20 Years Later: 9/11 changed everything, including movies

The hijacked United Airlines Flight 175, which departed from Boston en route for Los Angeles, crashes into the South Tower of the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Black smoke billows from the North Tower after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the tower earlier. Photo: Robert Clark / Associated Press 2001

At the time, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same. And nothing has been the same, but not in the ways that we imagined.

At the time, it seemed like everything would change. And everything did change, but not in the way we pictured it.

Sept. 11, 2001, now 20 years in the past, marked the real beginning of the 21st century.

A year and a half before, the world had celebrated New Year’s 2000, amid some mild anxiety about a possible computer disaster called Y2K that never materialized. That day marked the culmination of a period of history so relaxed that we had time to worry about Y2K, or about the DNA analysis of a stain on Monica Lewinsky’s dress. The U.S. budget was running surpluses. The Soviet Union had collapsed. AIDS was finally under control. We had no enemies. War seemed almost impossible.

As the millennium turned, action movies had trouble finding bad guys. It was as if movies needed to go into the past just to locate some drama. Adaptations of E.M. Forster and Henry James novels were popular, as if in celebration of the progress women had made in the intervening century. And some of the best movies (“The Thin Red Line,” “Saving Private Ryan”) dealt with World War II.

Tom Hanks (right) and Tom Sizemore star in “Saving Private Ryan,” which was made during a period when filmmakers needed to drum up drama. Photo: Dreamworks

The World War II trend was easy enough to understand. Baby Boomers, then in their 40s and 50s, looked up and realized that they’d lived most of their lives in comparatively placid times, and that their parents — those same parents that they’d rebelled against years before — had known real hardship.

Why does Tom Hanks in “Saving Private Ryan” look nothing like the men who stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day? Why did he look like a slightly chubby man in his early 40s? Because “Saving Private Ryan” was made for slightly chubby men in their early 40s. It was made to make them think, “I would not want to go through what Dad went through.”

Such movies were wiped out by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We had our own problems now. The James and Forster adaptations stopped cold. We were in a different headspace — not nostalgic at all, but worried about the future.

Josh Kornbluth (left), Brian Thorstenson, Amy Resnick and Helen Shumaker in “Haiku Tunnel.” The office comedy released right after the 9/11 attacks held little interest for audiences then. Photo: Haiku Tunnel LLC / Sony Pictures Classics

The immediate movie casualties of that tragic day were the films released that week. Bay Area writer and performer Josh Kornbluth’s “Haiku Tunnel’ was scheduled to open in New York City’s Angelika Film Center on Sept. 11. By the time it opened the next night, Kornbluth’s sister had to cross a police line just to get into the theater. Few people were inside. No one wanted to see a comedy — “especially an office comedy,” Kornbluth told The Chronicle — in light of 9/11.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a lot of us made predictions. Some said that irony was dead. I predicted that a certain kind of irony was dead, the kind found in movies by gross-out comedians such as Tom Green (“Freddy Got Fingered”), who reduced all of life to base common denominators like biological function and sexual impulse. I was probably right about that, but I also predicted that sci-fi and action movies featuring the destruction of our cities would disappear. Instead they ended up increasing exponentially.

The first movie to deal directly with the terrorist attacks of that day was a local effort, “Underground Zero,” produced and curated by Jay Rosenblatt and Caveh Zahedi. It was a series of documentary shorts inspired by 9/11, and it remains a fascinating record of the period.

“At the time we were feeling shocked and aimless and were finding it difficult to focus on our own projects,” Rosenblatt recalled in a recent interview with The Chronicle. “We assumed other filmmakers might be feeling the same way, so within a week or so we composed a letter to send to all the filmmakers we knew — to invite them to submit a short film for an eventual omnibus film that we would curate. Those letters went out on Sept. 25, 2001.”

“United 93” captures a narrow slice of the narrative around the 9/11 terror attacks. Photo: Jonathan Olley

Still, the definitive narrative feature about 9/11 somehow still eludes us.

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013) was brilliant, but it dealt with 9/11 tangentially. “United 93” (2006), from Paul Greengrass, told of the day from inside the doomed aircraft that went down in Pennsylvania, but, by its very nature, it wasn’t a grand, big-picture narrative. Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006) seemed an attempt in that direction, but it was undermined by its narrow focus — two Port Authority cops stuck underneath the Twin Towers’ rubble.

Instead, 9/11 has most often expressed itself obliquely. At first, the expressions were positive. The enormous success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, with it clear-cut story of good versus evil, suited the post-9/11 mind-set.

Cate Blanchett and Elijah Wood in “Fellowship of the Ring” (2001). The good-versus-evil concept was fitting for the times. Photo: Pierre Vinet / BPI

But for the most part, post-9/11 films were anxious, and they’ve been anxious ever since. For the first time since at least the 1970s, the world suddenly felt menacing and out of control. Aside from a brief respite of “hope and change” during Obama’s presidential campaign that preceded the financial collapse of 2008, nothing has happened to make us feel otherwise. We’ve had two wars stemming from 9/11, a collapsed economy, two impeachments and a (continuing) pandemic. In response, we’ve had movies that have wallowed in destruction (as though, by watching, we might gain mastery over our fear) and a cascade of superheroes to comfort us with delusions of omnipotence.

Since 2001, movies such as “Godzilla,” about alien invasions and chaos, have dominated. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Indeed, if you were born on or after Sept. 11, 2001, movies, to you, have been mostly about civic chaos, alien invasion, or postapocalyptic horror. They’ve been about evenly matched superheroes taking out entire city blocks as they fight each other. They’ve been about Godzilla pushing over buildings and about intelligent apes taking over the Golden Gate Bridge.

In retrospect, can you imagine a superhero trend without 9/11? In the 1990s, such a trend would have made no sense. Superhero movies are emotionally grounded in an audience’s sense of isolated helplessness, but such a sentiment was hardly present enough in the 1990s to spark an entire Marvel Universe. Yet eight months after 9/11, in a combination of luck and intuition, the first “Spider-Man” (2002) was released, and thus began the dominant subgenre of the 21st century.

Kirsten Dunst is surprised by Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) in “Spider-Man” (2002). A new kind of superhero reigned in the movies after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Photo: Columbia Pictures

So, in the end, movies did not become what we were expecting them to be back in October 2001. They did not become somber and monastic. They did not swear off depictions of civic catastrophe. Instead they did what movies do: They served as our national dream life. They absorbed our uncertainty, paranoia and fear, and they flung them back at us in recurring nightmares of ruin and unconvincing fantasies of power.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we believed that everything had changed. But then, not long after, we thought, “Hold on a second, maybe things haven’t changed much after all.”

The truth is, we had it right the first time.