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Arts and Entertainment

All The Different Ways That L.A. Will Get Destroyed, According To The Movies

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There comes a moment in Joel Schumacher's 8MM (which has the strange quality of being both bad and underrated) when Peter Stormare's character meets his end and says, "Oh, God, not like this. I'm supposed to have something more cinematic."

That always struck me as being as being a good motto for L.A. in the movies. As a city that has a flair for the dramatic, we've always been fascinated with our own demise. And if the movies are any indication, we hold a not-so-secret desire that it happens in the grandest fashion possible. We're talking nuclear warheads, and magnitude 10.0 earthquakes, and remorseless invaders from outer space. Compared to our prospects, Pompeii is like Mar-a-Lago.

So, in the annals of filmmaking, we've had plenty of examples of L.A. getting toppled. But do they actually tell us something about our eventual demise? That seems like a pretty important thing to know in these times. To be sure, the movies aren't backed by a lot of sound science. But, for the sake of amping up our paranoia, lets take a look at the different ways we've perished on film, and see which are the most spectacular and worthy of Los Angeles.

Note: Yes I made a reference to 8MM. So what.

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Likelihood of It Happening: 2.5/5
Level of Destruction: 5/5
Cinematic Factor: 4/5

Perhaps the most timely scenario on this list, as North Korea has announced that it's close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the West Coast (thoughpublic failures have cast doubt on this claim).

If it does happen, it's nothing we haven't seen before. We were among the first victims of "Judgement Day" in the Terminator series, of course, when a kind of Siri-offshoot dumps a nuclear bomb on the Southland. The destruction, as projected in Sarah Conner's dream, was total; Metro buses were tossed around like Micro Machines; buildings crumbled to debris; humans were turned to ashen statues, and those statues later blew up (which seems like a gratuitous sequence of events, but whatever). The most unsettling aspect of this scene was how slow it seemed. You'd think a nuclear attack would happen in a flash (at least for the people near the epicenter), but in Terminator it moves at a pace that's painfully glacial.

In 1988's Miracle Mile, the nuclear holocaust is also mercilessly slow, if in a different fashion—much of the movie focuses on the panic and paranoia that descends on L.A. during the moments before the bomb drops. This gives plenty of time for everyone to freak out and attempt a desperate (and futile) run for their lives. The movie makes a wry observation at the end: the La Brea Tar Pits are a good place to be if you want to preserve yourself from the blast.

To be sure, a nuclear attack would make for some great special effects. So, the cinematic quotient is there. And death by light and fire is as classic as they come for Los Angeles—as Joan Didion remarked in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, "The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself…. At the time of the 1965 riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.”


Likelihood of It Happening: 5/5
Level of Destruction: 3/5
Cinematic Factor: 2/5

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An earthquake! Certainly, it's the most probable scenario of the bunch. We keep getting warnings that one is just around the corner, and scientists are still realizing just how extensive the network of fault lines is. Just earlier this year, researchers learned that a set of fault lines off the coast is actually part of one continuous fault that stretches from the Los Angeles basin down to San Diego (and it's 60 years overdue for a major quake, which is nice).

Surprisingly, this apocalyptic event hasn't been so ubiquitous on the big screen. The best example would be the aptly titled Earthquake (which had the distinction of being Mario Puzo's followup to The Godfather movies). In the movie, a 9.9 quake topples Los Angeles and reduces it to a field of rubble. This is more impressive in theory than on film, however; the montage of falling debris and people squirming on their feet gets tiring after a brief spell. Earthquake wades into even more boredom later on, expounding on the message that, hey, the drama doesn't actually exist in the tumult itself, but in the little human interactions that take place afterward. Yawn. There's a marginally more exciting quake in Roland Emmerich's 2012, though aside from John Cusack driving a limo, as well as a brief cameo by Randy's Donuts, this also gets tiresome in a quick minute. The irony is unmistakable: L.A.'s signature natural disaster doesn't translate so well on screen.

One geological event that does make for great viewing? A giant volcano that, somehow, researchers had overlooked for decades in a massive showing of ineptitude. This was the case in Volcano, which sent a river of magma flowing down the streets of L.A. To be sure, Dr. Lucy Jones would find the scenario laughable, but the event is proudly extravagant. It mixed fire with seismic activity, and came replete with actual brimstone, satisfying our taste for pyrotechnics.


Likelihood of It Happening: 1/5
Level of Destruction: 4/5
Cinematic Factor: 4/5

As we lag in our efforts to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions, global warming continues to take its toll. For one thing, researchers say that California may lose up to 67% of its coasts by 2100, thanks in part to changing storm patterns caused by climate change.

The destruction is decidedly real. For the big screen, however, it happens at a pace that's too incremental to be captured on a second-by-second scale. The solution? Speed everything up to a manic pace. In The Day After Tomorrow the Earth plunges into a new Ice Age as the North Atlantic Current goes out of whack. As a result, a series of tornadoes touches down on L.A. and goes on a touristy jaunt, destroying everything from the Hollywood Sign to the Capitol Records tower. And in case tornadoes are too tame for our tastes, there's also the the prospect of sharknadoes, aka a freak atmospheric event in which sharks are scooped up by a cyclone and tossed on land (this was introduced in the made-for-TV Sharknado). This improbable atmospheric phenomena may be bad for our infrastructure, but great for the withering careers of B-listers such as Ian Ziering and Tara Reid.

One note about tornadoes (and other sudden atmospheric occurrences such as freak snowstorms or monsoons), they're invariably film-able when placed in the context of L.A., as inclement weather is so anathema to Southern California. There's a great sense of juxtaposition here, as well as a feeling that us weather-loving dopes are getting our just desserts. This is the fate that the rest of the country wishes upon us.


Likelihood of It Happening: 1/5
Level of Destruction: 3.5/5
Cinematic Factor: 5/5

Intergalactic space travelers, being the brainiacs they are, know that the best way to demoralize a planet is to desecrate its most beloved iconography. This means targeting the most photographed cities and landmarks across Earth. (I guess a close second priority would be to kill a lot of humans.)

As such, L.A. has been a popular destination spot for extraterrestrials who are looking for new pad to crash. The most devastating example of which was in the first Independence Day, when aliens blew up the U.S. Bank Tower without so much as a "hello," sending a wall of flames crashing down the streets of downtown. In 1953's The War of the Worlds, our overlords were a bit more surgical in their methods; they sent out individual starships to pulverize the city in piece-meal fashion. City Hall is treated to a brief closeup when it gets doused with death rays—the explosion effects are pretty spectacular by 1950s standards.

Aliens aren't all about fireworks, however. Perhaps the smarter ones find it too bombastic and wasteful to atomize an entire city. In John Carpenter's They Live, for instance, they arrive quietly to infiltrate Los Angeles, with intentions of turning denizens into mindless slaves of consumerism (I'm not really sure what the end goal is, but hey, I'm just a dumb human). In Predator 2, their motives are even more modest; L.A. is turned into a kind of game reserve where Angelenos are the hunted wildlife. Which is all to say that total destruction is not guaranteed with an alien invasion; sometimes we're kept alive for their nefarious motives.

At any rate, extraterrestrials make for a great time on film. From their colossal spaceships, to their slimy epidermises, to their impressive arsenal, they are our best option for an epic finale. We should be so lucky.


Likelihood of It Happening: 0/5
Level of Destruction: 1/5
Cinematic Factor: 5/5

We presume that ghosts won't cause mass destruction, but we can't overlook the fact that (in film) Los Angeles is a town populated with ghastly specters and other forms of the undead.

Is there a message to be learned here? Does the proliferation of ghosts serve as commentary on urban sprawl? That development infringes on the sanctity of a land that had existed long before our arrival? This argument is most evident in 1982's Poltergeist, in which a nuclear family discovers that their quaint community was built on top of an ancient cemetery in Southern California (it's in Simi Valley, specifically, which isn't technically in L.A. County). In Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, a church in Little Tokyo is discovered to house the essence of Satan (in liquid form!), and in Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell, an unseen entity lurks in the shadows and waits for its chance to drag Angelenos to (where else?) hell.

And as if L.A. isn't already beleaguered by a slew of unwanted spirits, we also have to contend with an assortment of boogie men in the flesh. Scream 3 ushered in the newest copycat killer who wants to off Neve Campbell, and The Purge franchise showed us what happens when you don't vote. We also had our brush-up with zombies, as seen in 1984's Night of the Comet, in which a passing comet leaves a chemtrail of zombifying space dust.

As terrifying as these prospects are, the damage is largely confined to specific families and/or certain cliques at San Dimas High. The level of destruction, then, is often minimal, but it all depends on if our protagonist can, at the very last moment, recite the passage that will shut off that swirling vortex that acts as a gate to hell.

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