In 1949, longtime San Francisco-based journalist Herb Caen published a collection of essays about the city entitled Baghdad by the Bay. (If you’re interested, it’s available for purchase here.) The moniker, which Caen came up with himself, was apparently meant to encapsulate the city’s verdant—and growing—multicultural exoticism and to conjure an association with the ancient metropolis of Babylon, whose Hanging Gardens were counted among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Lately, though, Baghdad by the Bay has started to resemble its namesake in less positive ways. The city has fallen victim not to warfare and invasion by foreign armies but to a different force of (fictional) destruction—the movie industry. Though it’s no stranger to starring on the silver screen, San Francisco’s recent appearances during the current decade have taken on a notable air of disaster. Recently, the city has met its end thanks to rebelling primates in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), an alien creature hell-bent on humanity’s destruction in Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 CGI-spectacular Pacific Rim, the fiery descent of a starship piloted by a genetically enhanced superhuman in last summer’s Star Trek into Darkness, and the ravages of a multi-monster brawl in last month’s Godzilla reboot. All four films were positively reviewed and together grossed a whopping $1.75 billion worldwide—meaning that Hollywood has increasingly packed theaters and satisfied critics by depicting monsters devastating its own backyard. Why?
One reason may be that San Francisco—and perhaps California as a whole—has lost the pioneering, frontier quality that once set it apart from the rest of the nation and has made its way into the American mainstream. No longer the land of the gold rush, California now suffers from a problem of banality. The Sunshine State has become synonymous with fiscal insolvency, failing schools, and remains in the political shadow of the Governator. With the loss of California’s cultural exceptionalism, however, has come the freedom to explore old themes in a new setting—themes especially befitting today’s world. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek into Darkness depicts a terrorist attack on Starfleet leadership by the villainous turncoat “John Harrison” who is later revealed to be an especially vindictive Khan Noonien-Singh, the principal antagonist of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan potently reimagined by Benedict Cumberbatch. Later in the film, Khan sets his doomed starship, the aptly named USS Vengeance, on a collision course with San Francisco after his plans are foiled by Kirk, Spock, and the crew of the Enterprise. The film’s depiction of civilian casualties as the collateral damage of organizational infighting and the intended victims of acts of terror is reminiscent of both sectarian violence in the modern Middle East and the events of 9/11, the latter of which catapulted such scenarios into the forefront of the American psyche. Far from being just a playground for destruction, San Francisco’s recent cinematic appearances have cast it as a venue for post-9/11 American filmmaking.
Relinquishing its frontier roots has also allowed San Francisco to assume a different kind of mainstreaming in American film—iconicity. It’s no surprise that key landmarks, like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and TransAmerica Tower, feature in all four of the latest films to trash the City by the Bay. The bridge is attacked by Caesar’s army of disgruntled apes as they make their escape from the city, destroyed by the first kaiju to emerge out of a transdimensional fissure on the ocean floor in Pacific Rim,and wrecked by Godzilla (with a little help from the U.S. Navy) in this year’s remake. Depicting Godzilla on the West Coast is especially telling of San Francisco’s growing currency in the American cultural psyche. After all, New York City formed the backdrop to the creature’s rampages in the widely panned 1998 Roland Emmerich film. Likewise, Alcatraz gets taken out by Khan’s Vengeance in Star Trek into Darkness before the ship plows into the city itself, stopping just short of flattening the Transamerica Pyramid (which also features prominently on a teaser poster for this year’s Godzilla). In today’s cinematic age, destruction seems to be the reward for brand-recognition.
As the cradle of corporations like Facebook, Google, and other tech giants that comprise Silicon Valley, San Francisco has also eked out a unique niche in America’s economic and industrial culture. Decked out in the chromium plating of New Age technophilia, it’s no surprise that San Francisco should serve as the location for Starfleet’s high-tech home base or the last redoubt of the military’s struggle against a marauding pair of radiation-eating MUTOs in Godzilla. New York might be the country’s cultural epicenter (the 1998 Godzilla made New York a sparring partner with Tokyo as a backdrop to monster mayhem, and 2012’s The Avengers proved that the Big Apple is still the favorite for existential-threat-to-humanity climacticset-pieces), and Washington, DC its political heart (that city has featured prominently in recent action films with political overtones including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past), but San Francisco reigns supreme as the nation’s silicon-chipped technological hub. As technology and information have become increasingly central to the American lifestyle, it’s hardly a surprise that we should seek to anchor our most compelling summer blockbusters in a city that’s on everyone’s mind—or at least the birthplace of the silenced cell phone in everyone’s pockets.
But the Information Age has not arisen without its critics. Indeed, disillusionment abounds regarding the true beneficence of companies like Facebook and Google, who are seen as trafficking in their users’ personal information to turn a profit and, perhaps, complicit in the same kinds of online invasions of privacy that have recently dogged the NSA. The relentless forward march of progress has also been questioned, and the environmental movement has sought to halt what seems to be an inexorable descent toward ecological disaster. What with 13 of the top 15 green tech startups located in California, including such notables as Tesla Motors, San Francisco leads the charge in the fight for environmentally conscious technology meant to forestall the end of human existence as we know it. The 2009 film 2012 and its superior predecessor The Day After Tomorrow both played on these fears of environmental disaster, but did so straightforwardly. Ecological ruin was, in both, itself a prominent plot point. In The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it is the unbounded ingenuity of biotech scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) that raises bioethical dilemmas about the nature of corporate ownership over life, creation, and morality. This year’s Godzilla reboot, which pledged to depict the titular beast less as a character and more as a “terrifying force of nature,” got at environmental catastrophe symbolically. Generating tsunamis when he makes landfall and causing buildings to crumble with his earthquake-like footsteps, director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla allegorizes a man-made environmental exigency that has quickly outpaced our ability to control it. And, like in del Toro’s Pacific Rim, it is our ignorance of the lurking possibility of destruction that makes it both awe- and fear-inspiring. Godzilla adds a sufficient dose of government conspiracy cover-up to bring to mind the persistent refusal of certain political ideologues to acknowledge the reality of climate change.
There may even be a deeper, most human element to the selection of San Francisco for repeated cinematic ruination. In an article published last year in The New Yorker, George Packer observed that “after decades in which the country has become less and less equal, Silicon Valley is one of the most unequal places in America.”San Francisco is becoming increasingly emblematic of income disparity and the nation’s growing class-divide. Many lower- and middle-income families have been forced to vacate their homes, unable to keep up with the rising cost of living in the Bay Area because of an increasing population of wealthy entrepreneurs spreading from Silicon Valley. Income disparity has gained sizeable political and rhetorical traction of late (think the 1%), and entered the public consciousness acutely through the example of San Francisco. Like climate change and terrorism, inequality is also a social ill with an all-too-real human cost. Once more, it may be that the purpose of these disaster-by-monster movies is to metaphorize human folly and arrogance through the destruction of San Francisco, a city primed to reap the consequences of these changes in reality. An actual sense of impending doom finds its fictional outlet in Hollywood.
All of which begs the question: why monsters, and why now? San Francisco is certainly no stranger to them historically, either real or fictional. Alcatraz Island, located in San Francisco Bay and home of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary between 1934 and 1963, has attained near-mythic status amongst criminals and the public alike for its incarceration of infamous lawbreakers including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and James “Whitey” Bulger. And the 1955 Columbia Pictures monster classic It Came from Beneath the Sea depicts the memorable destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge at the hands—er, tentacles—of a giant octopus.
But there’s something primal, elemental, and almost primitively thrilling about monsters that has led to their reemergence in the modern public consciousness. Their inherent foil to humanity and civilization is probably why they featured so prominently in the first fictions mankind produced, from the Odyssey’s Scylla and Polyphemus to Beowulf’s Grendel to the Minotaur, Hydra, and Nemean lion, of Greek mythology. (And while we’re talking both movies and the enduring appeal of monsters, it’s worth mentioning that Hercules, the original action hero, is getting his own cinematic rebirth later this summer.) Monsters get at our most widely universalized and most carefully internalized fears in equal measure. In Godzilla and Pacific Rim, they are impossibly enormous and appear otherworldly, but in fact originate with our own ignorance, arrogance, and folly. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Star Trek into Darkness, they are our own creations: corrupted leaders arising directly from our own recklessness and misdeeds. In an era where the mostmonstrousacts have originated with all-too-human actors, the fictional monsters of film may in fact proffer a parable not nearly nuanced enough for the modern age.
Whether they represent the inexorable, the mysterious, or the uncivilized, or are wreathed in allegory and symbolism, monsters continue to defy, redefine, and beguile mankind’s perceptions of itself and its earthly achievements. In the end, watching our species’ greatest accomplishments—in the form of one of its greatest cities—laid waste by forces beyond our control and of our own creation from the comfort of a theater seat may be just the right combination of fictional thrill, metaphor, masochism, and humility American audiences crave. Baghdad by the Bay had best brace itself.