Hollywood Wants To Put An End To Our Foolish Human “Cities”

I have detected an insidious plot.

Hollywood hates our cities.

Consider, if you will, that in the following films (and there may be more) over the last ten or so years, one or several cities are prominently and obviously destroyed, frequently in the third act, sometimes due to some kind of invasion:

Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers Dark of the Moon, Transformers Age of Extinction, the LEGO Movie, Godzilla, Pacific Rim, Cloverfield, Avengers, World War Z, War of the Worlds, 2012, and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Wait, maybe not that last one.

Other films (Dark Knight Rises, Chronicle, the last Matrix movie) are city-destruction-adjacent.

I am left to conclude that Hollywood — acting as a self-aware hive-mind that has perhaps grown disgusted with our enjoyment of its leavings — is warning us that it will soon punch, kick and ‘asplode one or several major cities. It will headbutt holes in dark buildings. Because it angers.

IT ANGERS.

Okay, maybe not.

But I do find this interesting — I always love looking back over prior decades of film and trying to suss out, just what the fuck were people thinking? What fears and desires drove our entertainment needs? In 100 years we’ll look at the decade between 2030-2040 and ask, “What did all the orgies mean? Why all the robot goats? And all those shots of old men pooping in bowler hats. WEIRD.”

Seems that in the last decade, we’ve been afraid of the destruction of our cities.

Global warming? Maybe. Certainly some hints of that, whispered in any of the films that have nature at the heart of our metropolitan eradication, right?

Probably, though, this is the legacy of 9/11 — particularly since a lot of the films center around an invading force that fucks up our shit. Aliens, a lot of the time — even those we may not think of as aliens (Transformers, Kryptonians). And the new “Khan” is something of a terrorist, is he not? Makes sense, then, that this is the ghost of that day haunting our entertainment almost mindlessly at this point. We’re still a nation that remembers those buildings come down and, let’s be honest, it’s been a bit of a cultural splinter in the heel of our foot since then — stands to figure that it would bleed out all over our screen.

Or maybe we just get big boners when we watch buildings go boom.

Whatever the reason, for my mileage it’s growing increasingly boring.

Especially since they all look the same.

DARK SLATE-BLUE SKY

DARK ALIEN SHIPS THAT ARE JAGGED

CHUNKS TAKEN OUT OF DARK BUILDINGS

SOME GREY-BLUE LASER BEAM THING THAT’S ALSO SORTA DARK SOMEHOW

PYOOOOOOOOOO

BOOSH

DEBRIS

SCREAMING

DARKNESS

(And, if it’s a Michael Bay film, you can add in: SPACE SHUTTLE / ARMY GUYS / JETS OVERHEAD/ “JOKES” THAT ARE SUPPOSED TO BE “FUNNY” / MALE GAZE / GLISTENING SWEAT / EXPLOSIONS / MORE EXPLOSIONS / ASTRONAUTS.)

It all feels very cut and paste. You could take scenes from Man of Steel, intersperse them into Transformers, maybe grab one from the newest Thor, and nobody would know the difference. And jeez, maybe that’s what it is. Maybe once someone created these CGI assets, they’re just passing them around like a joint in a dorm room — “You want Chicago getting destroyed? I’ll just give you the thumb drive, Spielberg. It’s been in like, six other movies by now, so whatevs.”

What does this say about us, as an audience?

Maybe something. Maybe nothing.

What does it say for filmmakers of Big Budget Plotstravaganzas?

Time to actually find some original content, methinks.

I mean, how about a giant space ape who arrives and builds cities where we don’t want them? Huh? Howzabout that? BOOM. This is why I should be allowed to write movies.

Or maybe “shouldn’t.”

Probably that, yeah.

37 comments

  • Can you imagine trying to get insurance in any of those film Universes?

    – Property insurance – sorry, we can’t cover you for destruction of property by invading forces or superheroes.

    – Personal injury/life insurance – You live in New York? Yeah…. your premiums are going to be 800% higher than if you lived in Canada.

    – Vehicle Insurance – Our policies do not cover you for damage caused by falling masonry, impacts from robots taller than 5 feet and please note that if you are involved in a collision of any kind at the same time as a global event occurs (including, but not limited to, meteor strike, alien invasion, rapture, dimensional rift opening, viral plague outbreak) your policy is void.

    Oh, of course we will cover you for terrorist attack. Statistically the chances of being killed by actual terrorists are really low.

    • One of my projects, on the back burner for some time now, has been to write an anthology about all of the people on the fringes of worlds occupied by superheroes — all those normal poor shmucks who have to share space with those super-powered assholes. The insurance claims center that has to handle the fall-out of the city-destroying mega-battle. The construction worker who’s got to rebuild that bridge /again/. The dry-cleaning worker who’s kept in business with all those nice spandex super-suits. None of them ever get screen-time, but I’d like to see superheroes stay in business without them.

      • After reading “Redshirts” by John Scalzi, I wrote a short story about some air-force cadets who are worried about being among the three or four pilots who get sent out and immediately destroyed before the super-heroes show up.

        • I am working on a bunch of short stories about a guy who’s basically a Spark and his long-suffering assistant, Ted. Ted’s reasonably bright but has no idea how anything his employer does actually works, and spends a lot of time wondering if some over-enthusiastic experiment is going to do something unspeakable to him. This is an old but rich vein, especially in science fiction and fantasy. :)

          “Igor! Throw the switch!”

          “Okay, but why don’t you want to do it?”

          “Because mad geniuses can’t be bothered with things like surge protectors, and it’s a well known fact that hunchbacked flunkies are easier to come by than mad geniuses.”

      • I believe it’s in the Marvel Universe where there is an organization called “Damage Control,” whose purpose is to clean up after superhero fights. It’s because of them that NYC, for instance, never seems to bear any scars of the massive metahuman battles that take place there on a regular basis. Other comic universes have implied similar organizations.

        I want to say it was Alex Ross who did a comic where somebody whose (wife?) was killed in a battle between the Silver Surfer and some villain or other decides to kill the Surfer, who he blames for not just flying someplace not filled with normals before engaging the villain. It was very much a story of “It’s not your world, it’s everybody’s world, you narcissistic bastards.”

        • Yes, it was a story Alex Ross Illustrated called Marvels. It was about the Marvel Universe as seen through the eyes of a non-powered Everyman.

  • Yup. I watched Man of Steel soon after it came out, and I was just like “man this shit is depressing”. Nobody wants to watch a city literally being imploded. Or do they?

  • June 29, 2014 at 7:30 PM // Reply

    Or even young men pooping in their bowler hats. See ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ – or if you have a modicum of good taste DON’T see it.

  • I think it’s the 9/11 thing.

    I think it’s shorthand for our fear of destruction of our civilization. The modern-day tower of Babel, ripped apart by unearthly forces.

    Or maybe it’s just lazily upping the stakes when you have a ridiculous special effects budget.

  • I don’t think it’s specifically 9/11 related, for two main reasons:

    1) Japanese culture has had a fixation on apocalyptic destruction for a lot longer than we have, for obvious reasons. Much of their entertainment either centers on it or has it as an undertone, and that had bled into American entertainment somewhat. This is what generated interest in movies like Godzilla and Pacific Rim.

    2) This trend started well before 9/11, in the late-90’s, with Deep Impact, Armageddon, and Independence Day. I think the trend is far less insidious than an apocalyptic mindset, and more centered around the idea that people love explosions, so as special effects have advanced, Hollywood has been able to make bigger and bigger explosions. But if you up the scale to “planet destruction”, it loses its impact and immediacy. The destruction of a city, however, is sufficiently large-scale while maintaining its individual impact. It’s about as large-scale and explosion as you can go while still remaining relatable.

    • You hit the nail on the head. ID4 started it. Hollywood is copying it over and over. Specifically that one shot where the camera is looking down a long street and the explosion starts far away, coming up towards the camera and, like dominoes, the explosion blasts all the cars up into the air. That Exact shot is copied in every single one of these movies.

  • I had to google MALE GAZE. I did a Google image search first–omg the results. Because I’m thinking it has to do with shots of male actors, gazing out across landscapes, battle scenes, etc. Or, a focus on male characters and their reactions.

    But I was wrong. I had it backwards. Wow, the things I learn from this blog. The concept of The Male Gaze isn’t foreign to me–it’s actually gotten pretty darn old and burned me out on action movies. I just didn’t realize it had a name.

  • I’ve been wondering the same thing with the explosion of superhero movies over the last decade or so. Like our problems are so insurmountable and deeply-ingrained that we need a dude bitten by a radioactive spider to bail us out. Mkes sense if you watch the news, but jeez, enough with the superpowers.how about somebody who actually turns people into good people?

    • Not only that, but the SAME damn superhero movies over and over. Five Spider-Man movies since 2002. Three Batman movies since 2005 (seven since 1989.) Two Superman films since 2006 (six since 1978.) Seven X-Men movies since 2000. And don’t get me started on The Avengers.

      NO Wonder Woman movie. (Although Ass-Kicking Alice has certainly had her go with five movies since 2002 and a sixth in preproduction.) The Electra movie was a joke. The Catwoman movie was a joke that wasn’t even funny. Black Widow is a step in the right direction but she isn’t getting her own movie any time soon either.

      Speaking of, Hollywood seems to be locked on to male characters and female actors. They’ll give various males roles as the same hero, but they really like to bank on a few female stars. Jovovich – whom I love, don’t get me wrong – has been various kinds of action hero, as has Jolie. Just my odd musing and statistically I could be way off.

      Anyway, yes, enough with the superhero movies… unless we get some different superheroes with some different modus operandi.

  • It’s not just a 9/11 thing. It’s a I-am-so-fed-up-with-the-daily-bullshit-of-dealing-with-you-assholes-I-want-to-sit-in-the-dark-and-watch-a-fantasy-about-your-violent-death thing. Of course, I am so brilliant and blessed that I, and those I deem worthy so you better start sucking up NOW, will survive and rebuild society into a perfect utopia with me as the benevolent dictator. If I feel like making an effort.

    Remember the Twilight Zone episode about the guy who just wanted people to leave him alone so he could read? I could relate.

  • With the ‘CGI elements getting re-used’, has anyone else watched both the second episode of Stargate:Atlantis (‘Rising’, part 2) and the movie Barbie and the Diamond Castle?

    I’m guessing they expected almost no crossover between audiences, because that was a pretty damn big CGI element to re-use.

  • “I mean, how about a giant space ape who arrives and builds cities where we don’t want them?” That would be a story about humans, from the viewpoint of the small inhabitants of a planet the humans have decided to colonize. Think ‘Horton Hears a Who’ spliced with giant-explosions-movie-of-choice. :)

  • It’s funny, there was actually a Cracked article from a while back that talked about how every trailer for nearly every blockbuster is starting to feature the same shot of a spaceship crashing to the earth, usually accompanied by the BWAAAAAAAM sound.

    Days of Future Past was weird. I saw a movie critic that pointed out that, as a superhero movie series, the X-Men movies look the same as they did in the 90’s when the first one came out–with their black leather outfits and such. And it was the only superhero movie that didn’t end with the destruction of a city at the end. Refreshing in a way.

    I imagine that we’ll look back on our dour, city-smashing endings like we look back on all those action movies that aped the Matrix’s style from the early 2000’s–something to sort of giggle over while we all complain whatever new trend movies are in.

  • Hollywood seems to have its finger on our pulse: we like to see the familiar totally f**ked up. Somehow we find that entertaining, maybe because we’re tired of the familiar, tired of what’s comfortable, so we pay good money to see our comfort zones, and our fellow human beings, whom we’ve also grown tired of, obliterated. Kind of sick when you think about it, but that’s what sells, and that’s what we keep coming back to.

  • It goes back farther than the ’90s. Disaster movies have a long pedigree, though the destruction used to be on a smaller scale (Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno among others from the ’70s) due to special effects constraints.

    We’ve always had an appetite for destruction.

    • It’s less about the “always been there” and more about:

      a) Why the sudden sharp rise in these movies?
      b) Why are the scenes of city destruction so similar in narrative construction and visual style?

      Part of it could just be the technology.

      The destruction has always been there, indeed — though I think every time themes and motifs like this rise, it means something. It meant something then, and means something now. The question is: what does it mean?

      — c.

  • I don’t mind seeing collateral damage in an action movie, it helps show the audience what’s at stake. What gets me is when the damage is so drastic that there’s no conceivable way for the city to recover, at least not within a resasonable timeframe.

    So, the damage shown in Avengers, while pretty hefty, isn’t so bad that the city would have to stop functioning and be utterly evacuated.

    Man of Steel, however.. There just is no way Metropolis is coming back from that.

    • The city where most of the epic web-serial Worm takes place, the fictional Brockton Bay, takes a lot of damage from parahuman battles, including a fight against a non-human baddie called an Endbringer. (Their names are not particularly hyperbolic.) It’s so messed up that the local villains not only start taking over sectors, they actually run them better than the legitimate authorities are able to. One of them (an anti-hero more than actual villain) responds to somebody complaining about her claiming her neighborhood with, “People are being fed, they have clean water, they sleep more or less safe in their beds because I am the baddest MF’er here and I’ve told all the lesser MF’ers that if they mess with my people, it’s their ass. If I let go, it will fall into chaos. When the authorities can do better, I’ll go back to villaining.”

      The city is seriously compromised by the fight, including low-lying areas being flooded (Brockton Bay, as one might guess, is on the ocean,) sewers failing, insects (Heh. Insects. You’ll see.) and other vermin becoming a problem, no clean water, no reliable transportation grid, etc. It’s all treated, IMO, very realistically and as a major motivator for the events of the story.

      Words cannot explain how amazing this story is, by the way. If you like superheroes/parahumans/people in spandex doing bizarre things for bizarre reasons that turn out to be WORLD SHATTERINGLY NECESSARY, you must read it. And… hold on to your head-coverings… it is free. Go look.

      http://parahumans.wordpress.com/table-of-contents/

  • It’s also the story stakes that have risen so high — so that EVERY MOVIE seems to be about The Utter Destruction Of The World As We Know It. Because apparently we can’t take any lesser threat seriously, or that no lesser threat provides sufficient challenge to the film’s Epic Hero Protagonists.

    Therefore, to demonstrate just how high the stakes are, much destruction must ensue. Also special effects make this kind of visual epic much easier now, and well, EPIC, so why not?

    I think you could get a really good story (or semi-dark comedy/drama) out of the Aftermath of those huge earth-shattering just-shy-of-Apocalypse super-hero battle zones, though. Agents of SHIELD touched on it a little, though they had their own storyline to pursue; it will be interesting to see where they take it in their new season. But a deliberately dark-comedy movie or TV series about the poor saps who have to live in and clean up after the cities destroyed by superhero battles…. could be a lot of fun, and allow poking at the whole mythic archetype of superheroes in general. (Scalzi’s “Redshirts” was a fun twist on that, too.)

  • The one that really bothered me was in G.I. JOE: RETALIATION. The bad guys obliterate London, and the audience is treated to a lovely scene of Big Ben blottered and thousands incinerated. The scene takes place during a World Leaders Clubhouse meeting, and no one mentions this wanton destruction after the initial three seconds of surprise.

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