No other building in New York City has been utilized more often in movies than the Empire State Building. No, not even the Statue of Liberty comes close, despite the iconic, torch-bearing lady being used much more ironically in cinema. It’s not common, though, to see the Empire State Building used in a post-apocalyptic movie such as “Oblivion”, despite so many other U.S. landmarks being depicted that way before.
What is it about New York City’s once tallest building that makes it used so often in films? If the answer lies in the building’s majesty, then it must mean it’s been used as a monument of hope in each film. In that regard, it may go by the adage that the farther up you are in the sky, the closer you are to heaven.
You could say that in its very first use on the big screen: The final quarter of 1933’s “King Kong.” If Kong was the allegorical beast for the Great Depression, having him being shot and falling off the Empire State Building was the symbol of conquering the monster that everyone knew was fear itself. Once the Depression ended, the building basked in a recurring glory as a bastion of romance through couples mingling or meeting on the observation deck.
When it came time to use it as a product of nightmares, it was done as the ultimate symbolic gesture of America being shot through the heart. While it wasn’t explicitly shown being destroyed in 1964’s nuclear drama “Fail Safe”, we did see it blown to smithereens in 1996’s “Independence Day” and a few similar films. Strangely, we’ve never seen a nightmare happen in the internal part of the building, such as being stuck in its time-consuming elevator.
After another renaissance as a cinematic romantic beacon through the 1990s eyes of Nora Ephron, the building now features prominently in the sci-fi film “Oblivion.” This time, it manages to stand as a surviving monument to America after our destruction at an earlier date. But seeing the structure in the future has been done before if you go by one sci-fi movie made over a decade ago.
Those who saw the remake of “The Time Machine” in 2002 remember seeing the Empire State Building standing tall from afar in a pre-apocalyptic year of 2037. Although “Oblivion” has us believing that the building withstands much more time and decay into the year 2077. It’s also the first time we see characters interacting directly on the building from a future time period.
“Oblivion” manages to give a twist to all of that by briefly showing us the past and giving us a moment that could easily be taken out of a Nora Ephron movie. While that won’t be given away, nobody would have thought a new sci-fi movie would give the Empire State Building its greatest tribute. If “Oblivion” becomes a classic, the use of the building in the film may endure as long as the Statue of Liberty scene has at the end of “Planet of the Apes.”
Someday, we may witness a movie depicting the Empire State Building surviving into a much more futuristic situation. That is, unless size really does matter and we see the Burj Khalifa building sticking out of the sand in a future land once called Dubai, UAE.