Movies are supposed to be vehicles for escape, but every so often, the real world roars into view. Such was the case yesterday, when Sony Pictures canceled the planned Christmas release of The Interview, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's comedy in which two media honchos (played by Rogen and James Franco) conspire with the U.S. government to assassinate North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. Shortly before this announcement, America's major theater chains—including AMC, Cinemark, and Regal—declared that they would not screen the film, citing safety concerns for their patrons stemming from a threat by Guardians of Peace, an anonymous group of hackers.
Given the current climate of geopolitical turmoil and overall anxiety,
these cancellations were somewhat predictable and are, all things
considered, explicable. But they are also wrong, and they paint a deeply
disturbing picture of the movie industry's relationship with both its
talent and its audience.
Some brief background: In November,
Sony suffered an unprecedented hack of its data, with Guardians of
Peace later claiming responsibility. (North Korea denied perpetuating
the hack, though it did commend the hackers' actions; a recent federal
investigation suggested North Korea was in fact complicit.) This past Tuesday, the hackers sent various emails containing vague threats suggesting that they intended to either bomb or somehow attack theaters showing The Interview
on Christmas. (One such email: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We
recommend you to keep yourself distant from the [theaters] at that
time.) The Department of Homeland Security announced that it was
investigating the threat but said it was not supported by "credible intelligence".
Later that evening, Sony issued a statement indicating that it was not
pulling the movie but that it would respect exhibitors who decided not
to screen it. Yesterday, the major theater chains announced they wouldn't exhibit the film, prompting Sony to yank it entirely.
So here we are, and let's take a moment to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of where here is. I haven't seen The Interview—and
I question whether the hackers have, though that hardly matters—but it
is by all accounts a ridiculous movie that has no interest in taking
itself seriously. This, presumably, is part of the fun, in the same way
Goldberg and Rogen's This Is the End was fun
because it took an objectively grave scenario (the apocalypse) and
turned it into a hilarious meditation on male friendship and celebrity
culture. Whether The Interview similarly capitalizes on the
lunacy of its premise, I don't know, because I can't watch the fucking
movie (at least, not until Sony inevitably releases it online, which
will likely happen after the passage of what the studio's PR experts
deem to be a decent interval). And the reason I can't watch it is that a
handful of maniacs, who may or may not be affiliated with a country
halfway around the world, possess one thing but lack another.
Specifically, what they possess is a truly fearsome grasp of computer
technology (supposedly, the hack itself was extremely sophisticated).
What they lack, of course, is a sense of humor, apparently perceiving The Interview's
subject matter to be so grievously offensive as to constitute an act of
war. (I'm involuntarily reminded of Dave Bautista's character in Guardians of the Galaxy,
a man who is literally incapable of understanding metaphor and who,
when informed that an idiom will go over his head, responds: "Nothing
goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.") As a
result of this supremely unfortunate combination, they have responded to
a fake assassination with very real and tangible outrage. (At least, I assume it's real. It's possible they're just nihilists who want to watch the world burn, meaning they actually do have a sense of humor, albeit a loathsome one.) This outrage,
in turn, has scared the hell out of a major American corporation, not
to mention thousands of theater owners across the country. Franz Kafka
couldn't have made this shit up.
But it's happening, and to be fair to Sony and the exhibitors, their reaction—to swiftly backpedal from The Interview
like it's infected with plague—makes a certain degree of sense. Theater
owners hardly wish to appear indifferent to their customers' safety,
not least in the wake of the rampage in Colorado two years ago that left 12 people dead. Screening The Interview
could also discourage patrons from visiting the multiplex at all,
whereas they might otherwise attend a different movie during the
lucrative Christmas season. And should something tragic actually occur,
the prospect of civil liability is daunting, especially given that
exhibitors could hardly claim such an event to be unforeseeable.
So I concede that there exist valid reasons, both ethical and economic, for theater owners to balk at screening The Interview.
But I am nevertheless dismayed by this turn of events, which to me
smacks of capitulation and cowardice. The lesson here, it appears, is
that if you don't like a movie—if you disagree with its message or take
offense to its content—the most effective way to speak out against it is
not to denigrate its artistic merits but simply to threaten its
audience. Annoyed that Exodus: Gods and Kings features white actors playing Middle-Eastern characters? Why mobilize your forces on Twitter when you can call in a bomb threat? Don't like Selma's
depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.'s organizational efforts? The hell
with writing a column, just send an anonymous email to exhibitors
promising retribution. Gus Fring once said
that "I don't believe fear to be an effective motivator", but he just
owned a chicken restaurant, not a movie theater. Now, it seems, inducing
fear—rather than encouraging discourse—is the most persuasive form of
I recognize that this reading may be a tad reductive. It is unlikely, at least in the short-term, that the cancellation of The Interview
will result in a spate of similar terrorist tactics going forward. And
despite Homeland Security's dismissal of the threat's credibility,
Guardians of Peace is clearly capable of doing something, given the intricacy of its hack. (Can we pause for a moment to marvel at the irony of a group calling itself Guardians of Peace
threatening to kill people for watching a movie?) The pragmatist in me
wonders why, if the goal of terrorism is to actually murder people, the
plotters would warn their targets of their plans in advance. But then,
imputing rationality to terrorists is a dubious proposition, and I am in
no way qualified to assess the legitimacy of this threat.
But neither, I suspect, are theater owners or movie studios. And the
panic demonstrated here suggests not a measured decision but one borne
out of blind fear, with minimal regard to the plausibility of the
terrorists' intentions. It is easy to contend that any risk to
safety is too great a risk, and certainly, it is a business' own
prerogative whether to open its doors to consumers. Yet in their haste
here to act in their customers' best interests, exhibitors have
inadvertently undermined them. In surrendering to the hackers' insane
whims, they are perpetuating the very dread that terrorists, through
their inhumane behavior, hope to incite. And in attempting to snuff out
retributive tactics, they are only encouraging them.
Equally troubling, if less immediate, are the implications that The Interview's cancellation has on the industry's artists. The extremity of The Interview's
premise may seem unique, and admittedly, I can't imagine other projects
currently gestating in which contemporary real-world figures are
hypothetically murdered in over-the-top fashion. But I certainly can
imagine any number of speculative screenplays whose content could be
deemed controversial, provocative, or offensive. Indeed, much of art's
power derives from its capacity to stimulate, unnerve, and even anger
its audience. Will studios now hesitate to green-light such scripts out
of reasonable fear that theater owners would decline to screen such
inflammatory material? Will writers, seeking a paycheck, suppress their
artistic ambitions in favor of safer, less contentious ideas?
These are difficult questions to grapple with, but I question whether
theater owners and Sony grappled with them at all. Again, I do not
entirely blame them. Refusing to screen The Interview was likely a
sound short-term business decision, one they can support by spouting
platitudes about safety and public concern. But I remain dispirited
that, when presented with an opportunity to take a stand against
purported terrorism, both Sony and the exhibitors declined to do so.
Instead, they chose retreat, cloaking their cowardice in the guise of
civic responsibility. Their customers may in fact feel safer in seven
days' time, and some may argue that sacrificing one film is a small
price to pay for that sense of security. But this is about more than
just The Interview—it's about cherishing the sanctity of artistic
expression. And if we abandon that, then I mourn the many other unmade
movies we may never see.