The end of the world as we know it is marked by a number of familiar tropes. When surveying an endless wasteland, one often encounters the same remnants of our once-thriving civilization. Certain types of structures always seem to endure the cataclysm and sometimes even serve as refuge for the last pockets of humanity. We also typically catch glimpses of the ruins of iconic landmarks both foreign and domestic. Such staples are certainly alive and well in Joseph Kosinski’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi actioner Oblivion.
But is it realistic? Which buildings, installations, and monuments, if any, had the best change of actually weathering Armageddon?
John Blood, Senior Lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture and an a previous collaborator of Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford, burst the bubble. Picture the grand old libraries that always seem to survive the nuclear fallout or world-ending natural event relatively unscathed. Is there something about these old book depositories that make them ideal havens?
“From a purely physical point of view, they aren’t that much different from other buildings,” he says. “Maybe they are designed a bit more stoutly; books are heavy so there’s a little bit more robust structure to them. However the forces of the disaster will do the same thing to libraries as they would to any other structure.”
Architect Mark Reynolds emphasized that proximity to nuclear strikes must be accounted for. “In the small towns situated tens of miles away from major metropolitan areas, there would likely be minimal property destruction and we would still find city halls, libraries, schools, etc.,” he notes. Reynolds further argued that thematic effect trumps accuracy in this regard.
“In my opinion, the reason they use nice old libraries in these movies is they are trying to contrast our high level of accomplishment and civilization against our advanced ability to destroy these accomplishments.”
In Oblivion, we see the charred, but very much still standing remains of the arena in which the last Super Bowl was played. Were these temples to athletic glory built to last? Blood cries foul, stating, “If anything, they’re just more exposed to the elements.”
Another remnant of the past Oblivion that Blood believes would remain are our bridges. It’s common in post-apocalyptic cinema to see the towers of great suspension bridges protruding out of the scorched Earth, or sometimes the sea. Once again, these function as signposts for humanity’s long-obliterated dominance of the planet. Blood suggests the likelihood of bridges surviving nuclear fallout in some form isn’t that outlandish.
“Certain bridges are meant to be simultaneously light and graceful and symbolic, and last a good long while, but they’re made out of steel and stone just like anything else.”
Suddenly, Blood pulls up a poster for Oblivion that features Tom Cruise standing before the remains of what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge. He immediately spots an architectural inaccuracy.
“I can’t look at this thing without thinking it looks wrong,” he says. Blood points out the various cables, big and small, and the way that they’re positioned. The massive cable stands out. “It’s called a catenary, you just hold a string at two ends and that’s the shape a cable makes. But that cable is not going downward. In other words, those cables should all be sloping to the right. They should go down to the center of the Earth instead of back to how they were when it was an upright bridge. It’s just wrong. So we don’t have gravity in the future? The gravity on the cables is based on when the bridge was upright, they did not correct it for when they tilted it.”
Finally we came to the subject of those obligatory fallen landmarks. By this point, Blood’s curiosity was piqued. As we discussed the structural durability of national monuments, he was watching an Oblivion trailer.
“If anything they’d be more fragile,” he says. “The Statue of Liberty keeps cropping up everywhere, doesn’t it? It’s in Planet of the Apes, and one of the asteroids just happened to hit it in Armageddon. But yeah, they would be more fragile. There’s a thin layer of copper [in the Statue of Liberty] that is about the thickness of a penny. That thing particularly would not last.”
Blood then came to a particular scene in the trailer that had him totally puzzled, and one that further casts doubt on the staying power of national monuments post-annihilation. After the cataclysmic events prior to the action of the film, the Washington Monument and The Capitol remain.
“That’s just silly,” Blood says. “What happened to the rest of the city of Washington D.C.? There is nothing stouter about those two landmarks than any other structure in that town.”
Reynolds also stresses the dubious nature of these landmarks withstanding the apocalypse. He points out that “reinforced concrete buildings can withstand the blast in the peripheral areas, but most of our major buildings, stadiums, and monuments are concentrated at the ‘bulls eye’ and therefore, most buildings would be destroyed.”
Oblivion production designer Darren Gilford says any inaccuracy is done for the sake of the audience. Watching Tom Cruise run past a unrecognizable skyscraper simply wouldn’t be interesting.
“I think you've got to play to the cinematic icons,” Gilford says. “I think if it was a generic building that could have been anywhere, I don't think it would have been as impactful.” He says the existence of Independence Day and Planet of the Apes are proof. There's something that resonates with an audience when they can see an iconic piece of architecture that they relate to that's obviously been put in a situation that's alien to their typical expectations or memories.”
So where would our architects of destruction seek shelter in the event of doom and calamity? Their congruent responses should sum up the faith we should all place in any building withstanding any sort of apocalypse.
“Underground. Unless it was a flood or tsunami, but if it’s anything that has any kind of dynamic action going on, I would prefer to be in a hole underground,” Blood confesses. Reynolds adds, “Underground or earth covered structures are the best shelters in the event of an apocalypse, however, if 23,000 nukes were set off, the air, water, and food sources would be irradiated and very few people would survive.”
Additional Reporting by Matt Patches