The Cities Science Fiction Built
When we look at the future city in SF film, we are really looking at our own city. We just don’t know it yet.
The opening credits disperse, revealing a city. What city? A future city. This is an SF film, and we may not yet know the rules of this speculative world—whether there are space colonies, or authoritarian governments, time travel, or amazing future weapons—but we are already getting a taste through the thick world-building of the urban setting. Through the smogged out skies and the burning rubbish bins, or conversely, the spotless flying cars and the gleaming spires of impossible structures, we learn what kind of fictional world into which we have been dropped.
But these fictional cues are not all ray gun fantasies. Much of our depiction of future cities is taken from our non-fictional world, from our real cities that we must live in on an everyday basis. It is in this world where our speculation comes home to roost. Our ideas for the future of the city are of course born in the present, and even the most fantastical exploration finds its kernel in the foundations of our established metropolises. When we look at the future city, we are really looking at our own city. We just don't know it yet.
Back in 1909, a group of Italian artists and poets called the Futurists decided that it was time to kick their society out of its nostalgic obsession with Italy's glorious past, and look towards the future. One of the group, an architect named Antonio Sant'Elia, published the Manifesto of Futurist Architecture in 1914. It reads, "just as the ancients drew inspiration for their art from the elements of nature, we—who are materially and spiritually artificial—must find that inspiration in the elements of the utterly new mechanical world we have created."
The Futurists advocated for an embrace of the aesthetic of future technology, such as the car and the airplane, always opting for the jarring, the novel, and the alienating bleeding edge of future technology, over the comforts of the familiar.
In the city of the future, trains would rocket across overhead rails, airplanes would dive from the sky to land on the roof, and skyscrapers would stretch their sinewed limbs into the heavens to feel the hot pulse of radio waves beating across the planet. This artistic, but unbridled enthusiasm was the last century's first expression of wholesale tech optimism.
As in the startup culture of today, this aesthetic of disruption was going to change the world. Sant'Elia and his associates attempted to futurize everything from train stations to chess sets, drawing their speculations about the future into their construction of the everyday present. Today, we fantasize about smart cities, automated vehicles and buildings, and screens on anything that is flat, and even some things that are not.
But Sant'Elia would never build any of his imagined structures. He died in the First World War, a conflict the Italian Futurists agitated for, because they thought the burst of bombs and the chatter of machine guns were merely poetry, and that their future-spirit was more immortal than their own bodies. The tall towers, spanning bridges, and exposed, magnificent ligature of steel and concrete conduits that Sant'Elia sketched remained fiction, while the cities of 20th Century Europe were destined to be futurized by aerial bombing campaigns, using the Norden bombsight as a surveying tool.
The lineage of SF took up the Futurist mantel of dreams cast into everyday objects. From the cityscapes of Metropolis to those of Blade Runner, we see the influence of Sant'Elia and the Italian Futurists in how we describe our desires in the clothes of reality. SF is a realm of wireframe proposals made vivid, where design meets the diegetic prototype of fiction. Sketched lines of both optimistic and pessimistic future scenarios are filled out into coherent narratives, in which writers and directors can play with cities, hopefully without leveling entire blocks.
But supplementing that aesthetic of "the future" sketched in imaginary edifice, the full SF vision of the future city is a mosaic, constructed from fragments of the cities that we recognize, including symbols that are decidedly from the past. The Statue of Liberty, for example, is a recurring character throughout SF film. One of its most memorable roles is in the 1968 film The Planet of the Apes. To both to the main protagonist and the audience, it is the clue that the fictional world is not an alien planet, but our current world, some thousands of years later. The monument also plays a similar role in disaster films such as Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, serving as the link between our current world and and a coming future in which that world is destroyed. In order to ground our fantasies, there must be brought in a fetish of reality.
A memorable symbol that coexists in both the fictional and the real world creates dimensional transfer. If SF functions by taking the world we know and altering it with a constructed future fantasy, the Statue of Liberty serves as the junction point, the axis where the speculative fantasy begins and ends.
In the television series Fringe, the Statue of Liberty serves as the literal junction point between two worlds, the site of dimensional gateway technology. In between scene cuts, images of the monument, either in true-to-life oxidized green, or its original copper hues, serve as a symbol to demarcate the different worlds to the audience. The unbuilt Hotel Attraction also appears in the alternate-dimension New York City, as an homage to architectural paths untraveled. The World Trade Center towers, still standing in the alternate-dimension, also serve as a similar marker to the Statue of Liberty—much as the towers mark almost all realistic films set in New York City shot prior to 2001. These markers show that the basis for our contextualization of alternate futures always begins in our knowledge of the present, and our real history.
But it is not only monuments that link fantasy to reality. The particular aesthetics of real-world cities, often so crucial to the setting of any film, are still visible in SF, though augmented. An excellent example is The Fifth Element, the first act of which takes place in New York City around the year 2240. The first glimpse we get of the city is the interior of protagonist Corbin Dallas' tiny living space, which despite its compliment of future appliances, such as magnetic coffee machine, self-making bed, and cigarette dispenser, is not entirely unfamiliar as a NYC studio apartment. We get the real reveal of the cityscape later, when the alien Leelu escapes from a lab, appearing from a ventilation duct onto an architectural parapet over the busy city streets.
Her shock and awe is also ours, as we peer with her down into an abyss of flying cars, countless stories above the ground.
But even as we are confronted with this uncanny, high-speed future, it is as the same time, familiar. The architecture of the buildings is very Manhattan, with brick facades, window awnings, and a mix of contemporary and retrofitted pre-war (though which war may be unknown, 300 years into the future) construction filling out the endless canyons of the island. There are even metal fire escapes visible, perhaps of questionable utility so high off the ground, but nevertheless an aesthetic signifier broadcasting "New York City" in no uncertain terms.
In the same way that the traffic can be quite alarming to the visitor stumbling out of Grand Central Station or Port Authority for the first time, future-NYC is to us. Taxis are NYC taxi yellow, police cars are NYPD blue. The vehicles may be flying above and below in incomprehensible traffic patterns, striking fear into the heart of any non-native NYC motorist, but the horns all sound the same. The diverse elements that make present day NYC to our eyes and ears, are as meaningful a symbol in their cacophony as the Statue of Liberty is in its unity (or the destruction thereof). That anxiety of activity, so beloved by inhabitants of the real city, hides a culture constantly at war with itself—between police and citizens, developers and residents, high class and low, sending glass and LEDs upwards, while digging deeper and wider seawalls to keep out the water below.
Other films do not mimic a city's aesthetic, but purposefully alter it. Blade Runner, a film that flopped on its original release, has since achieved cult status, due in no small part to its depiction of a cyberpunk future with rain-soaked and trash-filled streets, abused by neon, dyspeptic with traffic. The film is set in Los Angeles, though the original book by Philip K. Dick was set in San Francisco. Ridley Scott, the director, had originally wanted to film it in Hong Kong but it was too expensive.
The Blade Runner aesthetic certainly evokes the twisted alleys of crowded Hong Kong more than Los Angeles' wide boulevards, and the difference we see is where the speculation thrives, and carries the dystopian narrative of a world gone wrong. Cyberpunk is the aesthetic fusing of Westerners' interpretation of dark, overcrowded eastern Asia with the cowboy spirit of North America. It is the technology we need to manifest our destiny, but that simultaneously plasticizes our landscapes to the point at which they become uncanny.
In the Star Trek series, San Francisco gets a utopian makeover as the home of Starfleet, with the Golden Gate Bridge serving as monumental signifier for the continuity between the cities. But this utopia is manipulated in the time-traveling plot of 1986's Star Trek 4, when San Francisco of 2286 is contrasted to punk-infested, noisy 1986 San Francisco. The audience is left wondering how, exactly, the transition between our present and the Starfleet utopia occurred.
Minority Report, another era-defining aesthetic vision (and also generated from a Philip K. Dick story), replaces the original setting of New York City with Washington DC, painting its canvas with an aesthetic of sterilized federal architecture. Using both cold film hues and actual DC architecture, the film treads the razor's edge between dystopia and utopia, as the audience feels the chilling effects of speculative temporal surveillance through the architectural cues of our current technological surveillance regime. Although in true Hollywood fashion, much of the film was actually shot in mocked up Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is again pulled in a utopian direction in Her. While the story is set in LA, footage from that city is seamlessly spliced together with film shot in Shanghai. The epicenter of Californian sprawl is re-layered like a cake, as skyscrapers now dominate the background, while the foreground is shot almost entirely in overlapping variations on the theme of the concourse: the false public space of airports, malls, and convention centers.
The public transit of this future LA glide the main character seamlessly over and under the urban area, depositing him onto any number of wide, spotless, overhead pedestrian viaducts, through paneled white halls, and up and down a seemingly endless number of staircases. These architectural levels, uniform as if created by some all-powerful urban designer, are very much related to the film's plot of magically smooth network communications, virtualities, and artificial intelligence. It is as if Robert Moses embraced the cloud server, rather than the automobile. And in this perfect, never-ending platform, the utopia comes to look surreal, and the protagonist becomes trapped in this fantasy dimension of a twee cloud future.
Shanghai is often used as material for future cities, as it is largely unrecognizable to Americans, broad enough for panoramic shots, and clearly "futuristic" looking: or at least satisfying these conditions for a Western audience. But that is not to say Shanghai itself cannot be fictionalized. The film Code 46 splices together footage from the city and the desert outside of Dubai to portray a future in which climate change has rendered Shanghai a closed city in the midst of a great sand waste. Immigrants gather at the walls, desperately seeking entrance.
Of course, the reason Shangjai looks "futuristic" naturally is largely because the Pudong district, home of Shanghai's most dense skyscrapers, is part of a Special Economic Zone. Most of the previous occupants were removed and old neighborhoods bulldozed in order to build this seamless construct of future architecture. When it comes to the borderlines between authoritarian dystopia and utopia, Shanghai is not a fictional symbol of this theme, so much as its non-fictional existence—if one lives in Shanghai, its image is not speculation, but reality. Whether an AI companion as described in Her ever might come into existence is not the only question. So is whether Los Angeles might comes to mirror the power and aesthetics of our current technocratic regimes.
Cities bring symbolic monuments, identifiable aesthetics, indicators of dystopia or utopia, and figurative geography to SF film. These serve a purpose to the narrative, a tool to the plot designers, not unlike the glorious turns of phrase in the manifestos of the Futurists, the "multicolored, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals." But the familiar aspects of today's cities we see in SF also become a reflection, as we see our own image in a mirror, though disguised by different clothing. As the denizens of the current cities from which SF cities are woven, what do we want our actual city to be? What sort of city would we design to live our futures through, not just to tell a story? And who will make this actual future city, if not filmmakers?
In Children of Men, the dystopian city streets are burning. The trains windows are covered in cages to protect the occupants from thrown rocks, not to present symbolic vistas. Bombs explode, prisoners are abused. This is not the urban space of the future; it is the city of today. It is not London, New York, or Shanghai, but Aleppo and Kirkuk. This is the other side of futurism. As F.T. Marinetti wrote in the original Futurist Manifesto, "set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums! Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discolored and shredded!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!" At one point in the film, the protagonist goes to London's Battersea Power Station in a fortified "Green Zone," which has been turned into a heavily secured depository for the world's great works of art, scavenged from the collapse of civilization.
The art deco architecture of the Power Station is itself a monument, used for symbolic effect in everything from Pink Floyd cover art, to the film version of 1984. But when his vehicle pulls into the Power Station, the shot is actually filmed in the Turbine Hall of the former Bankside Power Station, better known today as the Tate Modern. This is a futuristic, heavily symbolic and secured depository for art work, which actually exists. Battersea Power Station, as it happens, is now being converted as well, into a luxury shopping and apartment complex. Present day speculation always returns to where it began. To make a fictional city that appears real, SF will use real cities. The question remains, which elements will real cities take from SF in return? And are they already doing it?