The city so nice, they destroyed it twice

My boyfriend works mostly in the early mornings and I work mostly in the late evenings. Not the best arrangement right now but it does mean that a movie night in front of the TV, curled up together on the sofa, is a rare and extra-special pleasure for me. A stupid movie becomes fun, a great movie becomes a joy.

Could that then be why I hated BATTLE: LOS ANGELES so much? Hated as in, I couldn’t wait for it to end? Sure, we’ve suffered through a dud before–what made this one worse? I realized that it wasn’t just the dull pacing, cardboard characters and cringeworthy dialogue I hated (though Roger Ebert would call that a good start), what also made this movie a failure is the very thing it fights to save.

You see, that lovely man on the sofa beside me loves disaster movies. Just loves them. His delight in watching screaming extras running from massive devastation is both adorable and slightly sinister to me but I’ve watched many of these cheesy epics with him. While we both seem to agree that no one’s done it better than Irwin Allen‘s spree in the 70s (swim, Shelley Winters, swim!!!), a favourite new addition to his Blu-ray shelf is 2012, which we both enjoyed in the theatre (though for very different reasons–his rapt attention was frequently broken by me laughing out loud for nearly two hours). If you haven’t seen it, I can tell you that this giddy parody of the trailer is not only better than the actual movie but neatly sums up the appeal of the entire genre:

2012 plays to the disaster movie fan’s belief that, when the Apocalypse comes, he’ll be a plucky survivor, like John Cusack escaping LA in his magic limo, instead of one of the thousands of tiny CGI people crushed to death by a crumbling freeway overpass. Unfortunately, in watching it, I just didn’t find myself caring either way. While 2012‘s depiction of L.A. falling into the sea is stunningly well-realized, it’s, you know, L.A.

"Victory Blvd! We love it! Santa Monica Blvd! We love it!"

No disrespect to the city’s inhabitants (I have lovely friends just to the east in Riverside) but a disaster movie rests on mixing the awesome spectacle of large-scale destruction with the rushing terror of widespread death and Los Angeles is too visually bland and too spread out for much of either. While the producers of BATTLE: LOS ANGELES must’ve been awestruck by the dailies of their CGI wipeout of the city they work in, the rest of us can only shrug. “We can NOT lose Los Angeles!” barks a military leader but this blend of INDEPENDENCE DAY and BLACKHAWK DOWN (with all the fun or interesting parts removed) never really bothers to explain why not.

The setting matters in these things. In the 2012 director’s previous–and equally ridiculous–disaster movie THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, wild weather destroys much of America and here, the difference is most obvious: while the New York tsunami succeeds as a huge and terrifying sequence, the tornado destruction of L.A. is largely played for cruel laughs. While audiences gasp at New York losing the Empire State Building, the stately Public Library and the freakin’ Statue of Liberty, they also watch Los Angeles lose the Hollywood sign, the Capitol Records building and, umm, some nameless TV studio. Oh, the humanity!

More importantly, it’s not just the landmarks. Whether in 2012 or BATTLE: LOS ANGELES or SKYLINE or TERMINATOR 2, the destruction of L.A. seems always shot from on high, its poor citizens simply erased. New York disasters, by contrast, are seen from street level as the packed-in inhabitants of that gloriously chaotic city scramble for survival or end up under Godzilla’s foot. In THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, I was genuinely afraid for that woman and her child in the cab because I’ve seen so many women like her in New York. Hollywood still hasn’t figured out that audiences want people to care about but a fictional New York is always the easiest place to start.

New York is what most of the world pictures when we hear the word ‘city’–a home to our most iconic skyscrapers, a massive media industry, the footlights of Broadway, all those diners and delis, the fading but still glam nightlife and, of course, those 8 million people crammed together, somehow making it all work. When the Big Apple is destroyed onscreen, the rest of the world cares and a Hollywood montage of disasters in Los Angeles could never be as thrilling and terrifying as this:

But I suspect we’ll see a lot more punishment for the City of Angels because of the elephant in the room. New York City has been largely left alone by the studios’ disaster factory since September 2001 and for obvious reasons. While the 1986 comic book WATCHMEN lingered over a gruesome New York massacre in its horrifying climax, the otherwise faithful 2009 movie version merely featured a fleeting shot of a CGI explosion shockwave. It made for a muted, almost anticlimatic ending but I’m kind of okay with that. I really didn’t really need to see all that again.

So no, we’re stuck with L.A. for now or, judging from THE DARK KNIGHT and the upcoming TRANSFORMERS 3, it’s now Chicago’s turn to endure our punishment by popcorn. And what of Toronto, the city forever asking, ‘When’s it our turn?’ We’ve had our city hall destroyed but, in typical style, our onscreen Apocalypse (courtesy of the wry Don McKellar) was the exact opposite of BATTLE: LOS ANGELES–emotional, thought-provoking and human:

If the End of Days ever finally arrives, I’ll be happy to face it here.

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About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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