Cinematic depictions of the future of Los Angeles come in two categories: total, immediate destruction or sun-damaged ennui. It’s either a paradise crushed by extraterrestrial villains and greedy overlords — or it was always a false utopia in the first place. In both instances, the land is barren and dreams die. Take Blade Runner (1982), where corporate tyrants callously toy with lives.
Watch Her (2013), where the promise of love alienates a man from the very people supposed to provide such comfort. Instead of a twinkling silver screen career, you’re more likely to be embalmed in a miserable, defeated hellscape. Wanton greed or unrealized promises foreshadow your eventual disillusionment. Pick your poison.
Ironically, Hollywood creates these images of our imminent ruin, which if they actually occurred, would swiftly decimate the economic and artistic prospects of every filmmaker and development executive. It often makes for good films, but the images are underscored by key moral and intellectual failings. This is the caricature of Hollywood, rather than serious interrogations of the civic and racial inequalities and environmental disasters that have actually befallen Los Angeles over the last two centuries (and will only worsen without radical change).
We get a cynical portrait of greedy civilians and wayward souls, rather than a genuine critique of the way Los Angeles continually fails its citizens. It raises the question: Why is Los Angeles such an enticing place to destroy? Why not the opiate-haunted Appalachian regions or poisoned Flint? Why not New Orleans, a city that was practically wiped out only a decade and a half ago? People love to hate Los Angeles because of the way it’s portrayed when it’s not getting obliterated. It’s ostensibly an oasis for out-of-touch liberals and Instagram influencers.
Lazy tropes of the city on fire do little to quell these stereotypes. We cheer for this kind of rampage. The future of Los Angeles that is portrayed on screen represents a lazily corporate approach towards destruction, opting for staid tropes instead of a fundamental and prescient engagement with the city’s genuine shortcomings.
In Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis writes, “the gleeful expendability of Los Angeles in the popular imagination is in no small part due to Hollywood, which, when not immolating itself, promotes its environs as the heart of darkness.”
Part of the problem is big-budget Hollywood itself, an entity that revels and feeds on the myths of its Babylonian depravity. It’s certainly exaggerated, but all press is good press.
Hollywood has always been obsessed with its own cultural impact, and what better way to showcase that than by revealing the devastating loss that comes with cataclysmic, universe-altering disaster? It’s no wonder that Roland Emmerich focuses his camera on Los Angeles during the global climate disaster scenes in The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Sure, the globe faces existential terrors, but a tornado in Los Angeles? That’s doom.
Even films that satirize the film industry like 2013’s This is the End use the sprawling ranch-mansions of Hollywood Hills to slowly pick off celebrities a little too satisfied with their own success. It’s impossible to forget Michael Cera, moments removed from giving Rihanna’s ass a slap, impaled by a street light and lifted 30-feet in the air — but a bit too high on cocaine to care. It’s less future-centric than apocalyptic, but in mainstream cinema, the two genres share common signifiers.
In Independence Day, the invasion in New York is shown as desperate and tragic, while in L.A. the arrival is greeted with laughs. Los Angeles is the ultimate stereotype that plays into right-wing slander about it being a godless hedonistic bubble, and as such, seeing it destroys eliminates a culture of free-loving hippies, new age wackos, and safe havens for immigrants. It is Sodom and Gomorrah for Fox News casualties.
The on-screen destruction of outsiders or ‘the other’ is lazily disguised hatred. As we’ve learned from 2016 and the term “economic anxiety,” racial anxiety is scarcely concealed racism. Wiping out anything we deem “other” is a move towards bigoted comfort and a reassurance of a status quo that hasn’t been a status quo in a half-century. Even Los Angeles films that don’t explicitly expel immigrants are reacting to these sentiments.
Todd Haynes’s spectacular 1995 film, Safe, serves as a meditation on the AIDS crisis. Julianne Moore’s character contracts an unexplainable illness and is eventually banished to a futuristic desert rehab facility where she can be isolated from contaminants. The film isn’t as much a future representation of Los Angeles as it is suggestive of what the future may become, who may be allowed to participate in it, and who will be cast aside. In this way, it’s complicit in undermining traditional Hollywood narratives towards minority figures — whether they’re people of color, homosexuals, or victims of an unexplainable ailment.
In traditional storytelling, the invasion of outsiders is thwarted by shining white faces and a sidekick of a darker hue ― someone that resembles the enemy in slightly less aggressive ways. In classic Hollywood cinema, the hero is white, or Will Smith.
Take 1971’s The Omega Man and I Am Legend (2007), which are both based on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, I Am Legend.
Perhaps it’s merely a coincidence, but the Will Smith-led film takes place in New York City, while Charlton Heston stars as Robert Neville in the ‘70s iteration. The film finds Neville barricading himself in an apartment as nocturnal albino mutants overtake Los Angeles. Nearly burnt alive at Dodger Stadium after these invaders find him guilty of heresy, Neville creates a serum to extend immunity to others, but refuses to give it to the mutants that he deems them less than human. Eventually he dies in a fountain, but not before handing off his serum to another survivor. It’s a convoluted and intellectually rigorous examination of what makes us human and how the future will be plagued by invaders both alien and familiar.
In Blade Runner, legendary director Ridley Scott takes this narrative even further, masking the enemy in the same clothes as our heroes. Replicants look like humans and are better versions of ourselves than we are. Perhaps this gets to the crux of the matter. The threat of the outsider is less an invasion of a traditional way of life than an opportunity to practice empathy and human decency. It’s only in our nature to be decent when it benefits us. Scott’s Los Angeles is more representative of Tokyo than anywhere in California, adding another layer to a foreign landscape in which residents feel lost and become outcasts. It’s neo-noir, playing into the black and white dialectic at the heart of the genre. Landscapes change with jarring frequency and home is never quite established.
The genre casts Los Angeles as promise and deceit, sunshine and darkness. Noir is often inaccessible in the future because most Hollywood fare is blunted to the point of redundancy. The genre is too multifaceted to be utilized by clumsy hands. It’s only a visionary filmmaker like Ridley Scott who can use the contours of film noir to hint at an originally conceived future.
As cinema has grown to increasingly include the voices of minorities, stereotypical depictions of Los Angeles (both future and present) made by the traditional hierarchy (see: straight, white, and male) have become all the lazier by comparison. We’re currently living through an actual apocalypse, so films like 2015’s San Andreas (The Rock rescues his estranged wife and daughter from a once-in-a-generation earthquake) and 2009’s 2012 (world leaders build a secret society for elites to survive the apocalypse) serve less as distractions than alternative solutions to our destruction.
The movies offer an escape from banality and the predictable. With a city as unendingly varied as Los Angeles, achieving this should be easy. But when anyone or anything different is immediately deemed an enemy, a plot line of eradication remains the norm.
The future calls for empathy and a deeply-thought critique of the way this city has betrayed its citizenry. Bombs and fires are fun to watch, but total destruction equates a loss of hope; films can provide so much more.