Everybody loves blowing up major cities in widescreen action movies. Wholesale municipal destruction looks great in 3-D and even better in IMAX, and every movie needs those "trailer moments" regardless of story or plot. But are are nine questions we wish film-makers would ask before destroying another city.
All images from Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Do we spend any time there, as a place, before we see it reduced to rubble? Do we get any sense of it as an actual location, rather than just a collection of CG buildings? Was there any location filming in whatever Canadian city you're using to stand in for it? Also: do any of your characters live in this city, or have connections to it, that make it more of a place and less of a playset?
Like, is there a McGuffin in the city that people have to wreak destruction to get to? Does the city have particular strategic value in the overall war being fought in the movie? Does somebody have their headquarters in this city?
Do we see them making an effort to protect the city, and failing? What does that failure cost them, as heroes? Or actually, a story in which the heroes consciously make a decision to write off a particular city, with millions of people, as a "firebreak" against an otherwise unstoppable threat, would be interesting. If we actually see them wrestling with that awful decision. Which brings us to...
Either the hero, or the villain, or just somebody. Do we ever see anybody on screen say, "I'm going to destroy this city," or "We can't save that city." Good storytelling is often about the choices people make, not just things that happen at random — although seeing people react to things that just happen out of nowhere is also compelling. Which brings us to...
All of the CG effects in the universe are nothing compared to one or two good actors, feeling the weight of loss and destruction. And if the main characters in this movie can stand next to the site of mass murder (or at least the destruction of millions of people's homes) without showing any emotional reaction, then it feels less real to the audience. $10 million in animation is worth less than one really good reaction shot that conveys the scope of the horror, on the human scale.
Just a shot or two of people being evacuated before everything is crushed — Cloverfield did this pretty well, and Pacific Rim went out of its way to show quasi-bomb shelters. That's one way of dealing with the "mass death" issue, by taking it off the table.
The other way is to show people dying, and actually let us see bodies amidst the rubble. In retrospect, Zack Snyder's Watchmen movie has a lot to answer for — the graphic novel includes lots of images of dead bodies littering New York as a result of Ozymandias' plan, but Snyder and screenwriter David Hayter made a conscious decision to show no carnage whatsoever — because they thought showing dead bodies would be too much, after 9/11. (Even though the wholesale destruction of New York in so many movies is clearly intended to recall our memories of 9/11.)
There's a meme going around that movies (and some television shows) have gotten addicted to stakes that are too high. It's always about saving the world, when sometimes a story about saving a single person or a single small town can be more meaningful. But honestly, there's nothing wrong with saving the world — it's what superheroes and space opera heroes do, after all. Everybody loves a story with high stakes, because it's part of the joy of escapism. The trick is to earn those stakes, by showing us enough people being affected, in enough ways, by whatever is going on. And by explaining why these events are important, in a clear, jargon-free way. And finally...
That's the best reason to show a whole city being crushed to rubble: because it allows us to see people rising to the occasion. Not only because we can see people caring for each other, digging through the rubble for survivors, and protecting civilians — but also because for something so terrible, there has to be an equally inspiring response to counterbalance it. (Unless you're Lars von Trier and you're just trying to depress everybody, in which case never mind.) Sure, we love to see massive obliteration because it gives us the wish-fulfillment of seeing the Man brought down and not having to go to work in the morning and so on — but we also crave the wish-fulfillment of seeing larger-than-life heroics. Maybe this should be a rule of thumb, at least in Big Hero stories: If you show us a huge awful spectacle, try to balance it out with an equally huge spectacle that gives us reasons to hope. Otherwise, what are all these Big Hero stories really for?