L.A. Apocalypse! ‘San Andreas’ and 23 Thoughts on Destroying the City of Angels

Raphaelle Martin
  1. In this week’s San Andreas, a rescue-chopper pilot (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) are thrown back together after California’s tectonic plates part ways acrimoniously. We can conclude from the eeriecore cover of “California Dreamin’” in the trailer that it’s not going to be the kind of movie in which Johnson solves problems by flexing his way out of a plaster cast, the way he did earlier this year in Furious 7, magnificently. You cannot arch an eyebrow at an earthquake and then punch it in the junk. Nor does San Andreas look likely to be as apocalyptically nuts as Southland Tales (2007), in which L.A. was a trash compactor of pop culture debris and the Rock was movie star Boxer Santaros, whose Jesus backpiece began crying blood before two Seann William Scotts from an alternate universe touched hands in a flying ice-cream truck, causing reality to collapse. Long story.
  1. Instead, we’re on familiar if shaky disaster-movie ground: Johnson and Gugino have to make their way north from quake-ravaged L.A. to find their estranged daughter in San Francisco before a tsunami sweeps through the Golden Gate. This being a summer movie in the age of IMAX elephantiasis, the theme of the trailer is scope: “The earth will literally crack open,” warns a Caltech scientist played by Paul Giamatti, “and you will feel it on the East Coast.” This is apparently not possible, but it’s an excellently we’re-gonna-need-a-bigger-boat-ish trailer line, and a metaphorically rich one: Here goes California again, blowing another bubble destined to take the national well-being with it when it pops.
  1. Simultaneously a Los Angeles disaster movie and a San Francisco disaster movie, San Andreas bridges two superficially similar but fundamentally antithetical subgenres. When bad things happen to San Francisco onscreen — bat flu in Contagion, simian revolt in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a thick-necked thunder lizard fighting MUTOS downtown in Godzilla — we’re usually encouraged to see this as regrettable, whereas the versions of Los Angeles pulped in popular entertainment almost always seem on some level to deserve it. “The destruction of London — the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940 — was imagined as a horrifying spectacle, equivalent to the death of Western civilization itself,” wrote Mike Davis in his indispensable L.A.-apocalypse treatise Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. “The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization.
  1. To put it in slasher-movie terms, L.A. is almost never the Final Girl; L.A. is the trashy girl who gets carved up early and has it coming, whether “it” is Skynet’s nukes or a tornado filled with sharks.

  1. Sci-fi novelist and critic John Clute, on San Francisco vs. Los Angeles in speculative fiction: “The sense that this city is or had at one time been a humane enclave is almost certainly intensified by the fact that — unlike coastal California as a whole, which serves as an icon of terminus for the American Dream — San Francisco can be perceived as a port, as a place to recuperate in during the course of a journey. Characters can arrive here from abroad, like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), and afterwards they can leave.” How San Francisco’s rebirth as a sparkling playground for Google VPs will affect its status as an apocalypse-film target remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, I still think the best Bay Area disaster movie is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, although I’m biased; my family moved to San Francisco only a few years after it was shot, and the movie looks enough like the now-vanished city I grew up in that watching it on the East Coast after college was like breathing the spores of some Proustian pod-flower. The second-best Bay Area disaster movie is that film loop they used to show while you stood on the SafeQuake exhibit at the California Academy of Sciences, giggling through earth-tremor simulations of increasing magnitude before the narrator/seismologist sent you back to your field trip with a warning: “We must be prepared. It will happen again.”


  1. Davis published Ecology of Fear in the late ’90s, with Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) fresh in his mind. Emmerich’s movie reduces Los Angeles to its eccentricities, showing gibbering hippies and costumed attention-hounds and other assorted rainbow-wig-and-foil-suit types gathering on rooftops downtown to welcome and groove on the flying saucers that have come to vaporize them. Our POV character in this sequence is Tiffany, an exotic dancer who marvels, “So pretty …” as the alien ship opens its death-sphincter above the U.S. Bank Tower. Kenneth L. Khachigian, senior California adviser to Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, quipped to the L.A. Times that although millions of people die in this scene, “they’re all liberals.”
  1. It’s not a huge leap from there to John Carpenter’s deranged Escape From L.A. (1996), in which a 9.6-magnitude earthquake and then a border wall stretching from Orange County to the northeastern shore of Malibu isolate the city from what the U.S.’s televangelist president calls “the new, moral America.” Left for dead by the rest of the country, L.A. becomes a mash-up of Bartertown and Burning Man populated almost entirely by bizarro-world L.A. stereotypes. Shuffling plastic-surgery disasters inhabit the burned-out shell of the Beverly Hills Hotel, and the San Fernando Valley is an inland sea. A dance mix of Tori Amos’s “Raspberry Swirl” plays, and then Snake (Kurt Russell) and Pipeline (Peter Fonda) surf away on a tsunami.
  1. Davis’s chapter on “The Literary Destruction of Los Angeles” surveys a century’s worth of apocalyptic fiction about Southern California — charting the city’s destruction by invaders foreign and extraterrestrial, by natural and nuclear disaster, and at least once by rampaging Bermuda grass — and argues convincingly that the anxieties decanted in these works are usually racial, tracing the theme of whiteness in peril from Homer Lea’s 1909 potboiler The Valor of Ignorance (Japanese troops land at Santa Monica, just like the aliens in 2011’s Battle Los Angeles) to The Turner Diaries (noxious California-set race-war fantasia in which a militia group seizes Vandenberg Air Force Base’s nuclear arsenal) and beyond.
  1. But the suggestion of apocalypse as a smackdown referendum on L.A.’s spiritual or cultural bankruptcy is almost as perennial. Davis locates pulp history’s first depiction of quake-wracked California sliding into the sea in Myron Brinig’s 1933 novel The Flutter of an Eyelid, a satire of loose-moraled SoCal bohemia that predates Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust by six years and builds to an image of destruction that recurs almost 80 years later in Emmerich’s 2012: “Los Angeles tobogganed with almost one continuous movement into the water, the shore cities going first, followed by the inland communities; the business streets, the buildings, the motion picture studios in Hollywood where actors became stark and pallid under their mustard-colored makeup.”


  1. Emmerich has actually made the destruction of L.A. a first-act showstopper in three movies — between Independence Day and 2012, there was 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow, with Jake Gyllenhaal still in ferrety Donnie Darko mode, Dennis Quaid as the dour Cassandra of the impending insta–ice age, and L.A. lackadaisackality represented by a Hawaiian-shirted Weather Service guy who misses the 50-foot waves bearing down on Santa Monica. “This is L.A.,” he snickers, fingers busy at the buttons of his girlfriend’s blouse. “What weather?” Cue the tornadoes, wiping the Hollywood sign from the hills and flaying the skin from downtown skyscrapers. Emmerich is the most successful L.A.-apocalypse filmmaker, and he’s the glibbest. 2012 (2009) has a stand-in for then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger telling reporters “It seems to me da vurst is ovah” right before everything west of Bakersfield tumbles off the continent. The set piece that follows is Armageddon as sitcom, with a former couple (played by John Cusack and Amanda Peet) and their kids racing to Santa Monica Airport in a limo (and dodging the rolling Randy’s Donut) while grand canyons swallow the landscape behind them and Tom McCarthy, as Peet’s new boyfriend, interjects ding-a-ling advice like “Take the freeway, it’ll be half the time!”
  1. It’s often suggested that when movies destroy L.A. it’s an expression of self-loathing on the part of the movie business. Because I am someone who watches the Academy Awards every year, this strikes me as a fairly wild misreading of the movie business’s feelings about its own importance. Films like Independence Day actually flatter L.A. by imagining it as a likely beachhead in the first intergalactic war, assigning strategic importance to the cradle of the entertainment industry.this-is-the-endSony
  1. Plus, the notion of the apocalypse taking with it a bunch of self-absorbed Hollywood goofballs is tough to resist as a comic beat. In his 1961 novel The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles, Robert Moore Williams gives us a fallout shelter full of archetypes, including the Ginger–from–Gilligan’s Island–esque Rena Stark, who moans, “Me, with a shelf full of Oscars, dying in a hole like this!” Contemporary corollary: This Is the End, in which Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, et al. star as shitty, venal versions of themselves in a movie about the effect of Judgment Day on Young Hollywood, thereby revealing that they’re even more sick of their own personas than we are.
  1. These offhand depictions of L.A.’s destruction speak to the rest of the world’s inability to imagine Los Angeles as an actual city where people who are not Angelyne actually live. Movies about the destruction of L.A. either depict recognizable tourist signifiers in ruins and/or flames (City Hall, the Hollywood sign, the La Brea Tar Pits) or downtown, an anomalous pocket of skyscrapers amid the sprawl and the one part of Los Angeles that most resembles the generic idea of an American city. As a backdrop for movies, it offers the sense of tall buildings and pedestrian bustle without too many regional signifiers getting in the way. Downtown L.A. takes an uncredited beating on film for every credited one, and if you know the actual geography of the area at all, certain movie apocalypses begin to seem oddly localized.
  1. In Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet, two Valley-girl sisters have the run of the city after a cosmic event turns most of the population to dust, but apart from a few exteriors shot in Northridge, they never seem to leave the 10-minute vicinity of Pershing Square. (This is actually not that much of an issue, since the movie’s an affectionate satire in which the protagonists’ obliviousness — “Do you think whatever happened happened everywhere, like in Burbank?” — allows them to bubble happily along, turning trauma into a shopping-spree montage. The bad guys are Elvis Costello fans, as are all true villains.)

night-of-the-cometAtlantic Releasing 

  1. There’s a chase/robot-fight scene in Michael Bay’s Transformers that starts at Hoover Dam, continues as if by teleportation on the L.A. freeways, and ends downtown; watch for the Orpheum Theatre marquee in the background of shot after shot and marvel at how much of the U.S. Army’s battle with the Decepticons is confined to a single city block.
  1. The same landmarks die a thousand deaths: City Hall is an alien target in 1953’s The War of the Worlds and one of the sunken landmarks Snake Plissken’s sub passes in the opening sequence of Escape From L.A., along with the Universal Studios Hollywood building. The Capitol Records Tower shows up pancaked in Escape From L.A. and gets tornadoed in Day After Tomorrow.
  1. The Capitol Records building also falls in Mark Robson’s Sensurround extravaganza Earthquake, rushed into theaters a month before Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno in 1974, based on a screenplay commissioned from Mario Puzo in the aftermath of the 1971 Sylmar earthquake (magnitude 6.5-6.7, 64 dead, $553 million in damage). The carnage, when it finally happens, is vividly staged — miniatures of iconic buildings topple and Universal Studios’s famed “Black Tower” quivers like a Jell-O mold. But we also get lots of shots of glass and bookshelves weaponized by ground shaking, as if the whole city’s being assaulted by a poltergeist. Before that, the film takes its sweet geological time introducing us to its all-star cast — Charlton Heston as the structural engineer in a troubled marriage to suicidal boozehound Ava Gardner, Richard Roundtree as the motorcycle daredevil, George Kennedy as the disillusioned cop, and dozens more.

earthquake-los-angeles-movie-disasterUniversal Pictures

  1. Countless grand-scale L.A. disaster movies would build on Earthquake’s formula in arms-race fashion, but for at least a little while — in the endless scenes in which the principals cross paths in bars and supermarkets, preoccupied with their own bullshit — Earthquake actually plays more like a precursor to Crash, Short Cuts, and Grand Canyon, melodramas about what community means in L.A. and the notion that sometimes it takes a sudden tragedy to bring people together. When the quake hits in Earthquake, Victoria Principal’s Rosa is watching Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter; the film burns away in the projector and cinematic reality is ruptured. The rest of the movie is about white guys reasserting old certainties in the face of chaos, with Heston as the face of shirtsleeved authority — although when a bunch of folks are stranded atop a crumbling office building, it’s Lorne Greene who barks “Take off your panty hose!” at the ladies so they can make a rope.
  1. And Earthquake isn’t even the best/worst L.A. schlockpocalypse/disaster movie starring Heston as the last of the take-charge white guys. Despite being shot just up the beach from where Gaby Rodgers opens the box of radioactive material and possibly nukes L.A. in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, the ending of the original Planet of the Apes reveals it as an East Coast movie — it was New York all along — so that one doesn’t count, and Heston’s not in the great Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, set in “North America — 1991” and filmed at UC Irvine and what’s now the Westfield Century City Mall.1 But the opening of Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man2 has Heston tooling around the deserted streets of post–World War III Los Angeles (actually downtown on a Sunday morning, apparently) in a cool red Ford convertible, smooth jazz on the 8-track, pausing occasionally to light up a building with his Uzi when he spots a representative of L.A.’s new population of white-skinned mutants scuttling around in the shadows on an upper floor.
  1. Sure, Heston’s Colonel Neville has a case of the flashbacks, illustrated by montages in which mushroom clouds appear superimposed on his face while Heston sweats like Ted Striker recalling Macho Grande. But survival isn’t that tough a gig. In his safari jacket and open-necked pink dress shirt, pretending to “negotiate” with an imaginary car dealer while stealing a new ride, flirting with the occasional mannequin — because who’s gonna know, right? — Neville is somehow both the last dad on earth and also the last bachelor, holing up at night in a penthouse with his art collection, his big-screen TV, and his Cutty Sark while the children of the atom hoot and cackle and burn books in the street. The story becomes a drag once the movie gives Heston other humans to care about, and the mutants are absurd, campy pontificators in cassocks and aviator shades — and yet I Am Legend, the re-remake with Will Smith, which replaced them with a slavering horde of CGI pseudo-zombies and moved the setting to New York, felt dead onscreen. There’s an elemental, irreducible power to The Omega Man’s fantasy of literally besieged Caucasian manhood in a world ruled by hippies and people of discolor. Peak moment: Neville goes to the Tower Theater to watch Woodstock (the last movie on earth). You can tell by the look on his face that he hates the film as much as Charlton Heston probably did, but he’s seen it so many times he can quote every line.

volcano-los-angeles-disaster-movie20th Century Fox

  1. “Disaster is my life!” —Don Cheadle, Volcano
  1. Sometimes I’m pretty sure Volcano, with Tommy Lee Jones as an emergency-management official trying to stop a lava flow on Wilshire Boulevard, is my favorite L.A. disaster movie. Director Mick Jackson’s relevant credits include L.A. Story and Threads, the bleak 1984 docudrama about post-nuclear-holocaust Sheffield, England; the above-average supporting cast includes Cheadle, John Carroll Lynch, Richard Schiff, Keith David, Deadwood’s Dayton Callie, The Wire’s Robert Wisdom, Susie Essman, Gabi Hoffman, and John Corbett, who’s very convincing in the scene in which he and his wife look out the window of the apartment building Corbett has just built and pretend to be blown away by their view of the roof of the Beverly Center. It’s an L.A. movie that honors and represents the actual diversity of L.A.’s population, rendering visible the homeless and the working class, protesters and riders of public transit, plus the usual background weirdos, like the guy in a tie-dye shirt and a CAUTION-tape headband who spots himself being filmed by a TV-news crew and shouts, “I gotta call my mom.” The trouble starts in a storm drain under MacArthur Park, right across from the Jaime Escalante mural; when it bubbles up on the Miracle Mile, the only force that can stop it is an ad-hoc army of city employees united by their dedication to their jobs and their conviction that “nobody gives a shit about San Francisco.” The whole thing is a tribute to Los Angeles as a community rather than an idea or a joke, the shot of Angelyne’s billboard collapsing aside; the lava itself glows glamorously, like something Nomi Malone might have danced in front of at the Stardust. Its deadly flow is eventually halted, but not before it makes a martyr of LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). The workmen moving the paintings to safety are pure L.A. Story. Guy no. 1: “Hieronymus Bosch is heavy.” Guy no. 2: “That’s because he deals with man’s inclination towards fear and defiance of God’s will.”

  1. But most of the time my favorite L.A. disaster movie is Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile, from 1989, with Anthony Edwards as a jazz musician at an all-night diner3 who answers an incoming call on a pay phone and learns that the U.S. has fired nuclear missiles at Russia and the Russian response is imminent. So the apocalypse arrives, but only for this specific crew of nighthawks, an instant ad-hoc community that also includes Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Denise Crosby (as a stockbroker with the CliffsNotes to Gravity’s Rainbow hidden inside her Wall Street Journal) and great character actors like O-Lan Jones and Alan Rosenberg. By then we’ve already watched Edwards and Mare Winningham meet cute at the Page Museum, by the La Brea Tar Pits, where the Big Bang murals and woolly-mammoth skeletons and music-of-the-spheres Tangerine Dream score fix Los Angeles, ostensibly the city without a past, in a history that’s about to end. After the phone call, as Rosenberg and a waitress try to pull together a list of notable minds to rescue (“People like Linus Pauling. Write this down. Jane and Tom. And Harry Belafonte … Bobby Seale. Dick Gregory …”), Edwards goes looking for Winningham as word spreads and the city goes nuts. There’s a helicopter waiting on the roof of the Mutual Benefit Life Building, and some people do eventually get there, just as a screaming missile comes across the sky. But the escape isn’t the point; the spiritual center of the film is the old man who decides to spend his last hours at Canter’s, with “the greasiest, fattest pastrami sandwich money can buy.” There are worse places to die.

Filed Under: 2015 Summer Movies, Volcano, San Andreas, Earthquake, Los Angeles, Miracle Mile, The Night of the COmet, Movies, Independence Day, roland emmerich, Michael Bay, Transformers, 2012, The Day After TOmorrow, Planet of the Apes

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.


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