The Chronicle Review

The Lure of Urban Destruction

May 09, 2008

Why are we so fascinated with films about destroying New York?

Walking down 57th Street in Manhattan, I stopped to look at a poster for I Am Legend, a recent movie about the last human survivor of an epidemic in New York. In the poster, Will Smith strides defiantly with his trusty German shepherd, a wasted New York skyline and a decimated Brooklyn Bridge in the distance. A few blocks later, I noticed a similar image, this time for a competing film, Cloverfield, which documents on a video camera what happens when a huge, mysterious creature, a ghoul-like lizard, destroys the city. As I looked at a headless Statue of Liberty presiding over a smoldering metropolis, I realized that New York destruction narratives have a built-in audience. I had to ask: What is the lure of destruction? And why does it so often involve New York?

The obvious answer, the one that almost all of the writing on the subject takes as its focus, is September 11. But the roots of the story and its appeal go back much further and reach much deeper. A short list of films and television shows, with a few books as noted, includes King Kong (major versions, 1933, 1976, and 2005), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), selected episodes of The Twilight Zone (1959-64), Fail-Safe (novel, 1962; film, 1964), Planet of the Apes (1968), Independence Day (1996), The Fifth Element (1997), Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (2001), Spider-Man (2002), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and War of the Worlds (2005). That list would grow if we added other cities, such as London, for which destruction narratives stretch back at least into the 17th century.

In fact the lure of urban destruction reaches all the way to ancient Rome and touches the very meaning of cities, with New York as America's ur-city and the one whose skyline filmgoers around the world recognize. Intriguingly, the theme of New York's destruction often accompanies a primitivist fantasy and a return to the savage or the prehuman. Like Robinson Crusoe on his island, survivors in Manhattan need to invent ways to secure necessities that were once available from the building superintendent or the local market.

In the 21st century, the destruction narrative has reached new heights, fueling not just big-budget films and popular television shows but also nonfiction. The narrative was at the core of An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary, which predicted that huge chunks of New York will be under water in the near future. Views of New York adorn the cover of The World Without Us (2007) and punctuate television specials like Life After People (2008) as a way of measuring how quickly nature could erase great human cities.

Of the fictional narratives, Heroes, a television series on NBC regularly watched by 14 million viewers, seems especially fascinating for the fresh and imaginative way it combines familiar genres, like sci-fi and melodrama, and stock characters, like the forensic doctor and the nerdy hero. "Save the cheerleader, save the world," its slogan runs — and the female lead, Claire, is the most powerful but endangered high-school diva on TV since Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In 2006, Heroes threatened New York with nuclear explosion and then, in 2007, with a killer virus stored by a shady corporation. The 2008 season resumes with Sylar, a serial killer whose body can, in and of itself, trigger nuclear reactions. Meanwhile, fans can read a fictionalization by Aury Wallington called Heroes: Saving Charlie or, on the show's Web site, view old episodes, follow a continuing graphic novel, and play various interactive games. As I tracked the series, I thought: I know its dreams; I know its nightmares. New York destruction narratives thrive on that sense of recognition.

Hiro, the show's Japanese computer-geek- turned-samurai, has the gift of teleporting himself across time and space. When he first tries out his skill, he arrives in an instantly recognizable and still undamaged Times Square, puts out his arms 180 degrees, and says, with excitement radiating through his voice, "Hello New York!" Being at the center of it all, channeling the city's energy, feeling the magic of its creative pulse: We know that feeling — the dream.

When Peter Petrelli, another of the series' namesake heroes, teleports himself from Ireland to avoid a threat, he lands in New York late in 2008 and finds the city devastated by disease, with repressive police forces who herd people like animals. Although entirely imaginary, Peter's landscape coexists in the popular imagination with Hiro's Times Square: decaying buildings, abandoned streets, newspapers or billboards from "before" that mock what the city has become, police cars that whiz up and gather innocents into penlike cells before deporting them, or worse. Post-nuclear and post-virus New York — the nightmare.

It's easy to understand the appeal of New York, capital of the world. In fact, like millions of people who consume those movies, books, and shows, I love New York. My family and work are here. I feel like I belong. New York is the center of art, fashion, and culture. Like many others, I experienced a taste of real urban destruction during a day, a name, an event that New Yorkers (with the exception of Rudy Giuliani, who had his reasons) rarely mention. So why, post-2001, does the terrible fantasy of New York's end seem more fascinating than ever?

The European critics Slavoj Zizek and Jean Baudrillard suggested, right after September 11, that contemporary life in the West has become so comfortable and so replete with instances of "the virtual" (video games, the Internet) that we yearn in the deepest recesses of our mind to feel "the Real," the essence of things. Hollywood obliges by pumping out destruction narratives. But, even though it consumes Western popular culture quite avidly, the third world (axiomatically, for these critics, more in touch with "the Real" as a quest for survival and dignity) experiences most vividly America's depraved power and indifference to economic and political suffering not its own. Hence the link Zizek and Baudrillard propose between spectacles of disaster and the actual destruction of the World Trade Center. Americans, they claim, consume these flicks to feel real; jihadists then bring their fantasies to life as symbolic acts of transcendence.

I agree with Zizek and Baudrillard that, rather than being "unimaginable," acts of symbolic urban destruction have been imagined many times. But I can't accept all of their premises. The theorists underestimate the many possible variations in disaster narratives, their audiences, and their potential effects. I'd like to suggest a different approach, one rooted in the conventional plot and character elements that fuel New York destruction narratives.

Take, for example, 2007's I Am Legend, an entertaining movie loosely based on a 1954 novella (not set in New York) by Richard Matheson. Through lingering, mesmerizing shots of landmarks like Fifth Avenue and Washington Square Park, devoid of people, the film suggests, as many disaster films do, a potent love for the city's landscape. Like many tragic narratives, it posits an apocalypse rooted in human overconfidence — in this case, scientific hubris about a vaccine that mutates.

As often happens, the U.S. government reacts to the crisis by mounting a military response that fails. The film includes a typically handsome, strong, and charismatic hero, played here by Will Smith, who sends his devoted wife and beautiful child out of the city on the last helicopter before troops destroy the Brooklyn Bridge — but, as often happens to the protagonist's family, they die. No passive victim, the hero, a forensic scientist, fights to restore a semblance of normality by trying to discover a cure. The film gives him a single, compensatory companion, first canine, then human. And, not irrelevant in New York, the film allows him to own a townhouse nice enough to excite, under normal circumstances, upper-middle-class envy.

But when all is said and done, let's face it: Like many New York destruction narratives, I Am Legend ends up being wildly improbable. Despite playing on real fears, like the possibility of a flu pandemic, the immediate danger in the film is the living dead. Did anyone at the Cine-plex really worry that the rabid zombies will get us? People around me chuckled, and I, who usually avoid horror movies, didn't even flinch. The death of Sam, the German shepherd in the film, proved far more affecting.

Similarly, has anyone lost any sleep recently about a gorilla climbing the Empire State Building? A meteor striking New York? Physical rather than financial damage caused by a rogue corporation? How about, on the other hand, global warming? A deadly virus? Terrorism? A nuclear bomb? For most people, that list represents an ascending order of potential threats, the last four of which will seem the most plausible and realistic. Still, since the invasion of Iraq, filmmakers often motivate their plots by rogue corporations in league with the government. Along with viruses, big business outscores terrorism as a threat in recent fictions and rivals even (the gold standard since 1945) atomic or nuclear destruction. In an election year, politicians might take note.

Whether they are fantastic or probable, fiction or nonfiction, urban-disaster narratives engage the engineer in us. We want to know the details, the stages, the variables, how things might happen, what might save the day, and the point of no return. To generate action (disarmament, environmental protection), they simulate what might happen to our nation and to our homes. And to really touch our deepest longings and fears, they make us feel what it's like to lose a spouse, a family member, a lover, a child, a friend, a pet.

One of my earliest memories is reading Fail-Safe, a novel about a technological failure that launches an unstoppable nuclear attack on Moscow. The American president, a good and decent man, offers the Soviet premier a shocking deal. If the Soviets will accept the destruction of Moscow without unleashing total war, the Americans will drop two nuclear bombs on Manhattan. As in King Kong, the Empire State Building, a marvel of technology and a symbol of commerce, forms ground zero. The plot provides additional twists: The president's wife (modeled on Jackie Kennedy) is in New York opening an arts center. When the bombs drop, she will be among the dead. In the 1964 film, so will the beloved wife and children of the pilot, who carries out his orders but then immediately kills himself with poison pellets. The plot supported both international cooperation and the concrete goal of nuclear disarmament. By mixing the geopolitical with the personal, Fail-Safe hit home.

Urban-disaster narratives bring us continuously back, I believe — sometimes lightly, sometimes profoundly — to the reasons we love New York, even if we've only visited or wanted to visit: family, work, neighborhoods we adore, places to which we belong or with which we identify, intense experience, culture, dreams, a feeling of being at the center of things, a sense of triumph. Such phenomena tie us to life but also open us to loss and destruction. Kinehora, knocking on wood, crucifixes and St. Anthony medals, shamrocks, horned fingers, crystals, red ribbons, jade — every ethnic group, of which New York contains so many, has a charm for warding off bad luck. One of the reasons New York and runner-up cities, including Los Angeles and Chicago, attract disaster narratives is, I believe, their multiple ethnicities.

In New York, such groups make up a surprisingly civil polity, famous not just for negotiating daily a crowded and uncomfortable city, but also for pulling together in a crisis. New York's image and allure includes the key idea that millions of people, from different backgroundspeople who are not always polite — will nonetheless form a community in times of stress. In this sense, urban-destruction narratives deploy one of the oldest mechanisms in the book, cited in Aristotle's theory of tragedy and in Freudian fort/da. They endanger or destroy, at least in a controlled, hypothetical way, something we value, so that we can affirm and preserve it.

Why do we so powerfully feel the lure of urban destruction? Perhaps because, as E.B. White said in Here Is New York, a long essay written in 1949 in the shadow of Hiroshima, "All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation." In fact, in words that sent shivers up the spine in 2001, "In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer … New York must hold a steady irresistible charm." Yet White ends his essay with this beautiful elegy: "If it were to go, all would go — this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death."

"Which not to look upon would be like death": For that reason, while some New York destruction narratives take place after irreversible apocalypse, many — even most — do not. Time after time, New York destruction narratives offer us a way out and the possibility of salvation not just by supernatural forces or superheroes but by ordinary people from different places and different backgrounds, who work together. In Heroes, for example, the preternaturally gifted and international men and women of the title, who have acquired various superpowers from genetic mutations, still need to work with average people to avoid disaster. Even post-apocalypse narratives, like I Am Legend, often posit the survival of the human race in isolated pockets from which men and women of different origins, and sometimes even animals, will join forces to gradually reclaim New York City.

To think further about why America, circa 2008, is so fascinated by urban destruction, we might recall the original urban-destruction narrative, the fall of Rome, and the conditions that scholars from Edward Gibbon to Jane Jacobs say combined over time to make it happen. Corrupted government, eroded infrastructure, overextended armies and mercenaries, wasteful taxes: At no time since Vietnam have warnings and prophecies about the end of America as we know it been so thick. Are we, as in Phil F. Sloan's lyrics, on the eve of destruction? Can we pull back? Can books, films, and TV narratives play a role? Like all good stories, this one is to be continued.

Marianna Torgovnick is a professor of English at Duke University and director of the Duke in New York arts-and-media program. She is author of six books, including Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (University of Chicago Press, 1990) and The War Complex: World War II in Our Time (Chicago, 2005, due out in paperback this month). She is writing a book about New York and the urban-destruction theme. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 54, Issue 35, Page B18