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Profile: Parallels between the movies and real-life tragedies

February 10, 2003

LYNN NEARY, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

The real world and the world of movie make-believe don't intersect very often, but when they do, Hollywood tends to give way. The events of September 11th, 2001, for instance, prompted a three-month postponement for the thriller "Collateral Damage," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger battles terrorists who had blown up a skyscraper. Other headlines also have on-screen parallels, ones that critic Bob Mondello says the film industry views with everything from horror to delight.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

With the nation's capital reeling from daily sniper attacks last October, the decision facing executives at 20th Century Fox was simple. They had a movie called "Phone Booth" about a sniper terrorizing a city as police stood by helplessly. It was supposed to open then, but it clearly couldn't. Later, after suspects had been apprehended in Washington and the real shootings had ceased, Fox announced a new opening date, this coming April.

Something similar happened with the film "O," even though it was based on Shakespeare's "Othello" and would seem to be immune from current events. Unfortunately, the movie reset the Bard's tragedy in a contemporary high school, and so ran afoul of school shootings in San Diego a month before its premiere.

And now along comes "The Core," a disaster epic that depicts what might happen if the Earth's molten center were to stop spinning. That sounds safe enough, doesn't it? Not a likely plot development in real life, but the trailer for the film depicts what results when the core stops spinning: a global electromagnetic disturbance that knocks a space shuttle right out of the sky.

(Soundbite of trailer for "The Core")

Unidentified Man #1: We've been hit!

Unidentified Man #2: We've got to get out.

Unidentified Man #3: We've lost control.

Unidentified Man #4: Coming in high and wide.

Unidentified Woman: Endeavour, you are off course.

MONDELLO: Paramount executives decided that after the Columbia disaster, the sight of space shuttle Endeavour crashing into Los Angeles would alienate more audience members than it would entice. So they've pulled that scene from the previews running in movie theaters. Still, the shuttle's crash is reportedly integral to the film's setup, so it's probably going to be there when "The Core" is actually released next month, along with such presumably less traumatic sights as an exploding coliseum in Rome and the West Coast experiencing what the trailer refers to as `the biggest shock wave in history.'

(Soundbite of trailer for "The Core")

Unidentified Man #5: San Francisco is in ruins.

Unidentified Man #6: The whole West Coast is out.

(Soundbite of music)

MONDELLO: Timing is important when it comes to whether real life makes movie sequences resonate freshly or seem tasteless. The political assassination thriller "Manchurian Candidate" was becoming a hit in 1963 until JFK was shot, after which audiences found its plot unbearable. The reverse happened in 1979 with "The China Syndrome." Jack Lemmon's struggle to keep a nuclear reactor from melting down became infinitely more suspenseful 12 days after it opened as audiences filed past newsstand headlines about a near identical incident at Three Mile Island. Had the real event happened first, studio executives might well have delayed the film so as not to seem opportunistic. Instead, they reaped a box office bonanza.

Of course, "The China Syndrome" was a cautionary tale about tragedy averted, or at least contained, and Three Mile Island was also contained, which makes a difference. Hollywood didn't need to feel guilty that time about the nightmare it had dreamed up to market alongside snipers and school shootings as entertainment. Its nightmare almost became a public service.

Still, it's friendlier when Tinseltown plots a less nerve-wracking course. I mean, if there's even an alien invasion, I'm going to be a lot more interested in watching "Close Encounters" or maybe "E.T." than "Independence Day," and I bet I'm not alone. I'm Bob Mondello.

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