If You’re Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear a Hazmat Suit

05/25/2009 8:12 AM |

c352/1243023542-frisco.jpgSpoilers follow, to the extent that I reveal that at the end of several recent blockbusters, the good guys win.

What the heck does Hollywood have against San Francisco? In a state where one’s character is judged by how you voted on Proposition 8 — or how much money you donated and to whom — it’s confusing that Milk-loving L.A. would have such destruction fantasies about America’s gay Mecca, or that its liberal elite would so assail that hotbed of Pelosism. And yet, so far, three studio-backed movies of 2009’s blockbuster season have targeted the city for demolition or decimated it altogether, and summer hasn’t even officially started yet.

But it may not be rooted in hatred after all — at heart, it might be about the cultural decline of New York City.

In J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek prequel (released May 8), Frisco is headquarters for The Federation, a U.N.-style conglomeration of intergalactic peacekeepers. So, when a monomaniacal alien race lusts for revenge against The Feds, San Francisco is naturally their primary target: they attack the city with a black hole-creating probe, though Starfleet is able to hold the villains off before they destroy the city and, with it, the planet.

To Abrams’ and his screenwriters’ credit, they don’t raze San Francisco, just put it on notice, which is more than can be said for Dreamworks’ Monsters vs. Aliens (released March 27). The filmmakers behind that animated moneymaker drop an egg-shaped robot-monster into the Bay, which proceeds to destroy not only the Golden Gate Bridge but also copious buildings and streets before the film’s ragtag heroes are able to stop it. But the damage is done, as though the city were hit by 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina wrapped into one.

Monsters vs. Aliens knocks the city to the ground; the latest installment of the Terminator franchise (released May 21) takes it down once and for all. In that film, human-enslaving conscious computers, known collectively as Skynet, have bunkered down in San Francisco, which has already been largely destroyed (like the rest of the country, in fairness) by a prior nuclear holocaust. That doesn’t stop John Connor, though, from breaking in and rigging more nuclear material to explode, like salting the earth with radioactive sodium chloride so that no man, cockroach or computer could ever occupy the metropolis again.

So, what’s with the desire to crush, nuke, or create a black hole in the city of hills, trolleys and Hamburger Helper? The easiest answers could be that the film community has decided that New York, the usual go-to city for annihilation, deserves a break after the Spiderman series, I Am Legend, Cloverfield, The Day the Earth Stood Still and others have been clobbering it in the years since 9/11-that the American public is exhausted with iconographic reminders of its first Patriot’s Day. Or, maybe it’s merely rooted in a regional rivalry — Angelenos in competition with their neighbors to the north.

More likely it’s that, after September 11th, the collapse of Wall Street and the extended mayoralty of the mediocre Bloomberg, San Francisco has begun to overshadow N.Y.C. as the country’s premiere urban center, in the eyes of Americans and the world, and thus it would be the metropolis that aliens and supercomputers would want to destroy. (Since the loss of the Twin Towers, the Golden Gate Bridge has arguably become the dominant symbol of non-D.C. America.) That is, it may not be a hate thing after all. As my colleague Benjamin Sutton suggested to me, “maybe it’s love, because the surest sign of the impending apocalypse is when our greatest city comes under attack.” The Big Apple is now to the country what America is to the world (pre-Obama honeymoon, anyway)-a once-dominant power whose popularity and hegemony are fading fast. If you don’t believe me, go see a movie.

12 Comment

  • I disagree on your choice of San Francisco as the preeminent American city based on multiple notions, with my admitted East Cost and NYC bias in check. But first, as to the films in discussion, it must be taken into account that two of those films are part of existing franchises. In the Star Trek universe, SF has been the home of Starfleet HQ since at least as far back as Star Trek IV, released in 1986, and quite possibly longer. It melds nicely with the peacekeeping hippy dippy nature of Starfleet (at least in it’s conception), and was a nice place to fly a spaceship with a few humpback whales in it through a time traveling wormhole.

    As for the Terminator series, all previous films have taken place in various California locations, although not specifically SF that I can remember. But Skynet was initially activated in a remote desert base in the southwest, so SF is a fine target for a large amount of its carnage.

    I have not seen Monsters Vs. Aliens, but Dreamworks is a very California company in its outlook. It could be just that the animators wanted to use a city they had familiarity with, and just think of the visual appeal of SF. It has a much brighter color palette than most American cities (giant red bridge, anyone?), and lends itself very nicely to 3D animation and coloring.

    So all in all, I don’t feel these 3 films show SF as the new “it” city. Plus in the Transformers 2 trailer, a robot is seen plucking the American flag off the Brooklyn bridge, so we can expect some good old fashion NY destruction there. And the final season of 24 begins filming in NYC next year, so another good opportunity for explosions in our streets.

    My final point would be I just don’t think the world (or America) would ever pick one of our West Coast cities as its new favorite. L.A. has too many transplants, and what little character it does have is widely regarded as fake. The other CA cities are just too precious. SF’s claims to fame are gay rights and yuppies (and Rice a roni), all fine things, but not enough for the large diverse groups of people to identify with. If NYC were to be (or has been) dethroned, I think the only worthy successor would have to be a city with similar character, and I think the only other place to look in the States would be Chicago. It’s old, has some gritty history, and is the favorite place of our President. It’s also the only American city that really feels like a city, cramped, angry, but also full of life. Of course, a dark horse could rise up like Philly or DC or Boston, but those places have either had their time or are so associated with one thing they might never exit that spotlight.

    To borrow a cliched phrase, the rumors of New York’s death have been greatly exaggerated. We still have the most diverse music and arts scene in the country, even if some of the more avant garde have fled for Baltimore and Portland. And the financial industry, though it will definitely change and no longer be the tractor beam for the best and the brightest, will still be a factor, in addition to the myriad other businesses housed here.

    But maybe its just cause I hate hippies.

  • I agree with Cogswell’s comment re: Chicago being the 2nd city to New York. It’s the only American city that really can compare to New York City.

  • Well, OK, Star Trek could be excused for franchise fealty–though we could ask “why reboot THIS [S.F.-based] franchise NOW?” Anyway, sure, Terminator has historically been set in CA, and Dreamworks is a very California-centric company–but CA is a really big state, and there are any number of big cities there. Why not Los Angeles? Sacramento? San Diego? Anaheim? Etc.? As you mention, there’s the iconography of S.F. (just the Golden Gate, really), which is important. Having a powerful iconography is an important ingredient of becoming a/the Major City. NY’s decline (not defeat) in the cultural imagination might have something to do with its having been damaged. Sure, there’s still the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge…but we were trading so long off of the Twin Towers that their disappearance has left us sort of ungrounded–iconographically speaking, anyway.

    You might be right that S.F. is a little too “out there” to hold mainstream appeal for Americans. But I often hear from elitist artsy types (i.e. New Yorkers) at least that “there are only two places to live in America: NY and SF.” In my experience, urban elites (like those who produce Hollywood movies?) tend to view Philly, DC, Boston and even Chicago as second-rate cities, practically on par with Phoenix and Houston. Maybe that’s just the snobby circles through which I travel.

    Anyway, I didn’t say that San Francisco SHOULD dethrone NY, or that it’s worthy to do so. I merely identified a trend! Nor do I think NY is dead–just under attack. I’m sure our fair city will continue to be destroyed in many Hollywood blockbusters to come. (Taking of Pelham 123 hits theaters in just a few weeks.) But do you really think all the recent San Francisco destruction is just a coincidence?

  • Speaking of SF getting destroyed- It Came from Beneath the Sea, SF getting trashed(well, not too much) in a Godzilla rip-off from 1955. The actress playing the lead, I had to look her up as soon as this one was over… http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048215/

    Also, was there a silent era “SF destroyed by an earthquake” epic? Not sure now…

    And I vote for Chi over SF, although I haven’t been to SF yet. Just don’t like the earthquake stuff…

  • The Taking of Pelham 123 would be incredibly awful on a trolley car (not that the new one will be good anyway)!

  • Other notable recent SF destructo-porns: X-Men: The Last Stand had Magneto radically re-aligning the Golden Gate Bridge; The Rock involved exploding street cars and napalming Alcatraz.

  • Hey Cogswell, when you go to San Francisco be sure to wear your flower in your hair… because you clearly don’t know anything about the place. SF has a greater population density than Chicago It is also far more ethnically diverse.

  • Another notable and recent SF-destruction film: Zodiac! Though it’s more psychological destruction….

  • I moved from SF to NYC about 2 years ago and it’s done nothing for me but steal my non-gluten loving stoner girlfriend and turn her into a cokehead club loving douchebag. I manged to get a fun job out of the move, but if I ever get laid off, I’m going back to SF. NYC is poseur major central and needs to get off it’s high horse. I was at a Santigold show the other night and it was all “Brooklyn this” and “Brooklyn that” till you got to the after show party in the LES that was filled with face stretched, mink wearing, semi-racist money bags who all derided the stars of the show (Santigold and her Husband) as they skirted the to the front of the line. Didn’t even know who was throwing the party they was invited to. That’s NYC for ya.

  • …and, the reason SF is picked by so many filmmakers is because of all the instantly recognizable landmarks – Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Pyramid Building, Coit Tower, Trolley Cars, Lombard St aka the crookedest street in the world… but look at cookie cutter cities like LA, Chicago, whatever – you’re just looking at some boring city. Same with ugly (okay, ugly by day) NYC with the exception of the Empire State Building and The Chrysler Building (which most non-New Yorkers get mixed up anyways.) it’s just some huge fucking city. Other than SF all these metropoli are justa bunch of gross office buildings littered with smog/haze or depressing sleet/snow.

  • @AlexHam: I think you betray a S.F. bias, or at least, er, a NY antipathy. Maybe I reveal my own ignorance, but I had to google half of the “instantly recognizable” landmarks you listed; but if Coit Tower and the Pyramid Building count as major American landmarks, NYC has a lot more than the Empire State and Chrysler buildings. And really, if we’re being honest, D.C. probably has the most familiar landmarks of the Big Five Cities with which we’ve come up. So, lately, why doesn’t Hollywood explode that city’s iconography as often as New York’s or San Fransisco’s? (Racism?)