There’s little doubt that the Seth Rogen film comedy “The Interview” pushes the boundaries of good taste: The plot involves an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In the final reel, Kim’s head explodes.
Or so reports say. Aside from a few movie-industry insiders, no one else will get to see “The Interview,” following Sony Pictures Entertainment’s announcement on Wednesday that it was canceling the film’s scheduled Christmas Day release and that it has no plans to issue the film in any format, including DVD and live streaming.
As Globe film critic Ty Burr pointed out, cinematic violence — or threats of violence — to actual living people (not to mention thinly disguised fictional stand-ins) is not unprecedented. The 2006 British indie-release “The Death of a President” depicted the death of then-President George W. Bush. The 1988 comedy “The Naked Gun” included a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. Kim Jong Il (Kim’s father), was dispatched in “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 puppet animation “Team America: World Police” (graphically impaled on Kaiser Wilhelm’s spiked helmet). But “The Interview,” according to some film historians, presents the first killing of a sitting world leader in a major studio release.
The cancellation of the release of “The Interview” was the culmination of a series of cyberattacks on Sony related to the film — anonymous hackers had released bundles of potentially damaging emails that exposed snide communications between Sony executives. North Korea denied any involvement in the hacking, but also voiced support for this “patriotic” act, calling the movie “terrorism” and “an act of war.” Finally, the hackers issued a statement: “Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you keep yourself distant from places at that time.”
That may have been bluster; the Department of Homeland Security released a statement, that there was “no specific, credible threat information that would suggest any attack was imminent.” Still, Sony left it up to the various theater chains — representing a reported 19,200 screens — whether they wanted to show the film. When several backed out, Sony withdrew the movie entirely.
A terror threat at malls during holiday shopping season is not something any theater owner wants — or should have to — face. And one of the chains involved, Cinemark, has legitimate concerns, since it had faced lawsuits following the 2012 shootings at its Aurora, Colo., theater, in which its defense was that the incident was not foreseeable. That defense probably wouldn’t have held here.
And yet, how serious was that threat, and how serious the liability? And should corporate liability — as opposed to genuine concern for public safety — be a factor in a post-9/11 era in which everything from lack of military resolve to failure to go shopping is considered evidence that “the terrorists have won”? By caving to anonymous hackers, Sony really has given terror a victory. And in suggesting that cyberterror is a precursor to violence, they’ve given us all something new to fear.
Movie-goers could have decided for themselves whether they wanted to “risk” going to a Seth Rogen movie in a theater, just as we all made a choice about whether to go to mass public events after 9/11, or the July 4 Esplanade celebration barely three months after the Marathon bombings. Now we don’t even have a choice about whether to rent “The Interview” on DVD. In the eyes of Sony, apparently, it’s easier to be afraid.