/Answers: Our Favorite City-Leveling Action Scenes

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Every week in /Answers, we answer a new pop culture-related question. In this edition, we ask “What is your favorite movie scene where a city gets completely destroyed?

Ethan Anderton: Mars Attacks!

Rather than going for realistic city destruction from a large scale disaster movie or even a more serious alien invasion action adventure, I went with the comedic decimation from 1996’s Mars Attacks!. This is a sorely underrated send-up of 1960s Martian movies and one of Tim Burton’s more underrated works from the decade. What I love about the destruction in Mars Attacks! is how inherently cartoonish and goofy it all is.

Sure, there are some signature shots of average city destruction, like blowing up Big Ben in London. But then there’s a shot of the spaceships carving their own alien faces into Mount Rushmore, creating a photo op out of the blowing up of the Taj Mahal, and bowling on Easter Island. Where did they even get a bowling ball that big?! Then there’s all the destruction of Las Vegas that’s just icing on the cake. It’s just a wacky path of global destruction and I love it.

Hoai-Tran Bui: Hancock

Listen, I know Hancock is not a great movie by any means. Its first half is a smugly abrasive takedown of earnest superhero movies, while the second part is a confusingly romantic muddle of half-baked mythology. But it was the first superhero movie I saw that dealt with the toll of the collateral damage of saving lives. And it does it in the most ridiculous, bombastic way possible.

The scene I’m talking about takes place early on in Hancock, when its premise is based on novelty: Look, our superhero is a drunk, selfish deadbeat who wrecks half the city while trying to stop some robbers! And he’s kind of racist too! It grated then, and it grates today, but there’s a kind of comedic genius to setting the scene to Ludacris’ “Move Bitch,” while Hancock (Will Smith, doing the most) literally tells seagulls to get out the way. Then, he destroys a highway sign, takes down half of a beltway bridge, and almost downs a plane. It’s the kind of destructive nihilistic comedy that you can’t look away from.

Vanessa Bogart: Independence Day

You wanna talk about total city destruction? What about the leveling of three cities…simultaneously…by way of giant alien spacecrafts, the likes of which this world has never seen? Oh yeah, I’m talking about Independence Day. You think walking away from explosions is cool? What about Air Force One flying away from rolling flames and debris of the White House? The political thriller angle doesn’t do it for you? Well, what about a mom, just trying to do her best to outrun total chaos and destruction in order to save her child and her dog? That’s right, an adorable pupper outruns the leveling of Los Angeles.

The destruction of New York, LA, and DC are not the most action packed sequences in the world, because frankly, they were a bit one-sided. The humans didn’t stand a chance. There was no fighting involved. It was an extermination. However, they are arguably (particularly the White House) some of the most iconic destruction sequences in film history. Not to mention, they inspired the single greatest presidential speech ever given, and brought together the most badass world saving duo there ever was: Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.

Chris Evangelista: War of the Worlds

One of Steven Spielberg’s most effective 21st century films is the nightmarish 9/11 allegory War of the Worlds. Spielberg takes H.G. Wells’ classic and fits it to our modern, paranoid times. When the aliens begin attacking in Spielberg’s film, released 4 years after 9/11, the first thought on everyone’s mind is: terrorists.

Spielberg stages the first alien attack in a truly unnerving sequence in which behemoth alien tripods rise up out of the earth and begin blasting everything in sight. Rather than straight-out Michael Bay-style explosions, War of the Worlds has the alien death rays turn the poor hapless humans in its path into ash, their clothes blown off their bodies and billowing in the air like ghosts. Star Tom Cruise survives the initial attack (because he’s Tom Cruise), only to run home and catch a glimpse of himself in the mirror – caked in the ashes of countless dead. Most action filmmakers treat their big city destruction scenes as mindless fun. Spielberg, however, goes for the horror of it all, with alarming results.

Ben Pearson: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

When it comes to depicting the destruction of cities on film, Michael Bay’s name has to be near the top of the list. The director has built his career on slow-motion explosions, slickly shot action scenes, and large-scale carnage, perfectly manifested in his Transformers movies. As you all surely know (whether some of you care to admit it to yourselves or not), probably 80% of those movies are total nonsense: garish, chaotic pixels churning across the screen in a geyser of mindless CG annihilation. But occasionally, Bay will showcase a flash of brilliance, as he did in the skydiving sequence in Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

While the city of Chicago crumbles under the weight of a Decepticon invasion, a team of special ops soldiers jump out of the back of a plane to rendezvous with their comrades. Using wingsuits, the team slips around (and through!) buildings. Sure, the geography is a little shaky. And sure, we don’t have enough of an emotional connection to care when a few of the good guys are picked off along the way. But frankly, all of that is washed away by the fact that Bay hired actual guys to do these stunts for real. You can feel the difference, too – the sense of weight and real danger is there in every frame, and while some of it looks to be slightly enhanced, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Check out this behind-the-scenes featurette to learn more.

Matt Donato: Crank: High Voltage

Crank: High Voltage – with all its Statham-unhinged glorification – makes Crank appear restrained in comparison. Filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor heard their fans’ cries for doubly insane Chev Chelios adventures and handily deliver more sex, more drugs, more rock n’ roll, a kaiju battle sequence – why not! As Jason Statham pursues a fleeing Johnny Vang (Art Hsu), he finds himself inside a power plant ready to throw down, and what happens next might shock you (in any other action franchise).

Instead of more streamlined Chev Chelios thug beating, both parties transform into some kind of rubber-suited Godzilla situation. Jason Statham now wearing a cartoonishly exaggerated mask of his own head after being “charged” by electricity (eat your heart out, Bruce Campbell’s chin), towering over crudely designed model replicas of station workers, wires and sparking grids. Chev and his foe start bashing one another senseless, using steel beams and structures as weapons. Maybe even a soaring double-fisted Statham punch reminiscent to Zilla’s flying feet-first kick? You bet your scaly green ass!

Cut back to reality as employees watch Statham pummel Vang like a gorilla, a wild contrast of savagery right after such manic action exploitation. Other filmmakers wouldn’t be able to transition into the absurd without feeling out of place, but Neveldine and Taylor are crazy enough work it all together. Giant Jason Statham laying waste to a miniature facility below while still kicking ass? Crank: High Voltage, you know me so well.

Jacob Hall: Godzilla

Gareth Edwards’ 2014 take on the king of the monsters is less about spectacle and more about offering a tiny, human POV into spectacle. And it’s terrifying. What would look grand and exciting in another movie ends looking grim and upsetting when you shoot it from the view of a human being actually caught up in the mess. In Godzilla, a battle between monsters in a ruined San Francisco is less of a popcorn action scene and more of a reminder of how fragile human society truly is. All it takes is a few undiscovered beasties to crawl out of the great unknown and everything we know begins to crumble.

The destruction on display in Godzilla is unique and disturbing, playing more like a horror movie than a blockbuster. It reaches its high point when a team of soldiers parachute into the city and we see the destruction, and the monsters causing it, from their limited perspective. Edwards keenly keeps the actual destruction offscreen, only offering glimpses of the mayhem. We only see that the humans present see. This is not the camera of an action director, but the camera of a documentarian. We see only flashes of action, but they’re burned into the brain. If we saw more, we might go mad.

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