The State of the Summer Blockbuster: Transforming Live Free to Die Hard

In the last week, thanks to the heat, the holiday, or the rain, I have watched not one but TWO summer blockbusters tailormade to open on July 4th. Films designed to catch the box-office dollar of the long weekend and to capitalize on the surge of patriotism that pretending to blow up our own cities (i.e. fireworks) seems to inspire. Both films follow the same template in many ways, which made me wonder about the structure of the summer blockbuster in the terrorism-focused, post-Iraq-War world. In a simpler time, I remember watching Independence Day and cheering in the air-conditioned theatre without fearing the global warming outside or the propaganda unleashed on the screen. Now I worry as I step outside that summer will never end and that films like The Marine are just recruitment material dressed up as a video game dressed up as a teenage boy empowerment fantasy dressed up as a "movie." How do Live Free or Die Hard and Transfomers compare? Simply put: I'm not sure. The building blocks of this year's summer blockbusters seem to be:

  1. Global Hacking of the Communication Infrastructure
  2. Disruption of the Transportation Grid
  3. Love For and Fear of the Mechanics of Government
(not-so)optional: Heterosexual Young Adult Love. [note: there are spoilers below, if a summer movie is actually capable of being spoiled.] In both films, the enemy (decepticons, an ill-defined french/asian/american coalition of hackers) undermines our communication network and uses that access to attack our heroes (autobots/charmingly dorky teen, bruce willis/charmingly dorky young adult) and deny them communication. In both cases our heroes use a lower tech solution (Morse code, "old military satellite network") to reestablish connections. Die Hard takes this scenario a little farther with the villains using the internet as their method of attack. In both cases we lose our ability to speak without being monitored and our ability to trust what we hear, which seems to reflect the state of communications under the Bush Administration and the Patriot Act. Secondly, both films have scenes involving the destruction of freeways by fighter pilots, as our heroes (both tractor trailers, oddly, although Optimus Prime *is* the tractor trailer while John McClane is merely driving one). Hacked lights and giant robot attacks create massive gridlock. We can no longer count on getting from one place to another as military jets destroy the homeland's infrastructure. It isn't much of a stretch to view this as a comment on how a protracted war abroad is destroying the basics of life here. However, both films have a strong yet conflicted element of patriotism that makes such a facile conclusion difficult. In Transformers, all of the evil Decepticons take the form of military and industrial vehicles and yet the only competent heroes are the marines in Qatar who discover the only way to kill the invading robots with our current technology. In Die Hard, I started to sympathize with the cyber-criminals who are trying to make a point about our nation's technological vulnerabilities and the corruption of our current regime. However, the mastermind is then revealed to actually just be after money, and begins to kill his underlings and innocents left and right. It's perfectly summed up in an exchange between Justin Long (Willis' computer-hacking sidekick) and Willis himself. Justin (paraphrased): I used to think a fire-sale [wholesale takedown of all infrastructure] would be an amazing way to take down the system. Willis: This isn't a system, it's a country, and we need to protect it. I believe the filmmakers were just as conflicted as I am. Maybe it's just the July 4th summer blockbusters talking, but I love this country. We have freedoms other countries ignore. We are a leader in technological development. We have integrated diverse people in a way few other nations have or will. But we also have a corrupt government, a military-industrial complex run amok, and a hegemonic media machine attempting to subvert the whole world to our selfish way of life. The situation is complicated and I believe these films attempted to show that as much as they could without sacrificing box office attendance or risking being called un-American. And if having integrity up until the point it would you hurt fiscally or politically isn't American, than I don't know what is. [MD: I also think there's a lot to say about the absence of other nations' involvement in both films, and the idea of the enemy within vis a vis immigration but those are essays for another time. And don't get me started on the inevitability of the hetero dyad.]

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