Moviegoers can usually agree to disagree on what scares them. There’s a whole horror genre, and yet a good number of people find splatter flicks more fun and sexy than frightening. Those who can shrug off Freddy or Jason will be left sleepless by an alien invasion movie. (One of them would be yours truly, who has a really embarrassing story as to what Signs did to her mental state.) Others can’t tolerate serial killer or home invasion movies. Many are too sensitive even for an action flick. Fear is a unique and individual reaction.
But I think there’s probably one “scare” that makes us all clutch our heart, and that’s seeing one of our metropolitan centers obliterated. Sure, you can thrill to the special effects and marvel at the sheen of shattered glass and twisted metal, but it’s a nervous pleasure as we all ponder how horrible it would be to actually witness. After all, we did see two buildings come crashing down just a decade ago, and it still makes all the Michael Bay attempts feel a little crass.
Nevertheless, we just keep doing it. We keep destroying our cities onscreen for the universal ugliness of it – Where would we go? What would we do? How long until we had to get a sawed off shotgun and go Mad Max? – and marveling over how much realer this version of destruction looked over last time. (“Man, Independence Day has been outstripped!”)
According to architectural authority Max Page, this is actually a good thing. If we destroy cities onscreen, it means they’re places that are still important to us culturally. If we stop fearing (and thus imagining) their demise, they’ve disappeared off our social radar.
That’s good news for New York which has been destroyed onscreen 61 times and counting. It’s Hollywood’s favorite city to level, and has been since 1933, when it was first destroyed in Deluge. It was also attacked that very same year by King Kong. So numerous are its onscreen deaths that Wikipedia has eagerly categorized them.
The only city that probably comes close to onscreen destruction as many times as New York is probably Tokyo. I’ve never seen all 28 of the Godzilla films, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say that Tokyo goes down for the count in most of them. Throw in Akira and The Day After Tomorrow, and Tokyo can stand proud beside New York as regularly being wiped off the movie map.
However, if you want harder numbers, the second most destroyed city is Los Angeles, which has been obliterated 22 times. I suspect this has less to do with LA’s significance to the world at large, and more to do with its importance to Hollywood. Plus, it’s cheaper to destroy a city you’re already filming in. (Funny enough, many film fans cite San Francisco as a film to meet onscreen death on a regular basis, but deeper digging reveals it’s really only the Golden Gate Bridge that regularly bites it. Even The Day After Tomorrow only had the heart to melt the bridge instead of sending a tidal wave or an earthquake to wipe out that coastal gem.)
Paris (arguably a far more beloved and relevant city than LA, thus proving my point) comes third, having been destroyed 11 times on camera. London straggles behind with only eight onscreen deaths, though that number can be upped to outdo Paris if you count the unpleasant worlds and exploding landmarks of Shaun of the Dead, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Children of Men, and V for Vendetta.
Last, but not least, are Washington D.C. and Chicago. The Windy City become smoking cinematic rubble a grand total of three times, most memorably and recently by Michael Bay … er, I mean Megatron. (In Old Chicago and Chain Reaction are the other two winners, and the former even destroys more than Bay, as difficult as that may be to comprehend.) D.C. (technically not a city, but go with it) is actually left standing more often than not, and usually only falls when the rest of the country goes, a la Zombieland and 2012.
If your city isn’t on here, take heart. Rather than considering your urban center unimportant, live comfortably in the knowledge that once aliens, Transformers, nuclear warheads or plague hits, you’ll hang on just that much longer. Psychologically, we’ll all be a mess, but at least those of us in Denver, Taos, Boise, New Orleans and Austin can take comfort in the fact we’ll have grocery stores, restaurants, doctors and movie theaters until the second wave hits. Unless, of course, our cultural perspective shifts to honor those places more than New York and Paris – in which case, I’ll race you to Paris...