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The Psychological Effects of Watching Cities Get Destroyed in Cinema

The Psychological Effects of Watching Cities Get Destroyed in Cinema

The stage is set in one of the most iconic “end of the world” movie scenes: Citizens of New York City are scrambling on top of taxis, quickly attempting to escape the slow-moving giant tsunami heading their way. In the rear-view mirror of a bus, a giant wave can be seen rushing up the narrow city grid. Searching for higher ground, the main characters, Sam and Laura, run up the famed stairs into the famed New York Public Library, and just as the revolving doors shut behind them, the pressure of the water smashes the windows, and water begins to rise. Without seeing it, we know that New York City and its iconic architecture will soon be destroyed.

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Movie scene of London burning. Image © London Has Fallen directed by Babak Najafi

The Day After Tomorrow”, which was released in 2004, is based on the book The Coming Global Superstorm by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber, and tells the stories of the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change that could occur if we ignore the warnings of our scientists. The result is a variety of extreme weather on a scale never seen before followed by global cooling and an eventual new ice age.

New York City, and other places around the world, including Los Angeles, Tokyo, London, and Paris, are not spared from destruction for our cinematic enjoyment. “The Day After Tomorrow”, isn’t the first instance in which The Big Apple experiences devastation, and it certainly won’t be the last. Whether it be a natural disaster, meteor strike, alien invasion, or a takeover by a giant, unstoppable creature, there’s something about watching a city and its monuments get destroyed that we find enjoyable. As we watch the worst-case scenarios play out on screen, we imagine a world in which our biggest threats feel exaggerated and nearly impossible- but there’s always a lingering thought of “what if?” which makes us long for this genre of film.


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So why do we enjoy watching cities get destroyed? The answer is rooted in psychological principles first suggested by Sigmund Freud who discovered that there’s a small element of pleasure when it comes to watching your worst fears hypothetically come true. Replaying images of tsunamis destroying cities, aliens invading our globe, and other destructive events gives our minds the power to control the imaginative aspects behind these happenings. Dystopian films often have an underlying theme of social criticism and commentary- giving us an exaggerated warning that if we don’t take action towards something, then this may be the outcome. It gives real threats a sense of fantasy. If we don’t take steps toward stopping climate change will New York City freeze over? If we unleash apes on San Francisco as the cast did in "Planet of the Apes", will bridges burn and eventual civilization collapse? Who knows- but seeing places we are familiar with, and even live in, come to a sudden end causes our minds to want to take immediate control over the situation. Additionally, watching some of our greatest governmental institutions and icons that represent our nation’s ideals, like the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling down the street or the obliteration of parliament buildings gives the sense that civilization will soon come to an end.

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Godzilla destroying Tokyo scene. Image © Godzilla (1954) directed by Ishirō Honda

In 1952, upon the release of “Godzilla”, moviegoers reported being so terrified of the scenes in which the giant reptilian monster destroyed Tokyo that they ran out of the movie theater screaming. However, it was still an extremely popular film for a nation that was recovering from having two of its major cities destroyed by nuclear attacks in World War II only a decade prior. What has been lost in the evolution of "Godzilla" and its destructive path is the original, strong anti-nuclear message that the director wanted to project to Japan as it continued its long road to recovery. The writers also had ideas about modernity, technology, and science as they related to the outside world, especially leaning on an Anti-American mindset. The destruction of Tokyo was a metaphor for how "Godzilla" was both a blessing and a curse- and that the influence of the west could give the nation an opportunity to rebuild on their own terms.

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Movie Poster- New York City, The Day After Tomorrow. Image © The Day After Tomorrow directed by Roland Emmerich

The Day After Tomorrow” ends in a final dramatic scene- after survivors are rescued from the frozen rooftops of NYC’s towers, two astronauts are seen peering from the window of the International Space Station, looking down at Earth’s northern hemisphere which is covered in a blanket of ice. One says to the other, “Have you ever seen the air so clear?”- a pointed line that suggests the cause of this global disaster was our own doing, and our unchecked impact of pollution. This film, and others, don't just completely destroy the world for the thrill of it, but they often heed us a warning, that we might want to act now before we’re no longer able to live in the cities we build.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: The Future of Architectural Visualizations, proudly presented by Enscape, the most intuitive real-time rendering and virtual reality plugin for Revit, SketchUp, Rhino, Archicad, and Vectorworks. Enscape plugs directly into your modeling software, giving you an integrated visualization and design workflow.

Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

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Cite: Kaley Overstreet. "The Psychological Effects of Watching Cities Get Destroyed in Cinema" 12 Apr 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/979961/the-psychological-effects-of-watching-cities-get-destroyed-in-cinema> ISSN 0719-8884

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