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reality check

Hurricane Sandy Was the Attack on NYC that Blockbusters Never Prepared Us For

This is not the way Michael Bay would have done it.

New York is, of course, the most destroyed city in Hollywood history, for reasons too obvious and well-documented to enumerate here. If the aliens descend or the vampire-zombie-anarchist-terrorists rise or the meteor plummets or the Big Wave crashes, we can’t say we weren’t warned. But the movies, for all their mayhem, left us woefully underprepared for Hurricane Sandy. No matter how often the eggheads told us to watch for the storm surge, not falling skies, we still expected Death From Above — because that’s the apocalypse we’re best rehearsed for, from Independence Day to The Avengers. The actual onslaught turned out to be far more insidious, less visible, with few celluloid precedents: a bubbling-up from below, a slow submerging of our vulnerable undercarriage and the corrosion of our centuries-old subterranean infrastructure. Sandy wasn’t the cataclysm we’d been trailered; it was more slow-acting snakebite than one-punch obliteration. It could color our future shared nightmares of Big Apple Armageddon, a sector of splashy pessimism that has, for the last decade, been dominated by The Obvious.

In the American popular mind (a mind that does not dwell over-much on places like Aleppo, Sendai, Gaza, and Eastern Congo), nothing can compete, in sheer shattering megatonnage, with the attacks of September 11, 2001. Far-off tsunamis, civil wars, and nuclear meltdowns are terrifying enough, sure, but they don’t cohere as images: We’ve been taught to envision a more vertical destruction in our entertainment, not an endless spreading stain of anarchy. Pop culture has a lot invested in the top-down, 9/11 model of city-razing. It spent the nineties subliminally anticipating those images from the relative safety of the alien-invasion and monster-attack genres (with a brief, memorable sideline in killer-asteroid scenarios). This is something movies do well, when they’re done right: They turn half-submerged cultural anxieties into bankable escapist schlock. When the attacks themselves materialized, the movie we’d been watching for years finally unspooled on the news, and ever since, big-budget disaster fantasy went from Jungian harbinger to hapless johnny-come-lately. Ever since that day, all Hollywood can do is replicate the attacks. And it can’t, of course, because they actually happened. “Everything,” a wise Vulture editor said recently, “just looks like a very expensive A-Team episode by comparison.” For quite some time now, there’s been just one way to destroy New York, with a few minor variations on the old theme. (For example: The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s campy global-warming nightmare.)    

Consider The Avengers, which treated the destruction of New York as a given. We know the script so well, we scarcely need splashy shots of iconic buildings toppling; director Joss Whedon staged the most generic Apple-flattening imaginable (the faceless aliens, the whipping-between-buildings) but he was just using the smoldering rebar as mere canvas for his character-work. Whedon knows we don’t care if New York burns again. Back in 1996, when those ID4 Saucer Locusts banana-splat the Empire State Building lengthwise, we felt that — that hurt. Today, we’ve seen it so often, it’s a convention, like a taboo-busting profanity that’s faded with years and overuse into a mild oath.  

Which is why Sandy’s caught us so unawares, and why we’re all so uneasy in its aftermath. The winds were bad, no doubt, and in some cases, deadly. But the city was largely spared the Biblical doom cloud. Instead, Sandy slowly but inexorably pumped millions of gallons of corrosive seawater into the city’s delicate innards, crippling us in ways our imaginations haven’t found ways to cope with yet. (Not to mention our civil engineers and our budget wranglers.) While we stared at the sky, the bilge rose below, eventually teasing us with a Hollywood-style power plant explosion that featured plenty of Abrams lens-flare. But the fireworks were the exception: Most of the damage is as invisible as it is extensive. Lady Liberty’s head didn’t come rolling down the street. Instead, we got floating cars, shuttered subways, and deserted avenues. All was eerily serene. Only later did the bad news begin to leak out: The tunnels were flooded, the power short-circuited by brine, and the subways, our circulatory system, had been silently dealt a mortal blow.

It’s one thing to picture, dreamily and wistfully, the partially submerged New York of the distant future (as Spielberg did in A.I.). It’s quite another to see it happening in the course of an evening and realize that, for all our jokes about melting ice caps and beachfront-property-in-Princeton, we have no means of dealing with our actual fate — the one our politicians dare not discuss, the one we’ve been capable of predicting, with some accuracy, for decades.

Now I’m not saying we’ve experienced, in Sandy, “The 9/11 of Rising Sea Levels.” (Roland Emmerich tried it; so did Kevin Costner. No soap.) I don’t think there can be such a thing, and perhaps that’s why our Summer Movies, with occasional exceptions, feel more dangerously irrelevant than ever. They’re fighting the last apocalypse, in part because the old one is easier to shoot. But the greatest threats to humanity are, unfortunately, not megaplex material. They are, however, ever-present and ever-rising: broken economies, shortsighted, cannibalistic notions of “growth,” gaping global scarcity and the civil-conflict that comes with it, and, interlinked with them all, anthropogenic climate change, the Godzilla in the middle of the room. There’s no sexy villain here, no doomsday gizmo to shut off: We are the sexy villain, which is highly unsexy, and the doomsday gizmo is Ongoing Human Incompetence, Greed, Panic, Tribalism, and Sloth. There’s no single exhaust port to fire at, no one Death Star to annihilate, and little for a man in a metal suit and his super-powered friends to fend off. Sandy’s given New York a peek at a newer and infinitely more frightening kind of finale, more hidden rot than explicit carnage, more classic-horror than splashy action. I’m interested to see what kind of movie we make of it.

Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images