Big movies love to end San Francisco. In 2013, Star Trek Into Darkness crashed a spaceship into the City by the Bay. That same year, Pacific Rim began with a giant monster attacking the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a brief preview of coming events: In 2014, Godzilla traveled very slowly across the Pacific Rim towards a skyscraper-crushing climax in SF. That year also brought Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which post-apocalypsed San Francisco into a peculiarly Northern Californian ruinscape: No public transportation, shoddy infrastructure, but oh, just look at the flourishing plant life!
All of that was mere prelude to this summer’s San Francisco films. Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino drove a boat under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Andreas—right before a tsunami wave crashed back onto and through that bridge. In Terminator Genisys, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his meatbag accomplices drive down that same bridge, flipping a school bus and dangling off the side. The Golden Gate Bridge is the most obvious (and tourist-friendly) signifier of San Francisco-ness. It’s the establishing shot for Ant-Man, as Michael Peña drives Paul Rudd back home from prison. It’s the establishing shot for Inside Out, as Riley’s parents drive her toward her confusing new life. It’s on the poster for Pixels, standing strong while its city gets devoured whole.
Maybe San Francisco is just easy, if you’re a filmmaker in the mood for destruction. It’s just distinctive enough that you can have a bit of fun with particularity. (Watch that giant wave destroy Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid!) It offers vast opportunities for action scenes: Boats under bridges, helicopters over bridges, apes climbing skyscrapers, those hills, those hills! When Ant-Man becomes Ant-Man in Ant-Man, he lands inside a trolley car. Of course he does! Trolley cars, amiright?
None of these movies really care about San Francisco, outside of some postcard tropes. Some of them don’t even bother filming there: It’s easy enough to digitally insert a few key identifiers into the background of a studio set, or New Orleans, or Queensland, or whatever Canadian city is the cheapest. Then again, some of the best films set in San Francisco prefer to imagine the city as an aesthetic. Hitchcock loved the look of it: The crushed-time-space continuum of mismatched architecture along hillsides surrounded by natural-world wild wonder.
So Vertigo is the most sustained tribute to San Francisco as a psychological experiment. That’s true of The Conversation, too, and David Fincher’s great The Game and greater Zodiac. The Bay Area is generally considered a lovely and pleasant place — maybe too cloudy, and lately very expensive. But onscreen, filmmakers used to groove onto the strangeness. There was the idea of Alcatraz, the oddly beautiful island prison: John Boorman bookended his dreamy Point Blank with scenes shot on Alcatraz just a few years after it stopped being a prison and started disappointing tourists.
Hollywood never really had time for the San Francisco branch of the counterculture movement — unless you count Dirty Harry, which hyperbolized the Zodiac killings into Cowboy Meets Hippie Wackjob, or Basic Instinct, which recontextualized the sexual revolution into Straight White Guy Meets Bisexual Nympho Wackjob. Sometimes, the city just needs to be cool-looking place to stage a cop showdown. See: Bullitt, that scene, those hills, those hills! If you’re someone who actually lives in the city and cares about the history, then you probably appreciated Milk, which mixed inspirational histori-myth with thoughtful inquisition: It’s the first film to portray homosexuality as political capital. And whether you think it traffics in stereotypes or subverts them, you have to admire how Big Trouble in Little China treats Chinatown as a metropolis inside a metropolis: a subculture bigger than the monoculture that tends to ignore it.
The latest run of San Francisco movies is pretty much white across the board. (Credit or decry Ant-Man for the Hispanic Sidekick/Black Sidekick/Russian Sidekick hat trick.) This is disappointing, but it might also be the point. There’s a faint idea that runs across all of these blockbuster visions of San Francisco. Onscreen, SF is technocratic, even aristocratic, a city of money and power — a place where at least a few people deserve what’s coming to them.
In San Andreas, the “bad guy” is nature. But the movie’s villainous figure is Ioan Gruffudd, an uber-rich real estate developer finishing construction on the tallest building in San Francisco. All Tower of Babel symbolism is purposeful: Gruffudd’s character will be relentlessly punished by the San Andreas fault. (His ultimate fate: Crushed to death … on the Golden Gate Bridge.) My brother recently moved to San Francisco — we grew up 40 miles south — and he thinks all the destruction goes back to cultural schaudenfreude. All the money is moving to SF: Maybe these movies are a socio-political corrective, a thrilling correction against gentrification. (Take that, new rich!)
Or maybe San Francisco is just our new favorite setting for Science Run Amok fairy tales. In Terminator Genisys, the bad guy is explicitly coded as a Silicon Valley megatech company: “Genisys” is a Facebook-iCloud-Google-Whatever hybrid operating system, created by a company prone to press conferences on its tony campus by the bay. Ant-Man‘s variation on this idea is less topical: Bad bald guy Darren Cross has his own techno-chic headquarters, where he conducts military-technology experiments on animals. (In Ant-Man, the Bad Guy headquarters is located on Treasure Island — a uniquely Californian place that has been a film location more than an actual location.) Weirdly, that’s also the foundational plot of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where James Franco works for a biotech company — called Gen-Sys! — that experiments Alzheimer’s cures on primates.
In all of these movies, the Big Technology Company is also a Bad Technology Company, reaping Frankenstein’s Monster destruction out of well-intentioned scientific leaps forward. None of these movies really get Silicon Valley, but they get the idea of Silicon Valley. Maybe this is Hollywood paranoia: The former masters of media looking north toward the digital future. Even the representatives of that digital future seem a bit skeptical. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 mashes San Francisco with San Jose into the faintly utopian San Franjose. (It’s basically “The Bay Area Minus Oakland.”) But even Cloudy 2 satirizes Silicon Valley life: The movie introduces a techno-visionary Steve Jobs surrogate and transforms him into a nefarious industrial opportunist who focuses entirely on financial success at the expense of human decency. (“Just like Steve Jobs!” says everyone who hates Steve Jobs.)
These films are too safe, too white, too straight, shorn of any specificity. Beloved Bay Area titan Pixar imagines its Inside Out family moving to San Francisco after Dad gets a new, vaguely tech-sounding job. San Francisco onscreen is the Scary City: Small house, no front yard, so very different from bucolic Minnesota. (For anyone who has ever lived in San Francisco, that house looks like a mansion — and you can bet that any Pixar employee knows how much a place costs.)
Leave the cultural particulars to television, I guess: The dearly departed Looking and the bananas Sense8 are the modern standardbearers for SF’s LGBT legacy. On the big screen, San Francisco is a place filled with cool buildings to demolish. That’s a legacy dating back to 1955’s It Came from Beneath the Sea. Or maybe it dates back further: 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake, one of the worst and thus intensely cinematic natural disasters in American history. Nature has always been a terror for San Francisco.
But in this latest run of films, that terror is tempered with a weird, somewhat cynical optimism. Maybe nature should reassert itself. Maybe technology really has gone too far. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, morally-ambiguous-but-mostly-just-kinda-evil antagonist Gary Oldman wants to bring electricity back to San Francisco. He’s willing to whatever it takes: Weaponize his society into an army, destroy the back-to-nature primatopia up north. And what does Gary Oldman do, when the power comes back on? Immediately turn on his iPad.