While Republicans and Democrats debated for Super Tuesday votes, another battle was about to be fought at the multiplex. Few weeks at the cinema have reflected America’s ideological divide more than March 4, which saw the release of Zootopia and London Has Fallen.
America is in the midst of a struggle between two polar-opposite identities: Donald Trump’s nationalism and Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism. The rise of Trump and Sanders are the effects of identical causes — a post-9/11 and post-subprime mortgage crisis America worried about terror threats and economic disparity. While Bernie talks about inequality and the need to bridge the wealth gap through government intervention, Trump appeals to patriotism — exemplified in his slogan “make America great again.” Trump has discussed building a wall along the Mexican border and closing off the country to Muslims. Bernie has spoken against dangerous stereotypes and ruling by fear.
Popular cinema is a reflection of the concerns, ideology, and morality of a society, and although Zootopia and London Has Fallen are big studio productions designed for “escapism,” neither film transcends politics.
Zootopia, an animated Disney film, is a commentary on intolerance and prejudice in a supposedly utopian society where all animals, including predator and prey, live in harmony. Although all the animals no longer rely on primal impulses to devour each other, stereotypes and divisions are drawn between them: foxes are dishonest and sly, bunnies are weak and “cute,” water buffalos are tough, and so on.
Judy Hopps is a bunny who dreams of being the first of her species to become a police officer. After graduating at the top of her class, she is hired by the Zootopia police department, where she encounters prejudice despite her ability and work ethic. To prove herself, Hopps makes a deal with the police chief to find a missing animal in 48 hours. With her job on the line, a classic noir plot is set: detective Hopps and Nick Wilde, a fox with dubious trustworthiness, investigate how the missing person is linked to recurring incidents of predators going “savage.”
Sudden outbursts of predator violence lead to basic explanations based on prejudice. It’s in their “biology,” we’re told, something akin to “it’s because of their race” or “it’s because of their violent religion” that they are more prone to act out criminally. Fear is constructed by those in power as a way to control, not as a method of precaution or preservation. The impact is also economic as certain species are typecast into certain jobs, and are thus given more privilege and opportunity. As we discover more about the case, vested interests by the government, media, and Zootopians’ own perception of the world contribute to representations of the predator breeds as dangerous, purely based on their species.
London Has Fallen, the sequel to the Die Hard-esque Olympus Has Fallen, revolves around a conspiracy and terror plot, which is somewhat similar to the one in Zootopia. The president and his secret service bodyguard attend the British prime minister’s funeral after his suspicious passing. High-level security precautions are taken. The police have a strong presence and surveillance is tight — necessary for an event that could be at a high risk of a terror attack.
In a scene of strained logic and blatant fear-mongering, terrorists infiltrate the funeral as members of the institutions in charge of protecting the country. Police officers turn on their own people. A man at the very top is working for the terrorists. Our response to acts of terror, London Has Fallen claims, should be more violence, more surveillance, more policing.
Fear is supposedly a natural reaction to our unstable world, not a construction by the powerful to consolidate their control. Racial stereotyping, where the representation of Arabs as corruptible and by nature more violent, is simply “telling it like it is.” It’s a film that takes pleasure in slaughter. A drone strike, which kills the terrorist and saves the world from any more attacks, is justified without any reference to its effects and the cycle of violence that is being perpetuated.
Underneath their genre conventions and capitalist construction — both films are made to be palatable and consumable to mass audiences — are opposing stances on race and how we should approach terror threats. If you think going to a dark cinema is a shield from the paranoia outside, London Has Fallen and Zootopia pierce through the guise of escapism, making us decide between two identities and two courses of action to fix our broken world.