The most shocking moment in ‘Olympus Has Fallen’ - judging by the stunned gasps during our screening at least - was when North Korean terrorists shoot a dog during their all out assault on the White House.
Bear in mind that by this point dozens of secret service agents have already been mown down by a machine gun, and a close member of the president’s family has also met a gruesome end. It’s still the dog death that punters found shocking.
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According to the movie’s stars Aaron Eckhart (who plays the POTUS) and Gerard Butler (the ex-agent who must save the day), this un-PC detail set the tone of the film.
“We had to kill the dog,” Butler said. “It showed how far we were willing to go.
“It’s a hostage situation. You have a women get beaten up to get information out of her. [But] people are like ‘oh you shot a dog’?!”
Eckhart agreed: “A thousand people can die in cold blood, hatcheted to death. But shoot a dog and that shows you’re on a different level. You’re serious now.”
It certainly goes against everything Hollywood disaster movies have taught us about the durability of the animal kingdom.
While promoting ‘Independence Day’, director Roland Emmerich was asked about the hilarious scene that saw a tunnel full of humans immolated by alien death rays, but Will Smith’s dog Boomer miraculously leap to safety... in glorious slow motion.
“You never kill the dog” he said.
Unless it’s a gritty drama or a horror movie (Stephen King flick ‘Cujo’ springs to mind), it’s a rule of thumb for Hollywood hacks is that Fido must make it out alive.
‘Independence Day’, along with almost every other cheesy 90s disaster movie, is a case in point. Almost all of them feature scenes of miraculous canine survival.
In ‘Armageddon’ for example, New York is showered with meteors that presumably kill thousands of people. But amidst the carnage, director Michael Bay goes to great lengths to set up a perilous scenario for dog Little Richard - he’s hanging from a ledge - before showing us that he narrowly survives.
‘Dante’s Peak’ also has an entire sequence that shows Pierce Brosnan and family rescue pooch Ruffy while apparently driving straight through lava.
Not to be outdone, rival volcano movie, err, ‘Volcano’, features a dog running into a burning building, barking at the approaching lava, before retrieving his toy. The late, great Roger Ebert quipped: “When that happened, not a single dog in the audience had dry eyes.”
But why is that we laugh when a guy slowly melts into lava, but cry with joy for a courageous pooch? Why do we care much more about Joey’s survival in ‘War Horse’ than the millions of Tommy’s in the trenches?
Eckhart reckons that cinema audiences are “pretty much inoculated to people being killed... [but] a dog is something so vulnerable. Everybody loves dogs. They’re man’s best friend.”
Perhaps it is the vulnerability of animals, their innocence, that gets us. Maybe we just prefer animals to humans full stop... and not just in the movies. Late Tory politician Alan Clark caused outrage when, in an interview with John Pilger, he basically admitted he cared more about animals being killed for food (he was a staunch vegetarian) than the human suffering in places like East Timor, where he’d been selling arms as Minister For Trade.
How many of us, secretly at least, understand where he’s coming from? We’re not sure why this is the case, but whatever the reason, Hollywood screenwriters are well aware that showing an animal in peril is an easy way to get an emotional reaction from us.
George Lucas put it best when he said: "If you want me to make you feel something, that's not hard. I'll choke a kitten in front of you.” We’d cared a lot more about ‘Phantom Menace’ if it had a cute puppy. Just saying George.