Hoover Dam in Hollywood

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Hoover Dam is an iconic structure, likely the most easily-recognized dam in the world. It should be no surprise, then, that this dam has been featured many times in Hollywood films (see list below). What might be a surprise, however, is that the majority of these cinematic portrayals show Hoover Dam breaking, cracking, or experiencing some type of malfunction.

Hoover Dam in 2016. Photo by author

As this list indicates, post-1945 cinematic representations of Hoover Dam are spread across genres, chiefly action-adventure and science-fiction films, but also romantic and slapstick comedies. There are pragmatic reasons for portraying Hoover on screen: it is an easily recognizable structure; it serves as a shorthand for the Southwest, Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas area; its eye-catching setting allows for special effects and cinematographic excess (e.g., aerial fly overs). 

But Hoover Dam is also employed because it connotes power – of several kinds. And a failing Hoover Dam, in turn, has implications for understandings of that power. In a forthcoming book chapter I examine filmic representations of Hoover Dam since 1945. There, I argue that the Hollywood portrayal of Hoover Dam projects conflicted views about energy, technology, and the United States itself by focusing on three big-budget blockbusters: SupermanTransformers, and San Andreas.[i]  In this post, I will touch on those three movies. But I also want to use this opportunity to delve into some other films that I couldn’t get into for that chapter. 

I’m going to consider the movies in chronological order. Between 1945 and the late 1970s, there was only one Hoover Dam portrayal: 1957’s black-and-white The Amazing Colossal Man. During a plutonium bomb test in Nevada, US Army Lt. Colonel Glenn Manning is exposed to the detonation. Consequently, he begins growing. The colossal man, now over 50-feet tall, rampages around the Las Vegas strip and then heads for Hoover. There on the brink of the dam he is shot by bazookas and falls into the Colorado River.

Probably the most famous silver screen portrayal of Hoover Dam is the 1978 blockbuster Superman starring Christopher Reeve. A rogue rocket commandeered by villain Lex Luthor strikes the San Andreas fault. Luthor’s plan is to knock the California coastline into the ocean. The subsequent earthquake causes a crack to form in Hoover Dam while Clark Kent’s colleague Jimmy is still on top of it. Superman swoops to rescue Jimmy just before the dam collapses (filming this breach required an intricate scale model of the dam). The dam burst releases a huge swath of water pulsing down the gorge. Superman flies downstream and creates a rock slide to stop the deluge before it reaches a canyon community. Superman then reverses the earth’s rotation in order to make time go backwards so that he can save Loise Lane, who had perished after her car was crushed.

In the first decades of the Cold War, dams projected the strength, scientific ingenuity, and technological capabilities of capitalist North American society.[ii] However, by the time Superman was released, the era of big dam building in the US was over. Indeed, Americans had already been reconsidering the wisdom of remaking charismatic waterscapes for hydroelectricity; real dam failures were also on the public’s radar, as were the environmental movement and energy crises.

In both Lost in America (1985) and Universal Soldier (1992), Hoover Dam makes a quick cameo. In the former, a couple (played by Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty) get into a huge fight as they cross Hoover Dam. In Universal Soldier, terrorists are holding hostages in the dam, and the army sends in its “super soldiers” played by Dolph Lundgren and Jean-Claude Van Damme. These genetically-augmented cyborgs dramatically rappel down the face of the dam, and then enter its bowels, taking out the bad guys. 

Three comedies featuring Hoover Dam appeared in a two-year span from 1996 to 1997 (Beavis and Butthead Do America, Vegas Vacation, and Fools Rush In). The first two plumb the dam scenario for puns and laughs. But even in comedies that portray Hoover Dam cracking or breaking, the humor is only effective if the dam and the consequences of its potential destruction are recognizable tropes. 

In Vegas Vacation, bumbling everyman Clark Griswold gets separated from his family during a tour of Hoover Dam. Seeing a leak, he picks at rock walls in the bowels of the dam. This causes more leaks, which Clark tries to plug with gum. Soon after, he falls and swings onto the downstream face of the dam, where he clings precariously before climbing up. 

In Beavis and Butthead do America, an animated feature-length film based on the MTV television series, the slacker duo arrive at Hoover Dam. During a tour of the dam, Beavis and Butthead wander into an unoccupied control room since it has so many televisions, but are disappointed to find it only has programs about “water” on the screen. Pushing different buttons, they open the dam’s spillways, causing a flood downstream. 

Hoover Dam plays a stabilizing role, metaphorically speaking, in Fools Rush In. The first major leading-man role for Friends star Matthew Perry, his romantic foil is played by Salma Hayek’s Isabelle. Early in the movie, Isabelle she tosses a coin over the edge of the Hoover Dam in order to make a wish. Later on, Perry’s character (Alex) gazes wistfully at the edifice, seemingly for the first time, and says: “Wow, this is incredible.”  Isabelle tells him that her grandfather helped build the dam in the 1930s, and relays that she always makes a wish when crossing. 

Recrossing the dam overlook after visiting Isabelle’s family, Alex launches into a rom-com speech anchored by a line so bad it is almost good – “you are everything I never knew I always wanted” – and they decide to get married. After the title characters experience a major falling out, Alex flies back from New York to intercept Isabelle. Waiting in the pouring rain, he blocks her car as she drives across Hoover Dam and proclaims his love. She then goes into labor, and symbolically gives birth to a baby girl right then and there on the dam (interpret that however you’d like!). 

The two twenty-first century celluloid representations of Hoover Dam are both big-budget action-adventures. Transformers gives more screen time to Hoover Dam than any other movie. It also has the most to say about the meaning of Hoover Dam, particularly in the context of modern energy and technological anxiety. Essentially, Hoover Dam was built so that the US government could secretly study some of the eponymous alien robots, the Transformers, who had been discovered in the Arctic. Reverse-engineering from these advanced machines created the modern age: cars, space flights, microchips, lasers, etc.  Fast forward to the present, and the bad Transformers (the Decepticons) want to extract the earth’s resources, obliterating humanity in the process, and take over the universe. The Autobots are out to thwart them, and they clash in a battle royale at Hoover Dam.  

In 2015’s San Andreas, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the lead role, one of the side stories involves a brief disaster at Hoover Dam. Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes, played by the affable Paul Giamatti, heads to Hoover Dam to test his predictive earthquake theories after sensing a series of mini-quakes in the vicinity. A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hits, and the dam starts to rupture. Hayes’s colleague manages to escape the bowels of the dam and save a little girl in the process, but just before getting to safety he is washed away in the dam collapse. The action then moves primarily to the San Francisco and the Bay area.

As I hope this survey shows, Hollywood films offer conflicted portrayals of Hoover Dam. On the one hand, the dam symbolizes power and stability (Fools Rush In serving as obvious example). On the other hand, Hoover Dam is vulnerable and potentially dangerous. This latter portrayal is by far the most common, and the questions it raises can be extended to US energy systems more generally. For example, what does it say if the infrastructural epitome of American ingenuity, modernism, and power is fragile?  Even just the threat of Hoover Dam’s collapse invokes the inverse of technological accomplishment, controllable nature, energy abundance, and American ascendancy. 

[i] Daniel Macfarlane, “Hoover Dam in Hollywood: Energy Anxiety in SupermanTransformers, and San Andreas,” in American Energy Cinema, eds. Raechel Lutz, Robert Lifset, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre (West Virginia University Press, Energy and Society series, forthcoming).  

[ii] See also Max Haiven, “The Dammed of the Earth: Reading the Dam for the Flows of Globalization,” in Thinking with Water, eds. Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod, and Astrida Neimanis (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2013); Anthony Arrigo, Imaging Hoover Dam: The Making of a Cultural Icon (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2014); Donald C. Jackson, Pastoral and Monumental: Dams, Postcards, and the American Landscape (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013).

Looking down Hoover Dam. Photo by author.
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Daniel is an Associate Professor in the School of the Environment, Geography, and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is an editor for The Otter-La loutre and is part of the NiCHE executive. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters and energy issues, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author or co-editor of five books on topics such as the St. Lawrence Seaway, border waters, IJC, and Niagara Falls. His book "Natural Allies: Environment, Energy, and the History of US-Canada Relations" was published in summer 2023. His newest book, an environmental history of Lake Ontario, will be released in 2024. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__

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