Remember that scene when they blew up the White House in Independence Day ? Remember seeing the Statue Of Liberty’s head roll down the street in Cloverfield? They were huge iconic moments. Moments that set up their respective film’s threats; events which set the stakes as high as possible. Sure we’d seen landmarks destroyed in sci-fi films before but these two incidents managed to make it look so real. And as the films progressed there was a sense of loss, a sense of scale.
Since then, the destruction of famous landmarks and cities from across the world has become more commonplace in sci-fi and disaster movies. We’ve seen New York and other American cities destroyed numerous times, Liberty has been knocked over time and time again, we’ve seen London, Paris and Rome suffer similar fates. And it’s all getting a bit boring. Sometimes it furthers the story as it should, but lately there seems to be so much destruction for destruction’s sake…
In films like 2012 or Knowing we expect destruction on a ridiculous scale. That sort of thing is written into the DNA of sci-fi disaster films. But for most sci-fi films I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. In recent years the third acts of some sci-fi films have been overflowing with scenes of mass destruction. Since CGI came along there seems to be no end to the amount of destroyed buildings and ruined cities smeared across our big screens. And not only are we treated to these orgies of destruction but sometimes they seem to be happening with less and less consequence for their film’s characters and even less viewer investment; they seem to be a means to an end and we become immune to it.
At least in 2012’s The Avengers they made an effort to get some pathos and consequence into the events during the battle of New York. Sure they had giant space worms levelling whole buildings but they did show the heroes trying to rescue some people, and there was a nod to trying to limit the damage. Except Hulk, he just smashed. And speaking of the Hulk, the death and destruction rained down in the character’s last solo outing is reduced to a “last time I was in New York I kind of broke... Harlem.” joke in the ensemble film. God knows how many dead, how many millions worth of damage and it’s a throw away joke line. Do they even want us to care about the stakes?
The next big film on the way is Pacific Rim and that looks like it’ll make the destruction depicted in the films mentioned above pale into insignificance. But will we care?
I get that big summer blockbusters and events films sometimes need to be, well, big. And I love a gigantic battle as much as the next person. Honestly, I love big explodey fun. I just wonder where it’s heading? Would we not be better off with events that actually engage the audience? I’m not saying every film needs to end with only a small, personal one-on-one fight, even though we usually get that right after the mass destruction anyway. I just think that big isn’t necessarily always better. And if the stakes of destruction are getting higher and higher, then where will it end? Just how big can the battles get? And will we care? Are we even supposed to care anymore?