Courtesy of Warner Brothers (Legend), 20th Century Fox
Will Smith’s last-man-on-Earth adventure I Am Legend opens this week and portrays the Fresh Prince living alone in an empty New York City, circa 2012, complete with a grassy meadow in Times Square and some extravagant wildlife. As commuters constantly cheek by jowl with our fellow New Yorkers, we kind of love this vision of New York; it’s straight out of Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, except with millions of killer vampires. Virus-fueled depopulation is just the latest way Hollywood has found to destroy New York City; here’s a look back on some of the worst — and most photogenic — abuse that our fine metropolis has withstood … at least until Cloverfield comes out next month, anyway.
10. Godzilla (1998)
Roland Emmerich’s Matthew Broderick–starring stinker was the second, and the weakest, of 1998’s trio of Manhattan destruction (see further down on our list for the other two). What was it about the late nineties that made filmmakers want to reduce the city to rubble? Sure, Giuliani was cleaning up the city, but could he protect New York from fictional catastrophes? Hell no! Anyway, in this scene, Godzilla rises out of the East River, steps over the FDR, and pounds the Fulton Fish Market into the ground.
9. Ghostbusters II (1989)
Yes, both Ghostbusters movies torch the city real good, and we love the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just as much as the next guy. But we’re going with the sequel for this list, and for one reason only: because one of the chief villains this time around is a paranormal ooze collecting in New York’s gutters, fed by the city’s collective negative energy, which just confirms our belief that New Yorkers are sometimes their own worst enemies. Oh, and that there’s no problem in the world playing “Higher and Higher” can’t fix.
8. Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
We’re cheating a bit, because New York has been long destroyed (thanks, melting ice caps!) by the time this Steven Spielberg film of an original Stanley Kubrick project gets started. We’re also convinced that had Kubrick lived to make it, he might have done a bit more with the film’s postapocalyptic vision of a flooded, devastated New York — he was, after all, from the Bronx, unlike that suburbanite Spielberg. But the existing film’s matter-of-fact treatment of the devastated Manhattan skyline retains just enough of Kubrick’s Olympian distance that it says more about mortality and impermanence than all the CGI explosions in the world. Still, there’s magic in it: Coney Island underwater looks a lot better than Coney Island aboveground.
7. The Siege (1998)
We admit it, at the time this fairly milquetoast terrorism thriller/political drama was released, we didn’t make much of it. But it’s hard to deny its power today, given, well … you know. It’s not just the pure nerve-jangling tension of watching various terror cells in the city go active and start causing untold destruction (including to a Broadway theater), it’s also the film’s eerie vision of the government suspending civil rights and the military taking over New York that keeps us up at night. Could it happen here? Well, some of it already did. Extra bonus chill factor: One of the film’s screenwriters was Lawrence Wright, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower.
6. Armageddon (1998)
While New York isn’t completely destroyed in Armageddon, thanks to the efforts of Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck’s sweaty, hunky deep-core drillers, the movie does open with Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building taking direct hits from flaming meteorites. The resultant shot of the Art Deco skyscraper taking a nosedive into 42nd Street had audiences cheering and the ghost of architect William Van Alen mournfully shaking his head. Later, though, when Grace and A.J. are married amid the photos of deceased crew members, even Van Alen’s ghost was seen to shed a tear.
5. King Kong (1933)
Sure, Peter Jackson’s gazillion-dollar remake had better F/X and even more scenes of extended midtown mayhem, but there was also a strangely unreal quaintness to its portrait of the city — perhaps because P-Jack & Co., wary of ruffling any post-9/11 nerves, chose to make their movie a period piece. (Also, that Central Park Kong ice-skating sequence was laaame.) Therefore, the 1933 Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack original is still the gold standard for giant-gorilla-destroys-half-the-city movies, not the least because it was a film set in its era: To a New York audience at the time, those were their streets, their buildings, their secretaries Kong was tearing, smashing, and eating. More importantly, Kong’s final stand atop the then-newly-finished Empire State Building not only cemented the controversial construction’s iconic status, it also told the world that New York was just too damn big to be brought down by some giant ape.
4. Gangs of New York (2002)
The showstopping centerpiece of Martin Scorsese’s epic — and epically misunderstood — look at ethnic violence among the great unwashed of mid-nineteenth-century New York was the infamous draft riots of 1863, in which the town was looted and burned for four days by rioters opposed to Congress’ passing new draft laws for the Civil War. Granted, alien death rays and Michael Bay’s ego would cause far more death and destruction in the city in the years to come, but this is one of the few films about New York being torn to pieces made by a genuine New Yorker — and as such it possesses a harrowing immediacy few films ever have. In the theatrical version of the film, it was Scorsese’s own voice that read the ticker-tape police dispatches of the city’s various neighborhoods burning. (We’re assuming this was due to scheduling requirements, since the DVD release has someone else’s voice.) And one could feel the outrage and disbelief in the director’s voice as he read off the neighborhoods and streets of his city being torched.
3. The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
New York’s destruction in 2004’s weather-porn masterpiece The Day After Tomorrow happens slowly at first, then all at once; its tidal wave isn’t the perfectly surfable double barrel of Deep Impact but instead an inexorable rising tide that swamps the city over the course of an extremely real-seeming five minutes. Later shots of a frozen-solid city shattering in the brutal cold are gorgeous and serve as the perfect capper to the film’s first hour, a.k.a. its only watchable section.
2. Deep Impact (1998)
Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski play the high-school astronomy club members who fail to save the planet in the (slightly) better of 1998’s two asteroid-kills-everyone-on-Earth movies. But all of humanity’s loss is our gain as Impact climaxes with shots of cinema’s coolest-ever Manhattan-destroying tidal wave demolishing everything between the Statue of Liberty and Montauk.
1. Independence Day (1996)
Who can forget the tragic events of July 4, 1996? The giant spaceships hovering over our cities; the Empire State Building taking a direct hit from some kind of super-laser; Harvey Fierstein’s plaintive “Oh, crap” as the firestorm overtook him? ID4’s vision of New York’s destruction is completely accurate; we have to agree that if the aliens ever come, it’ll still be the traffic in the tunnels that kills most of us.