What is it about the human condition that makes man capable of creating things of great beauty (paintings, sculpture, fashion collections, entire cities even), and so fascinated with destroying them?
I’m only speaking cinematically, of course. It seems like no disaster film would be complete without one of the following scenes: the Statue of Liberty (although you can also use the Eiffel Tower) either in great peril (Escape from New York) or already blown to ruins (the original Planet of the Apes), a government building blown to smithereens (The White House in Independence Day and The Old Bailey and Houses of Parliament in V for Vendetta) or (now pay attention here; it may come up later) the Golden Gate Bridge getting destroyed in every possible manner in so many different movies that it’s almost a film sub-genre.
Even post 9/11, what is behind this need filmmakers have to destroy the landmarks of major cities? Or a better question might be: what is behind the need film audiences have to see landmarks destroyed on screen? By CGI-exploding the skylines of New York, Paris, London and yes, San Francisco, are moviegoers outside of urban areas validated in their decisions to live away from tall buildings that might attract terrorist threats/fall from natural disasters/be destroyed by Martians? Do urban audiences get to vent their frustration at city life by watching Godzilla (coming soon to destroy San Francisco in the newest incarnation) or the Cloverfield monster inhale a block of office buildings?
Once upon a time, I thought San Francisco’s reputation for liberalism probably made it a crowd-pleasing target for movie destruction in more conservative regions. Is San Francisco now being popularly annihilated onscreen because audiences are mad about housing costs? And I think this bears repeating, what is this fixation with destroying the Golden Gate Bridge? In recognition of our unique status in the cinematic crosshairs, we compiled a list of some of the many films where San Francisco has been targeted, destroyed or taken over by alien invaders (no tech shuttle jokes, please).
San Francisco (1936)
In this classic starring Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald, the Barbary Coast is decimated by the great quake of 1906, the mansions of Nob Hill are dynamited, and, no matter what happens, operatic soprano Jeanette MacDonald doesn’t miss a note. Whether the roof falls in, the street gives way beneath her or the city burns, Jeanette just keeps singing. Unless she’s fainting.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Not applicable; it wasn’t built yet.
It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)
In this typical atomic age monster movie, San Francisco is attacked by a giant octopus that wipes out the Ferry Building (but where will I buy organic lavender infused truffle oil now?!) and a chunk of the Embarcadero. In the end, the six-legged octopus (budget issues?) is driven back out to sea and nuked because what atomic weapons have created, atomic weapons can destroy.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Definitely. Old six legs wipes out a whole section in what may be the first big screen destruction of the bridge.
The Towering Inferno (1974)
This Irwin Allen disaster classic featured every star known to man in the early ’70s from Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to Faye Dunaway, Dabney Coleman and (weirdly) O.J. Simpson and Fred Astaire. The world’s tallest building (located in San Francisco) turns into — you guessed it — a towering inferno, when a fire breaks out at the opening night gala. It’s basically The Poseidon Adventure in a skyscraper.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? No. The building going up in flames like a firecracker was all the destruction this movie needed. That and the expressions on Faye Dunaway’s pre Mommie Dearest face.
Invasions of the Body Snatchers (1978)
You thought gentrification was bad? Meet the original pod people in this sci-fi thriller. Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartright try to fight off alien invaders in the City by the Bay with little success. The end result is bland, emotionless alien-humanoid hybrids. Basically, all of San Francisco becomes that time in the late ’90s when people were trying to get their Prozac dosage correct.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Surprisingly, no. The only destruction here is of the body disintegrating variety. Say what you will, at least the Body Snatchers were tidy.
Lex Luthor (played by the one and only Gene Hackman) sets off an earthquake designed to sink the California coast, including San Francisco. It’s up to the Man of Steel (Christopher Reeves) to pull a Cher and turn back time so California stays above water.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? No destruction, but Superman does save a school bus from going over the side. Trust me, if you grew up here and saw that scene as a kid, it stayed with you.
A View to a Kill (1986)
In this extremely campy (but enjoyable) James Bond flick, Roger Moore as Agent 007 fights off Christopher Walken as a baddie who wants to detonate explosives at the San Andreas and Hayward faults. Not content with just another lame man-made earthquake, the filmmakers also set City Hall on fire, again, because we just can’t resist destroying government buildings on screen. The film’s best special effect by far remains Grace Jones.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? No, but the film’s final action sequence is an extended chase scene on the suspension cables with a henchmen tossing sticks of dynamite at Bond. Terrible for the paint.
The Rock (1996)
One minute you’re peacefully visiting Alcatraz and the next you’re being held hostage by Ed Harris. This is why you should never do touristy activities on vacay. Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery (already in his sixties here and better than ever) are tasked with rescuing the hostages and the citizens of San Francisco, who are being threatened with rockets armed with a deadly gas. Panic ensues on the streets, much like Bay to Breakers before the official sponsorship.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? No, but Alcatraz takes it pretty hard.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
When Alcatraz becomes the base for a “mutant cure” project, Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his Mutant Brotherhood attack the facility in the name of mutant rights. There’s nothing wrong with them; they don’t have to be “cured.” Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the rest of the X-Men charge in to stop the destruction of the Island, which was still recovering from the antics during The Rock.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Yes, and it’s a doozy. Magneto actually lifts the bridge and turns it into a pathway to Alcatraz for his attack. Beautiful and terrifying all at once, mainly because I’m not 100% convinced Ian McKellan doesn’t have powers.
Megashark vs. Giant Octopus (2009)
No, it’s not the Giant Octopus that imperils San Francisco in this Deborah Gibson/Lorenzo Lamas clunker. That would be redundant (see It Came From Beneath the Sea). Rather, scientists lay a trap for top-billed Megashark in the Bay and it does not go well.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Megashark takes a megabite out of it!
Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)
Even cartoons are in on it. In this Dreamworks animation, a team of government “monsters” fight off an alien invasion. Among the alien’s first stops on Earth? San Francisco! You know, to try some of our artisanal ice cream and price out residents in the Mission.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? There’s a battle and some partial destruction of the bridge, because we’re not even safe in cartoons!
Star Trek (2009)
I’m going to be honest: I’m more of a Star Wars fan than a Trekkie, so I may get the terminology wrong here. Here’s my understanding of the 2009 reboot: villainous Captain Nero (Eric Bana) drills into the San Francisco Bay to deposit some kind of exploding red matter into the earth. Some other things happened, and then I figured out they don’t have light sabers and sort of stopped paying attention.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? Nope, but I bet they would have gone after the LucasFilm complex, if given the chance. Or maybe not, now that director J.J. Abrams is helming both franchises.
Terminator Salvation (2009)
How’s this for timely: Skynet, the tech force sentient computer that enslaves humanity, is based in San Francisco in this recent Terminator sequel. John Connor (Christian Bale) leads an attack on the headquarters and, while the battle may be won, “the war is just beginning.”
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? I don’t even think we see the bridge in this movie. Hmm… Did Skynet destroy it years prior?
It’s not a monster or a terrorist that targets San Francisco this time; it’s a disease. San Francisco is among the many infected cities in this film, a startling reminder of the AIDS epidemic for those that saw it here in the ’80s and ’90s.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? None.
Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol (2011)
In what feels like the tenth or eleventh in the seemingly infinite Mission Impossible series, some kind of terrorist targets San Francisco with a missile from a Russian submarine. The specifics don’t really matter. Just know we win and have Tom Cruise to thank for it, which is the point of all these movies.
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? A near miss.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
In this Planet of the Apes prequel, James Franco is a primatologist who creates/discovers the first sentient ape who will go on to father the race of super apes that take over the Earth. Doesn’t it just seem like the kind of weird performance art Franco would actually do in real life?
Destruction of Golden Gate Bridge? In one of the most magnificent shots in the film, the apes overrun the bridge swinging from suspension cables like aerial ballet artists. A breathtaking use of the iconic landmark.