Movie Review: Architecture & Action Movies

January 8, 2013

In a sense, many action movies are “about” architecture or engage directly with buildings; think of Ethan Hunt scaling skyscrapers and crawling through ducts in all the Mission: Impossible movies, or car chases through city centers and urban parcours in the Bourne movies. Some other obvious ones are Blade Runner, known for its futuristic nighttime cityscapes that launched a thousand architectural dreams, and, apparently, Die Hard, as described eloquently in BLDGBLOG. (Also thanks to Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG for inspiring this entire line of thought.) Here are a few more action + architecture movies I’ve seen recently that I think are of particular interest.

The Towering Inferno (1974): architect as hero, building systems as dangerous adversaries or heroic resources (but ultimately the architect is instructed, at the end of the film, to subordinate himself to the firefighter, who apparently knows best about how tall to make buildings)

Earthquake (1974): engineer as hero, saving people by knowing where the utilities run on the edge of the site and where to create a strategic horizontal opening, all while advocating for more robust structural design

Escape from New York (1981): dystopian vision of then-contemporary urbanism, urban decay, architecture of the police state, megaprojects (if we don’t like it, put a giant wall around it!) - all shot in East St. Louis, Missouri. Faked “digital wireframe” sequences, using blacklight and tape on a real physical model.

Logan’s Run (1976): dystopian vision of the future, everyone lives in a mechanical bubble run by computers, while outside the “real” world (Washington, DC) lies in ruins, depopulated and awaiting humanity’s return. My favorite part of the movie was seeing the imagined ruined monuments of Washington.

All of these movies propose new ways to move through buildings, laterally and horizontally, diagonally… out windows and into air shafts. Maybe it’s already trite to talk about this (see Deleuze and Guattari, if you’re into that sort of thing), but I still think it’s interesting to see how buildings are used and abused in these types of films. Even movies like the recent Bond film Skyfall, or Home Alone and its sequels for that matter, show a different side to architecture: weaponizing the house. These movies fascinate me for the way in which the characters are shown to rethink completely the functions of the house and of everyday objects within it. There’s probably an architecture dissertation in there somewhere. For better or worse, now that I’ve started seeing movies this way, I’ve found that it’s difficult to stop. If you’ve seen any other films that use buildings in novel ways, please let me know!