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Where Monsters Love to Tread: The City Certainly Lends Itself to Picturesque Disaster, Doesn't It? 

Wednesday, May 29 2013

In retrospect, it was sporting of Star Trek Into Darkness to retain San Francisco as headquarters for the United Federation of Planets. Things have come a long way since that other Trek movie, the whale-saving one, back in the late '80s. You might say the local attitude is less utopian now.

That's as it should be, if San Francisco film history is any indication. This is the town, after all, where being punk meant having Clint Eastwood threaten to blow your head off. As a survey of our movie annals reveals, the most enduring films set in this city seem also to be the ones most full of doom. And for crashy-smashy summer blockbusters, that fact might prove a perpetual opportunity.

Disaster movies have always been welcome here, what with the earthquakes and alleged ethical proximity to sister-city Sodom. In Cecil B. DeMille's first attempt at his famous Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments, in 1923, San Francisco was the scene of a spectacular smiting. San Francisco, the movie, from 1936, climaxed with the big quake of '06. In 1974 the city skyline was disfigured with an impossibly ginormous high-rise just to have The Towering Inferno. Meanwhile the Golden Gate Bridge, that gleaming landmark of human achievement, seems to have been under permanent movie siege at least since 1955's It Came from Beneath the Sea (Ray Harryhausen R.I.P.) — thus the monsters vs. robots in this July's Pacific Rim freely take up the bridge battering of 2009's Monsters vs. Aliens, among many others. People say that Alfred Hitchcock meant to end The Birds with a horrifyingly fowl-bedecked Golden Gate, but he couldn't afford it. Half a century later, we got James Franco on the bridge standing off against angry-genius super chimps in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Progress!

In films, and maybe in life, this city has tended to stand for the end of civilization's line. All the classic-seeming stuff, from Greed to Vertigo to Zodiac, depicts S.F. as basically an endless creepy obsession maze — or, as a frequent film noir model had it, the last stop on some very wasteful one-way trip. Even the ostensibly hopeful Milk had a historically mandated unhappy ending, not to mention the unpleasant irony of arriving in theaters just in time for California voters to be shooting down same-sex marriage.

It looks like self-destructiveness might just be in our movie DNA. Here, even the most exuberant blockbuster catastrophe seems tinged with pessimism and self-loathing. With due respect to Superman's brief San Francisco appearance in 1978, and to the adaptive reuse of Alcatraz as a nefarious genetics lab in 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, so far our biggest movie from the Marvel Cinematic Universe still is Ang Lee's forlorn 2003 anger-management allegory Hulk — a portrayal so sensitive that it bombed and was promptly rebooted. Meanwhile Terminator Salvation, released at about this time four years ago, brought the hallowed genocidal-cyborg-thriller franchise to a head, and to a post-apocalyptic San Francisco showdown.

It's thanks to history that hopes are low for this June's The Internship, a broad comedy of underdog forty-something everydudes going to work for Google, and presumably schooling their younger betters. Google-as-Orwellian-dystopia would be the proper angle, obviously, but that seems unlikely in a Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson vehicle. Where's the Francis Coppola of The Conversation, that minor-key San Francisco masterpiece of surveillance paranoia, when you need him?

Lighter moods may be less welcome here, but they're not wholly out of the question. This city also is where Woody Allen shot his uproarious 1969 directorial debut, Take the Money and Run, and the 1972 movie of his play Play It Again, Sam. He was back last summer making Blue Jasmine, which is due here in August and which like all recent Woody Allen films could go either way. If it turns out not to be definitively San Franciscan, at least we'll always have Allen's fondly remembered habit of cracking wise at the expense of L.A., where "they don't throw their garbage away — they turn it into TV shows," and "the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light."

And we'll have our cherished homegrown summer-movie moments of years past: the Cage-Connery-Harris testosterone triumvirate of '96; the evil blond Bond-villain Walken of the Reagan era, hovering maniacally in his blimp; the Star Trek whales, which were saved after all.

About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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