1. Burj Khalifa (built in 2010), Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011)
Big, ambitious buildings have a way of capturing the world’s attention, especially in Hollywood, where a cool new one can provide the perfect backdrop for a movie—giving the film a timely hook and the building a profile boost, especially if the building is only a few years old. The Mission: Impossible films rely on exotic destinations, perhaps none more so than Ghost Protocol, which shifts from Budapest to Moscow to Dubai to Mumbai to, um, Seattle. The third leg of that journey is basically just an excuse to shoot at the Burj Khalifa, the 2,716-foot skyscraper that currently reigns as the world’s tallest building. It was only a matter of time before Hollywood decamped to Dubai to shoot the building, but Brad Bird’s film was faster than most. The Burj was less than a year old when Bird shot the film’s most memorable setpiece there: Tom Cruise climbing the building’s exterior from a vertigo-inducing height (especially in IMAX) more than 100 stories up. A fair amount of the hotel’s interior gets screen time as well, as a busted meeting leads to a chase out of the Burj and through Dubai in a dust storm. But the tower sequence is likely what people will remember most about Ghost Protocol.
2. Petronas Towers (1996), Entrapment (1999)
Years before Tom Cruise’s daring stunts on the Burj Khalifa, another blockbuster tried the trick of filming its big setpiece in the brand new tallest building in the world. (The towers have since taken the lesser title of “tallest twin structures in the world.”) Master thief Sean Connery and investigator Catherine Zeta-Jones have a tense moment hanging off the sky bridge linking Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers—574 feet above the ground—as the clock counts down on millennium eve. Viewers may have trouble remembering that scene, though, because Entrapment is best known for another one where the camera zoomed in on Zeta-Jones’ ass as she navigated laser fields.
3. Millennium Dome (2000), The World Is Not Enough (1999)
Another white elephant of the year 2000, the Millennium Dome (now known as the 02 Arena) is a colossal white tent erected in southeast London to serve as “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity,” according to then Prime Minister Tony Blair. But by The World Is Not Enough’s November 1999 release date, before the dome had even opened, it was clear the project would not live up to expectations. (Until the Iraq War trumped it, the dome was considered one of the chief fiascos of Blair’s tenure.) It mostly serves as a backdrop for James Bond’s daring motorboat-vs.-hot-air-balloon pre-credits chase scene, until the super-spy lands on the dome with a sickening crack at the end of the chase.
4-5. Empire State Building (1931), World Trade Center (1973), King Kong (1933/1976)
By the time the Empire State Building opened in 1931, Merian C. Cooper, the co-director of the original 1933 King Kong, had already visualized the film’s climax, in which biplanes shoot down the tragic oversized ape as he clings to the skyscraper. The site itself had already been home to the famous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and the new skyscraper would be the world’s tallest building. Two other Manhattan structures built around the same time—the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street—briefly held the title before the Empire State Building opened. By 1976, its record had been taken by the newly erected World Trade Center; accordingly, showboating producer Dino de Laurentiis set the climax of his remake there. (Unamused, the Empire State Building’s employees picketed the shoot dressed in monkey suits.) In keeping with de Laurentiis’ usual commitment to bigger-is-better thinking, Kong’s death in the original—unaccompanied by music, with only the harsh sound of buzzing planes and gunfire, plus the occasional scream from Fay Wray—becomes a nighttime orgy of killing, complete with blood squibs erupting from Kong’s body as John Barry’s score blares. For the 2005 remake, Peter Jackson returned to the Empire State Building in the same spirit of nostalgia as the rest of his lavish, art deco-centric recreation of 1930s Manhattan, but the death of Kong hewed closer to the pathos of Edward Scissorhands—outcast torn away from the girlfriend he won over—than the original’s pared-down ferocity.
6. The Houston Astrodome (1965), Brewster McCloud (1970)
The first fully domed stadium in the United States, Houston’s “Astrodome” was considered a marvel of modern design when it opened in 1965, from its artificial grass (quickly branded as “AstroTurf”) to its enormous animated scoreboard. By the time Robert Altman made his bizarre 1970 comedy Brewster McCloud—from a screenplay by Doran William Cannon, author of the equally off Skidoo—the Astrodome had become the place in America to hold a major event, which made the movie’s story of a bird-obsessed young man living in the arena feel all the more mythological, all the way up to its climactic sequence of the hero flapping his way up from the cheap seats to the rafters. In an ironic footnote, the Astrodome may have doomed Brewster’s prospects—and Altman’s. The movie had a big, disastrous première inside the facility, where the cavernous space swallowed the sound, making Altman’s overlapping dialogue hard to hear and convincing critics and backers alike that Brewster McCloud was a dud. After M*A*S*H’s unexpected success, Brewster’s failure turned Altman into a fringe figure in Hollywood, which he remained for much of the rest of his career.
7. Smurfit-Stone Building (1984), Adventures In Babysitting (1987)
Chicago’s diamond-faced skyscraper, the Smurfit-Stone Building (now known as 150 N. Michigan Ave., after the Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation moved) is one of the most recognizable features of the city’s skyline, and in the ’80s, it provided a chic yet exciting location for a daring rescue. Although much of Adventures In Babysitting was shot in Toronto, the film’s climax happens at 150 N. Michigan, when Elisabeth Shue’s babysitting charge, Maia Brewton, tenuously clings to the building’s exterior after being chased there by bad guys. Brewton attempts to escape by sliding down the diagonal face of the 41-story skyscraper, but ends up in danger of being spotted by her parents, who are attending a black-tie function in a the sophisticated new building. 150 N. Michigan reappeared in film in 2011 via Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, as one of the many buildings in downtown Chicago laid to waste by battling robots.
8. 30 St. Mary Axe/“The Gherkin” (2004), Match Point (2005)
Previous centuries had cathedrals and palaces; ours has office buildings, corporate spaces that for the most part take the place of less spectacular public monuments. But in a heartening act of public reclamation, London’s residents decided long before the completion of the oblong skyscraper located at 30 St. Mary Axe that they’d be calling it by something other than the name of its principal tenant, insurance giant Swiss Re—which turned out to be fortunate, because the building was sold off in 2007. “The gherkin,” the most polite of many nicknames for the tower, has become an indelible symbol of the new London, a European financial capital rather than the seat of a dead empire, and an irresistible destination for filmmakers. The first of many was Woody Allen, who gobbled up the city’s sights like an eager tourist in 2005’s Match Point. The glass-and-steel phallus that towers over tennis pro Jonathan Rhys Meyers as he takes a job from wealthy patron Brian Cox mirrors the imposing awe of the new world he’s entering—and the royal buggering that awaits him.
9. The Space Needle (1962), It Happened At The World’s Fair (1963)
During the brief window of time when people both went to Elvis movies and gave a thin damn about World’s Fairs, Presley starred in It Happened At The World’s Fair as a pilot-for-hire who agrees to escort a little girl around Seattle’s “Century 21 Exposition.” The symbol for the Seattle fair was the Space Needle, which at the time was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi, and an example of the sleek, futuristic design the Century 21 Expo was meant to herald. So naturally, It Happened At The World’s Fair prominently features the Needle, both in the background of shots and in a scene where Presley takes his love interest Joan O’Brien on a date in the tower’s famous revolving restaurant, to admire the view of Mount Ranier and talk about the fair’s wonderful exhibits. It all would’ve made a great commercial for the Seattle Expo, if the fair hadn’t closed before the movie opened.
10. Trump International Hotel & Tower (2009), The Dark Knight (2008)
Although set in the fictional Gotham City, The Dark Knight was the first Batman film that made little effort to conceal its real-life location, Chicago, with many iconic landmarks clearly visible in skyline shots. But a building still under construction—Trump International Hotel & Tower—figured most heavily in the film, in the climactic fight between Batman and the Joker. Main construction on the 1,389-foot tower wasn’t completed until late 2008, months after the film hit theaters, but Nolan used it for exterior shots of the harrowing scenes where Batman fights the SWAT team and eventually confronts the Joker himself. (Nolan intercut them with others shot in a nearby building and on a soundstage.) More recently, the tower’s fancy Sixteen restaurant was transformed into a super-luxurious apartment for Patrick Dempsey’s villain in Transformers: Dark Of The Moon.
11. Bellagio Hotel Las Vegas (1998), Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Constructed three years prior to the release of Steven Soderbergh’s reboot of the Rat Pack film, the Bellagio gets a ton of screen time in Ocean’s Eleven, though much of it took place on sets that reconstructed the casino. (Casinos aren’t very accommodating to cameras.) On the night of a big fight, George Clooney leads a team of thieves to rob the casino—which just happens to be run by Andy Garcia, the man sleeping with Clooney’s ex-wife, Julia Roberts. The Bellagio was new and extravagant at the time, which added to the stakes of the film, and the iconic closing scene in front of the hotel’s famous fountains has earned the Bellagio a spot in cinema history.
12. Fox Plaza (1987), Die Hard (1988)
The 35-story Fox Plaza tops out at 492 feet and is, in its own way, almost as much of a Los Angeles landmark as the Capitol Records building. Various aspects of the building’s structure have popped up in everything from Tommy Boy to Fight Club, but its motion-picture debut—playing the part of the fictional Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard—remains its greatest cinematic achievement to date. “The Fox Plaza will forever be the Die Hard building,” says production designer Jackson De Govia in a commentary track for the film, and few would argue the point. Although several key scenes of the film were shot while the building was still under construction, the exterior of the building ultimately makes the most impact. (A miniature model was used for the big explosions.) Sadly, there’s no chalk outline to mark the approximate spot where Hans Gruber went splat, but moviegoers’ memories are more than enough to make the Fox Plaza a perpetual highlight of the L.A. skyline.
13. James R. Thompson Center (1985), Running Scared (1986)
Government buildings are rarely known for their flashy design, but Chicago’s postmodern Thompson Center looks like a government building inspired by Blade Runner. The interior is one enormous 16-story atrium partially ringed by a 160-foot rotunda of office space—basically, it’s a giant, empty set, affording Running Scared director Peter Hyams ample room for the aerial stunts, gunfire, and tossing of bags of cocaine from great heights that make up the climax of his action-comedy. Gregory Hines dangles precariously from a window-washer’s saddle, shooting out windows and swinging in the air, while Billy Crystal pursues drug dealer Jimmy Smits (who’s holding Crystal’s ex-wife hostage) around the building and up the interior-facing elevators. Who knew the same building that houses the DMV leads such an exciting life at night?