Top 5 city destroyers of all time

When we reach the city…

I have made no secret of my distain for the recent Transformers films by Michael Bay. In my youth, I absolutely adored the original Transformers cartoons and toys, and the original animated Transformers movie, for me, is still one of the best films/stories ever produced. However, seeing the trailer for the third instalment of Michael Bay’s trilogy of detritus, I must admit to feeling slightly intrigued, if only for the visualisation of the destruction of Chicago. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a somewhat guilty fetish for immoderate, overemotional and visually-compelling destruction of cities on film, and Chicago is one of my favourite cities. So, like a moth to a flame, I will no doubt pay to watch Mr Bay’s latest monstrosity and sit through 2 and half to 3 hours of megalomaniacal BS just so I can gawp at Chicago getting ripped apart from the top down.

Such an extravagant annihilation of a great city got me thinking, what are the best city-destroying forces of all time? Its an open competition, monsters, aliens and natural disasters are all eligible. Points are scored for the visual impact of the destruction, the innovate ways in which the built environment is obliterated, but also the frequency with which it destroys. Like all good ‘top X’ lists it is not based on scientific rigour or any actual reliable information, but more an arbitrary collection of what I think to be the best.

5. Climate change

The twenty-first century brought with it new apocalyptic fears. First it was the dreaded Millenium Bug, which was so cataclysmically peremptory it managed to turn my computer clock back to 1st January 1980, as far as I can tell. Now that we managed to survive that technological onslaught, we now have climate change to occupy the doomsday theorists. Everything from rising sea levels (Flood, 2007), hail stones the size of footballs (The Day After Tomorrow, 2004), ice sheets (Ice, 2011) and even super-cooled tornadoes (Ice Twisters, 2009) have had a destructive effect on cities. The most famous example is perhaps The Day After Tomorrow (2004) which tells the story of how super-storms suck in freezing air from the ionosphere, instantly solidifying anything in comes into contact with. As a human geographer my knowledge of climatic processes often infuriates my team-mates during the blue questions in Trivial Pursuit, but even I know that the ‘weather’ in this film is laughably unrealistic. The way in which the cold chases Jake Gyllenhaal through the Library had all the incongruity and sheer tomfoolery of a Monty Python sketch, and the crowbarred-in scenes of peril involving the wolves was again a ridiculous and superficial attempt at creating suspense in an otherwise multi-million dollar showcase for Renderman.

The idea that our world can be destroyed by climate change is a real fear in the age of increasing pollution levels, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. But does it have the capacity to catch an entire city off-guard and level it in a matter of minutes? A change in the weather, by itself, I would wager is not really enough to level an entire city. The change in climate would be such that I’m sure we could prepare ourselves or at least migrate. I’m sure sea level rise is such that the slow incremental rise in inches per year would be sufficient to give us enough time to pack our bags before salty brine started to lap around our ankles. But this does not make for good Hollywood drama – so while our fears of climate change as the Harbinger of Doom continue, expect the studios to keep churning out implausible ways in which being a bit chilly out will raise our megacities to the ground. Despite it’s implausibility however, there is something fairly watchable about the weather destroying a city.

4. Meteors

Outer space has fascinated us for millennia, but the more we explore, the more we realise the fragility and vulnerability of our own planet. The fact that something as minuscule and insignificant (in relation to the vastness of the universe) as a meteor can have a peremptory effect on our planet really does put our place in this universe in perspective. Films such as Meteor (1979), Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) have all shown how a chunk of rock hurtling toward our planet can not just destroy cities, but put the entire planet in jeopardy. Paris getting obliterating so flippantly in Armageddon (1998) shows us just how easy it would be for a meteor to wipe millions of people of the face of the earth in seconds, and the scenes from Deep Impact (1998) in the clip above are eerily creepy given what we saw in Japan earlier this year.

Hollywood’s usual defence against these giant rocks of planetary doom is to fire some nukes at it, or in the case of Armageddon, send Bruce Willis up to sacrifice himself, drill to it’s core and detonate the explosion from there. Whether this would be a realistic way of diverting catastrophic disaster is something that hopefully will remain the mantra of film script writers. But meteors that are small enough to not cause the Earth to explode, but big enough to destroy an entire city (like the one that hit Paris in Armageddon) do seem to slip through the net from time to time. The meteor that struck New York in the cleverly titled Meteor (1979) seemed to have some very devastating effects (although it only seemed to dent Sean Connery’s career), but the planet did survive. The destruction though of cities by a meteor is often very ‘instantaneous’ – Paris is annihilated in a matter of seconds – and throughout movie history, these meteor films tend to focus far more on the destruction of the threat, and so spend a lot of their time in Houston’s control room. The subjugation of a city tends to be a precursor to the main event. There is a sense then that films have missed a trick in the visual potentialities of a meteor strike on a city.

3. Earthquakes

If you did GCSE Geography, there would be two things that you would have learnt by heart – oxbow lakes and earthquakes. While it would be difficult to create a suspenseful narrative to a film based on the city-destroying powers of the former, there are many attempts at stories that showcase the destructive force of the latter. The most memorable is perhaps the (again) cleverly-titled Earthquake (1973), if only for the famous scene that has been reproduced for the movie backlot tour in Universal Studios. There have been a plethora of B-movies about city-levelling subduction zones, notably Deathquake (1980), Epicenter (2000), 10.5 (2004), Earthquake: Nature Released (2005) and of course the massive apocalyptic scenes from 2012 (2009), which is shown in the clip above. An earthquake is a primal fear. We find solace in the solidity of the terra firma, but when it starts to shift, undulate and jellify, our preconceptions of the safety of the ground soon disappear. We have built our cities on such preconceptions, and it is only relatively recently, and in the more able parts of the world, that we have built earthquake-proof buildings. And even then, these buildings are constructed to withstand a certain level of earthquake – they would well to resist the tempestuousness of a 10.5 magnitude quake that so many of these films depict.

But a 10.5 is never going to happen. Not in California anyway. The San Andreas fault is roughly 800 miles long, and that is nowhere near long enough for an earthquake to measure anywhere close to 10 on the Richter Scale. In fact, there is no known fault line that exists long enough to produce a quake that strong. Sorry Bruckheimer, but that is geological fact. But despite this, the clamber of screaming urbanites, the plummeting masonry, the shattering glass; they are all symptomatic of a city under the tumultuousness of a shifting tectonic plate. Films that depict earthquakes tend to centre on the lone maverick scientist predicting ‘the big one’, but s/he is often rebuked by the disgruntled, middle-aged, rule-book following government officials (a pattern repeated ad infinitum in disaster movies it would seem, from the 60s to the present day). The inability of the lone scientist to convince the government to evacuate whichever city is under threat will lead to the deaths of many of inhabitants – and the rest of the film will be the recovery of survivors. A classic pattern which clearly works or it wouldn’t have been repeated so many times.

This sense of haplessness in the face of certain disaster, their scientific unpredictability, their ability to make us question the rigidity of the ground beneath our feet and our insistance on building massive urban centres near vulnerable locations, make earthquakes a highly effective city destroying phenomenon.

2. Mutant Monsters

I once flushed a frog down the toilet when I was 7. From that point on, I was convinced that one day an 80-foot giant mutant frog will run amok central Guildford crushing buildings with his legs and chomping on the townsfolk. The cause of my ill-conceived nightmare has no doubt been due to the countless films of mutant monsters that have been created by science gone bad or nuclear weapon testing, and ended up in the built environment in all a tizzy, demolishing buildings in it’s path. Them! (1954), Godzilla (1954, 1998), The Host (2006) and Cloverfield (2008 – although whether the monster in this film is from space is unknown), are all entertaining examples of how humans have created horrific monsters which are let loose in a city, with disastrous and yet, philosophically humane consequences.

In the remake of Godzilla (1998), the rampaging monster is brutally slaughtered at the conclusion of the film. As she lays helplessly trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, Godzilla is attacked by fighter jets, and when the first round fails to kill her, they are ordered mercilessly to fire again. Her death is pictured as rather poignent, the feeling of remorse is perhaps a rare bit of quality in an otherwise popcorn movie. Moreover, much of the damage inflicted upon Manhattan in the film is caused by misfired rockets/missiles from the US army – the creature was only protecting her young. A similar fate befalls the monster from Cloverfield (2008), or we can only assume so given the nature of the story-telling focuses on the film’s protagonists. The blaring air raid sirens and the subsequent demolition of that underpass in Central Park, all point toward the vanquishing of the creature – although rumours of a sequel may cast some doubt on that outcome.

One of the best monster movies ever made is the South Korean film, The Host (2006). Far from destroying buildings and crashing through bridges, the monster, smaller than in other classic monster movies, terrorises the inhabitants of Seoul in a more physiologically-tinted manner. But it is the (English-speaking) authorities sent in to deal with the monster that end up causing more damage to the city as they falsely spread rumours of a virus, meaning inhabitants are suspicious of each other ending in social unrest. The anti-American feel to the film (exemplified by the ‘Agent Yellow’ protests – a less-than-subtle critique of the use by US forces of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War), makes a more understated feel that it is the autocratic (imperialist) regiemes that is destroying the city, rather than the monster itself. This is perhaps best summed up in the opening scenes where American scientists force their Korean counterparts to throw the chemical waste away into the Han River – the eventual cause of the monster.

So whether it’s a rampaging giant lizard looking for a nesting place, or a mutated amphibian that likes to eat school girls, monsters have long since been destroying cities in an entertaining and visually stunning way. But, it is often the armies and governments attempting to stop these creatures that end up doing more damage.

Alien Invaders

Are we alone in the universe? A question that has plagues mankind’s thoughts for millennia – but answered by film makers on countless occasions. The fascination with hords of alien legions coming to earth to plunder our resources has spawned so many wonderful (and some terrible) films, with almost all of them depicting the destruction of a city or two (or often more). Some of the more impressive destruction scenes come from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, 2008), War of the Worlds (1953, 2005), The Blob (1958), Independence Day (1996), Skyline (2010) and yes, even Transformers (2007), with entire cities destroyed by massive alien weaponry or just simply being engulfed.

The multitudinous amount of alien invasion films range from the subtle infiltration of the human race to city-sized spaceships zapping New York into oblivion in the space of a few minutes. It is of course the latter that is of interest here, and throughout the years, the intricacy and creative ways in which aliens destroy our cities has increased to levels of voyeuristic beauty. One of the scenes which got me so hot under the collar in the latest Transformers movie trailer is the last few seconds when that tentacle-shaped creature devours that glass skyscraper – a real visual treat that has only been made recently possible with advancements in CGI technology. Despite the vulgarity of what Michael Bay has done to the Transformers franchise, the visual effects of the films are to be heralded.

The War of the Worlds (1953) was perhaps the watershed movie in the alien invasion genre. Notwithstanding the chaos caused by the fake radio play, the film broke new ground in special effects and big budget movie making. It’s religious overtones (the Martians start to die once they have attacked a Los Angeles church) are suggestive of a God that cares for humankind, and would rather not see us wiped off the planet just yet. The film also played on the innate fears of a human society becoming increasingly conscious of the space beyond our atmosphere – the danger of threatening alien forces from a neighbouring planet Mars was a tangible fear in the 50s as the space race gathered momentum. The use of stock footage from World War II in the city destruction scenes is also a sombre visual reminder of the horrors the world experienced not a decade earlier.

If The War of the Worlds (1953) was the defining invasion movie of a past generation, then Independence Day (1996) is it’s offspring. It’s depiction of instantaneous death of all the world’s major cities, coordinated using our own satellite system was a stroke of species-exterminating genius. Even the locations of the ‘main weapon’ of the spaceships warrant applause; the Empire State Building in New York, the White House in Washington DC and the US Bank Tower in Los Angeles. All iconic buildings in their own cities and places of aesthetic (if not geographical) centrality – the aliens clearly did their research. A quote by the general always hits home, “at this rate, we could be looking at the worldwide destruction of every major city in the next 36 hours”. The fact that the aliens are wiping out the human race by destroying ‘every major city’ clear shows that they understood our global inter-connected economic, social and cultural system. They must have read Peter Taylor’s ‘The World City Network’ book and were working their way down the list.

2011 and 2012 will see a plethora of alien invasion movies, some of which will no doubt continue the tradition of cities of the world being destroyed. My hope is they use cities outside North America and continue the creative ways in which buildings are toppled, streets are ripped up, transport infrastructure is decimated and houses are obliterated.


Other instances of city destruction that are worthy of note include social unrest (The Siege (1998), Gangs of New York (2002)), war (the recent trailer for Modern Warfare 3 (2011) demands immediate viewing for impressive city destruction) and a personal favourite, the Annihilatrix (Frisky Dingo (2007) – OK, not a film but worthy of a shout nonetheless).

Many commentators have said that the twenty-first century will be the urban century. Cities are more important than ever as they house more and more of the world’s population. Hence, forcing to accept the fragility of our colossal cities will perhaps, in some warped, covert, subconscious way, maybe, possibly, force us to think about how our cities are important to our future development and encourage better planning.


  1. Anonymous · August 10, 2014

    nukes arn’t on the list?

  2. Oli · August 11, 2014

    Can’t think of many good visualisations of nuke attacks, plus nuking a city implies some sort of humanistic intent which is not good at all. But I take your point.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s