London Has Fallen: can city siege movies survive the age of terror?

Watching landmarks being blown up used to be thrilling. But can we enjoy films like Bastille Day, Made in France and London Has Fallen in the same way after the Paris and Brussels attacks?

In London Has Fallen, the Italian prime minister is on the roof of one of Westminster Abbeys towers, canoodling with a woman 30 years his junior. This Berlucsconian cliche is ostensibly in town, along with other world leaders, for the funeral of his British counterpart.

And then a terrorist bomb explodes and the tower collapses, taking with it the Italian and his under-developed romantic interest. The destruction of the Abbeys superb Gothic facade should be tremendously upsetting. As should the plumes of smoke rising from the Palace of Westminster, the bombed-out wreck of London Bridge, and the gunfight on the steps of St Pauls that jeopardises Christopher Wrens peerless west front. As Babak Najafis film cuts to an aerial shot of the capital in the aftermath of co-ordinated terrorist strikes, the upset of seeing the city that so many live in and love flattened should be overwhelming.

This, after all, is 2016, when western capitals are on high alert and a terror attack on London is reportedly imminent. In such circumstances, it should be easy to unsettle the locals by showing them what it would be like to see their city attacked. But instead of being troubled, I found myself laughing when I saw Najafis big-budget sequel to Olympus Has Fallen. Not just at the Berlusconi clone getting his comeuppance, but at the the low production values if you are going to blow up my city, Mr Najafi, couldnt you spend some of your $60m budget on making it look convincing?

London Has Fallen clip

Worse, the London to which Najafi lays waste seems curiously depopulated, as if the terrorists had previously detonated one of those neutron bombs that kills humans and leaves buildings intact, before returning to finish off the job and detonating the built environment. It is as if London only matters as a backdrop to the main narrative namely whether or not special agent Gerard Butler can manage to extract US President Aaron Eckhart.

Those of us who live in the worlds great cities have had to get used to seeing our landmarks destroyed. Its the price we have to pay for having such photogenic monuments. On screen, London has been attacked by a 65ft tall sea monster (Gorgo, 1961), Martians (Mars Attacks! 1996), water (The Flood, 2007), nuclear missile (GI Joe: Retaliation, 2013), airborne pig (the Dr Who episode called Aliens of London, 2005), and anarchist vigilantes to the soundtrack of Tchaikovskys 1812 overture (V for Vendetta, 2005).

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A promotional poster for the thriller film Made in France, the release of which was release was delayed after the Paris attacks

Citing such fantastical examples may seem absurd, but London Has Fallen is just as silly if not more so. At least when the pig crashed a spaceship into Big Ben on Doctor Who, you had a sense of what it meant to the locals. Someone quipped: Gotta be Ken Livingstone, isnt it? Typical London: alive with witty conspiracy theories even in adversity. London Has Fallen denies the locals a convincing voice in the face of terror attack. It doesnt care about the city its destroying so why should we care about the film?

Other films that have blown up London have been genuinely upsetting. For instance, in Skyfall (2012), Javier Bardem reacts to receiving his P45 by obliterating his former workplace, the MI6 building, as Dame Judi and Rory Kinnear watch open-mouthed from Lambeth Bridge. In Children of Men (2006), Clive Owen is sugaring his coffee when the cafe he bought it from explodes, spreading shards of glass and plumes of smoke across a convincingly grey, rainy London street teeming with pedestrians. And in Steven Knights Closed Circuit (2013), Borough Market is blown up by a rogue MI5 agent.

Each of these films provoked a reaction that London Has Fallen denies you queasiness about seeing a great city attacked on film. Why? In part, it was because in those films the terrorist targets were not famous buildings. One of London has Fallens shortcomings is the feeling that the director is checking off landmarks as he detonates them, as if according to a tourist checklist. More importantly, these films depicted the reactions of locals on the receiving end.

Even the most skilfully rendered fiction, though, cannot create the kind of profound emotional connection felt by any Londoner watching news reports of the mangled double-decker blown up on Tavistock Square on 7 July 2005. Anyone then watching might readily have thought: I could easily have been on that bus.

When the trailer for London Has Fallen was released last summer, a few days before the 10th anniversary of Britains worst terrorist murder of recent times, it was criticised for insensitivity by the 7/7 Memorial Trust, an organisation set up to honour the victims of the London bombings, in which 52 people died and more than 700 were injured.

Bastille Day trailer

Strikingly, two other new thrillers about terrorist plots have been more sensitive to the memories of real-life victims. Bastille Day, in which Idris Elba tries to thwart a terrorist attack on the French capital, finally hits our screens this month. Its release was postponed due to the terror attacks in Paris last November, in which 130 people died and 368 were injured. But it was not further postponed following last months Brussels attacks, which killed 32 people and wounded at least 270. This month also sees the delayed release of Made in France, a drama about a jihadist terror cell in Paris that was made before the mass murders in the French capital.

Bastille Day is a much more convincing and engaging thriller than London Has Fallen, but there is one unfortunate parallel. It is axiomatic in both films that the natives arent to be trusted with their homeland security. Only tooled-up Americans, albeit ones played by Brits (Butler was born in Paisley, Elba in London), can sort out the mess left by mimsy Europeans. Elba plays an unremittingly butch rogue CIA agent who takes out the Gallic trash for 90 entertaining minutes, while developing an unlikely buddy relationship with the Renfrewshire-raised Richard Madden, whose small-time Vegas thief finds himself out of his depth in terrorised Paris.

I once asked Elba if he yearned to play the first black James Bond. He said he had what it took to take on the role, but not the desire to do so. In Bastille Day, he gets to have all the fun of playing 007 without having to shoulder the spy franchises burden. Its just that, for the audience, everything he does in this efficient, slick film is eclipsed by the real-life terrorist tragedy in the city in which Bastille Day has the misfortune to be set.

Made in France trailer

For instance, at the start, Elba chases Madden across the rooftops of Paris. It is, quite possibly, the law that every spy movie in recent years must feature vertiginous scrambles over retaining walls, broken glass, hurled polyglot insults and blameless flat-dwellers sitting peacefully in their undies watching the local version of Loose Women until the films principals run through their living rooms without a by your leave.

Theres just such a scene in The Bourne Legacy and Skyfall. Why, theres even one in Johnny English Reoborn. But while were used to our screen spies trading shots as they scamper across the roofs of some photogenic yet interchangeable Middle Eastern city, that innocent ritual makes for much queasier viewing when the locale is Paris in 2016. Even if any right-thinking person would want Elba to set the geopolitical world to rights, theres something uncomfortable about watching him running around the French capital with a gun.

Made in France was similarly rendered problematic by Novembers Paris attacks. Nicolas Boukhriefs film was made before them, and yet, for all that, struggles against our temptation to decode it as unwitting commentary on them. It traces the formation of a jihadist cell in the Parisian banlieues infiltrated by a Muslim journalist seeking to expose extremism. It puts homegrown jihadism front and centre, exploring the terrorists alienation, machismo, callousness and occasional stupidity.

But in Bastille Day and Made in France, Paris is spared the devastation that London suffers in London Has Fallen. Both films feature scenes of death and destruction, but Paris emerges from each relatively unscathed. Its as if neither can bear to do on film what terrorists did to the French capital last year.

The Parisian situationist Guy Debord once wrote: All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. All real activity has been channelled into the global construction of the spectacle. But he is wrong about that. There are limits to what we turn into spectacle; real-life carnage can give even the most destruction-fetishising film directors compunctions. If there is a sequel to Najafis film (and lets hope there wont be), it wont be called Paris Has Fallen.

London Has Fallen is in cinemas now, Made in France is released to video on demand on 18 April, and Bastille Day is in cinemas on 22 April

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