best to make it look like Abraham Lincoln was a Democrat and a socialist through a perverse interpretation of the Civil War, which we can see Olympus Has Fallen incorporates into the narrative when the communists go into the room and "shoot up" and destroy Lincoln's bedroom, Connor hiding within the walls probably symbolizes the "intimate understanding" of Lincoln's presidency in all its facets, not just the outer appearance (Connor being behind the wall is what really prompted Lincoln to do what he did, not just the surface or outer appearance of what he did, the main bedroom where the communists are). This interpretation can be verified when Banning takes the bust of Lincoln (the head symbolizes the governing function) and knocks out the communist in the head  who has been hunting him (foreshadowing Banning stabbing Kang in the brain), because capitalists can use Lincoln's real ideas (the bust) to knock out communists mis-using Lincoln (like Spielberg and White House Down).  Just as there is another dimension not visible to the eye in Lincoln's bedroom (the secret compartment), so there is another dimension to the film, that which we are doing and engaging, seeking out and finding the hiding places and secret compartments of the film so we can rescue it and get it to safety so it won't be lost to us.  Before he was with the Secret Service, Banning served in
the 75th Ranger Regiment (if you don't know about them, they have a brilliant history) which pre-dates even the American Revolutionary War, so Banning has a "secret compartment" to his character like Lincoln's bedroom does, and so, too, does American history in our defenses of this country and all the dangers which have faced us.
Recall two facts, if you will: the first is when the First Lady asks Mike if she should wear the long or short earrings and he says the short, "A classy look, for a classy lady," and that reference to "class" might reference the class-warfare being waged by the Obama Administration since taking office; the second fact is, the communists attack America on July 5, the day after the Independence Day celebrations on the 4th of July, a day for remembering our past victories so we can go on to achieve new victories. These are all small elements, taken individually, but when we add them up, they suggest a means of addressing class concerns on our own before they can be used against us again, and how it's our glorious past that will prepare the way for a glorious future, but that future in the film, wouldn't be possible without a knife.
Something I haven't heard in a long time, but was so pleased to hear, was Speaker/Acting President Trumbull said two times, "God bless America," and the President, at the end of the film, say it again. It isn't said anymore because liberals/closet communists were offended by it and insisted on it being removed from public discourse; why? Because socialists hate God and Christians because a socialist country is an atheist country, the government becomes God in providing everything for the people and making all the decisions because the people become livestock to be exploited as the government requires. God is incompatible with socialism--in spite of weak attempts to make it appear they are not mutually exclusive--because Christianity is based on morality whereas socialism is based on expediency and formulas, not the dignity of the human person or the inherent, God-given rights of each individual.
When the Presidential limo has wrecked at the start of the film, Banning uses his knife to cut the President's seat belt; the First Lady's is stuck and because of her seat belt, she remains in the car when it plunges into the water. Banning's knife is the same knife he first threatens to plunge into Kang's head in a conversation with him, and then does so. Why is this important?  We have to see Banning threatening Kang first so, when Banning follows through with his threat, it demonstrates American will that we do what we say we are going to do (this was foreshadowed in the presidential conference before the South Korea delegation arrives, and Speaker of the House Trumbull--Morgan Freeman--suggests military force that would not be just a bluff, but real). Now, stabbing someone with a knife through their brain is not a typical act of violence, that's not the kind of thing people do, so why have this in the film?
Because that's exactly what needs to be done.
On my initial pre-review of the film, a reader wrote the film was racist because it assumes that North Koreans and South Koreans look alike when they don't; I would like to offer a more artistic interpretation, if I may: it's intentional. The North Koreans disguised themselves as the "friends" of the US, just as Obama disguised his socialist agenda as "Hope" and "Change." There's nothing "racist" about it, it's making a political statement about how things have happened, the same way part of the North Korean terrorist army disguised themselves as tourists and garbage collectors to get close to the White House to attack it. If you will, please note the image at the above: Kang, the leader of the terrorists, stands behind the seated South Korean Prime Minister on the left side, and behind Kang is a painting of a peaceful landscape (if you click on the image you can enlarge it for better viewing). That piece of art isn't just background, rather, it's commentary, that just as the landscape is peaceful, so this delegation came "in peace" although they were hiding a deadly intent. Behind the president is Agent Roma (who took Banning's place) and to his left the painting on the wall is a classic example of early American art of people on a riverboat going up the river. It shows early Americans working and trading, commenting that our history since the earliest settlers was that of capitalism, so we are not hiding our identity the way the terrorists are, nor are the liberal arguments to be accepted that America was going to ever be a socialist country. Now, if you will, please note the portrait of George Washington, and beneath him is a clock, a mini-"grandfather" clock, again, reminding us of the grandfather's watch the First Lady gave to the President before her death, symbolizing the history of our forefathers and this country. The greenery beneath the portrait symbolizes both prosperity and new birth which is what the early Americans--like Washington himself--were seeking in the new land; but this greenery echoes the green grapes in the bowl on the table. What do they represent? Grapes are most often associated with wine, and green symbolizes either that something is rotten or new birth and hope (like the greenery on the mantel piece, the fire place also symbolizing the "trails by fire" and hardship this country has been through, as a country and as individuals, to make us who we are), but the grapes are going to be "pressed" by the hardships about to happen in the film, but it has yet to be determined if the wine will be bitter--the rotten grapes--or sweet, the grapes of new birth and hope. Please recall that the tag line for the film is, When our flag falls, our country will rise," and each of us are being "pressed" by hardships just like the grapes, and it shows what kind of character we have.
As we discussed in Resident Evil: Retribution (there is a monster that looks like a big brain) and Jack the Giant Slayer (Jack gives Isabella a book of the fairy tale), socialism/communism was the "brainchild" of Karl Marx, the "father" of the movement, who, through his writings, prompted revolutions to try and implement his vision for society. In Olympus Has Fallen, Kang's idea of uniting Korea under communism is his brain-child, but really, it's just the same-old theory of Marx condensed in what America called the "domino effect" of communism during the 1950s (for greater detail on this discussion, please see my post An Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and the Vietnam War). Just as the cancer has to be cut-out of Adam in 50/50, and cut off in Evil Dead with Natalie's infected arm and Mia's hand, so the poisonous thoughts of communism have to be stabbed to death in Olympus Has Fallen; but this isn't all regarding this detail of the film,...
The president's last name is Asher because the presidency will "rise from the ashes," symbolized by his purple tie. Usually, purple is the color of royalty because of its links to ancient Rome, which was the model for the American government, but it's also the color of suffering, because those who are most honored amongst us have also suffered the most, and the tie being around his neck, and still tied--not undone--demonstrates that Asher symbolizes the "good leader" who is led by his willingness to suffer for his people, not make his people suffer for him, like the Obamas' millions and millions of taxpayers' dollars they have spent on their lavish vacations and lifestyle. But this shot also reminds me of The Passion of the Christ when Jesus links arms with Simon from Cyrene to carry the Cross: the people (Banning) and presidency (Asher) are linked and support each other. In spite of the fights we have with our leaders, represented in the film by the opening boxing scene between Banning and Asher, we love and respect our president who loves and respects America. There is one last reference to Skyfall I would like to mention: the story of the last rat standing. In the contest between Kang and Banning, we can see that--through his skills, talents and intellect--Banning deafeats Kang and is, according to socialists, the "last rat standing" in the competition for survival that socialists disdain so greatly. In the image above, however, this shows capitalists standing together, that even though there is competition (like the boxing match between Banning and Asher at the start) as Americans, we stand beside our fellow Americans and we hold each other up, not tear each other down.
Where else have we seen a knife used recently in a film (besides the electric knife in Evil Dead)? Skyfall, when Bond stabs Silva in the back. Because stabbing someone in the back is usually seen as an act of betrayal and cowardice, it was strange seeing the great hero James Bond do it, but I reasoned that it was actually poetic justice because stabbing MI6 in the back was exactly what Silva had done in his betrayal of M and England. Using the same knife to kill Kang that was used to cut the seat belt of the president from the car crash wreckage is intended to draw our attention to the two incidents and bind them together, so how do we do that?
Again, would an attack on the White House have been conceivable as a film before Obama took office? With Resident Evil Retribution, GI Joe Retaliation, World War Z, White House Down and now it's confirmed about Captain America the Winter Soldier, that Washington is under attack in that film, too, the destruction to the White House is an epidemic, not a trend. In the scene above from Olympus Has Fallen, garbage trucks open fire on the White House, in other words, "garbage" (the communists) have turned Washington into garbage (destroyed it). But Olympus Has Fallen does something else: by not making the terrorists be linked directly to the North Korean government (and we see this done in GI Joe Retaliation, as well), it's clear that it's not a people who are the enemy (the North Koreans generally) but the idea the terrorists are advancing (communism) which anyone can subscribe to and make themselves the enemy of this country if they choose to do so.  
A seat belt is, of course, a safety device meant to keep the passenger secure and safe in the event of a wreck; just as our weapons (the C-130 and our nukes) were meant to protect us, but have been turned against us, so the seat belt the president wears threatens his life and has to be cut. Simple, huh? Good planning of literary devices to strengthen the film's structure and moral message. However, the film doesn't stop there, because the real meat of the film's message lies "encoded" in the Cerebrus codes Kang gets out of the President's staff. Cerebrus is the multi-headed dog protecting the gates of hell in mythology, just as the codes in Olympus Has Fallen is meant to be a safety measure to abort a US launching of nuclear missiles; Kang wants to disarm the codes so our nukes can explode on US soil and destroy us. What does this mean? Our safety device has been turned against us, just like the President's seat belt (even the President's nuclear fallout shelter where he is supposed to be safe imprisons him rather than protects him) , and that safety mechanism has to be undone in order for us to free ourselves from the outside threat. What that means reflects your politics, because either you believe the presidency is under attack from a communist threat (the way I do) or you think, like White House Down, that people like myself are the threat to the presidency, that's up to you to decide, but what we must agree on is that Olympus Has Fallen accomplishes a singular feat in advancing its thesis on culture, politics and history through an exact employment of traditional literary devices.
Why is the head of the Secret Service (Angela Basset) and the Speaker Of the House (Morgan Freeman) both black? One reader left their comments that this was another example of racism in the film, but that's not accurate because it's the moral courage, bravery and patriotism of these two (unlike the idiocy of the general also at the table on the right) who keeps the president alive and, not only saves the country, but the world as well. It's an effort to communicate to what Democrats call "black voters" who vote only on sin color and not on issues that they can be capitalists and black without being enslaved to socialism (at the end of this post is a YouTube video about a former NAACP president who realized communism is slavery). A film about to be released, 42, about the incredible struggle and heroism of Jackie Robinson and everything he had to overcome personally and professionally, is probably a vehicle for Obama (the Obama version of Moneyball, to be perfectly honest, that a socialist can be a "heavy hitter," too, and anyone who says differently is just a racist like all the white people in the trailer, and if you don't want to be a racist, you had better become a socialist) and blacks can be capitalists, too, like what we saw in Rock Of Ages with liberals being liberals, but also capitalists.
The reader's comments at the start of this post were justified, at least in one sense, that Olympus Has Fallen is a cliche narrative, but that doesn't mean it can't be powerful, because cliches don't develop unless they have something true inherently embodied therein. It's not a vehicle to take Mike off the security force, just so he can come back and redeem himself, it's a reflection of what has actually happened, because Mike (and people like myself) are, again, just like the group of "weird people" at the start of Evil Dead who appear to be committing a crime but, instead, are actually the ones trying to save the country. We have been marginalized by the margin (the communists), and from our "ousted position" symbolized by Mike at the Treasury Department, keeping an eye on the amassing debt, we are the ones anxious to save the country from the garbage makers (not garbage collectors), but that's exactly how we have been depicted but Olympus Has Fallen offers us a path of real hope to protect our country and the world.
God Bless America.
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