Saturday, January 19, 2008

New York in peril

Lately I've been spending a lot of my recreation time watching New York get destroyed on film. I'm not sure how this came about, but each weekend seems to bring another scenario in which my city gets attacked, invaded, evacuated, abandoned, burned to a crisp. A few weeks ago I saw "I Am Legend," in which Will Smith is the last human on Manhattan, trying to find a cure to stop the agile, nocturnal zombies who have taken over the island. Last night I saw "Cloverfield," in which a bunch of insufferable twenty-somethings document, Blair Witch-style, the destruction of New York by an unexplained thirty-story tall reptilian monster (complete with skittering monstrous babies), with a little help from the US military.

"Legend" was a lot better than "Cloverfield." "Legend" seemed to take things more seriously, and it was interesting to watch Will navigate a Manhattan that nature had reclaimed. In fact, I enjoyed watching him hunt and forage for food and sustenance in the eerie city a lot more than the conventional zombie blood-fest that the movie ultimately became. "Cloverfield" was pretty bad. The characters were boring and obnoxious, and the camera work was a little too jittery. The monster was interesting, but things were never as scary or thrilling or tense as I hoped they could be. And in the absence of thrills, I was left to focus on the movie's greatest sin: its use and waste of 9/11 iconography.

Early in the movie, we saw a cloud of dust billowing through a narrow canyon of streets; this was followed by the images of people, coated in dust, wandering in a daze. I thought it was galling that the film dared us to recall 9/11, yet didn't ask us to think any further about its actual implications. None of the vapid characters of "Cloverfield" even muttered the word "terrorism" when the destruction began, whereas I think about it every time the lights flicker on the subway. And this gap -- the fact that we were supposed to enjoy this B-movie popcorn flick about the literal destruction of New York, while pretending (suspending our belief in reality) that 9/11 had not happened -- really bothered me.

There is something fun and delicious about imagining catastrophic ends to things. This is why I used to imagine huge fights between me and my friends, or to think of contingency plans for what I would do if I were abducted. The more bizarre the scenario, the better: giant alien monsters knocking down empty, people-less buildings? Translucent zombies sprinting past known landmarks and intersections? Sounds great. Yet the addition of the symbols and markers of 9/11 adds a depth, a realness, that spoils the fun and poisons the well. As fun as it may be for others to dwell in the fantastical depictions of a barren New York, I think I'm finished for a while. The end of New York would require the end of no small part of myself and the people and things that I love.

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