The most engaging and relevant dystopias tell us more about the present than the future. While utopias are products of an immanently positive act of design, dystopias have the potential to use failure to inform our architectural and social reality. Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, and the futurist dream of technology and interconnected skyscrapers are utopias whose failures have always been more educational and engaging than their successful implementations. Ballard’s dystopian visions, the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the sublime ruthlessness of Brutalism are among the alternate realities whose lessons seep into the present.
In contemporary film, dystopias have become conflated with the sci-fi genre’s oversimplified interpretations of authoritarian regimes, escapism, robots, etc. The technical mastery and design of these films aside, their philosophical and aesthetic potential is usually weakened by two types of shortcomings: artificial-looking, overly clean-cut effects, and the concept of a dystopian reality sketched out in rather broad strokes. If you compare the look of almost all new sci-fi movies to their pre-CGI counterparts, you’ll notice that the latter have a greater sense of immediacy and a tactile quality that, regardless of technological advancements, still can’t be replicated by computer-generated special effects. The following five films show that, in order to create a compelling alternate reality, it has to be rooted in the present.
Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky
Andrei Tarkovsky’s prophetic Stalker manages to be a science fiction masterpiece without resorting to visual representation of the supernatural. It is a disturbing poem that hits on a gut level and leaves you in a state of utter confusion. Released only seven years before the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the film is set in an unnamed poverty-stricken town adjacent to a post-nuclear-like phenomenon called the Zone. A mysterious force that upends the laws of physics rules the depopulated Zone, and swallows everything that enters. Only a “Stalker” can avoid both the police and the unpredictable traps set by the Zone itself. The film finds one being approached by two men — a scientist and a writer — looking to reach the miraculous room hidden in the Zone rumored to be able to fulfill dreams.
The film, shot in and around the derelict Jägala-Joa hydropower plant in Estonia, anticipates the contemporary fascination with ruins and abandoned spaces. It conveys a kind of metaphysical terror and suspense that has a dystopian quality for its elusiveness: It is not what is seen but what is imagined that is both blood-chilling and poetic.
Brazil (1985) by Terry Gilliam
Brazil, like Stalker, is not set in the future. Rather, it depicts an alternate reality: The worst-case scenario that would have unfolded if the compartmentalized space of early modern divisions of labor had not been replaced by the technological revolution. The bureaucratic nightmare of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as a dystopian vision is based on “the concept of files… official records in the form of written documents” subject to often inefficient protocols.
This Orwellian world is created using almost no computer-generated special effects. Some sequences feature Ricardo Bofill’s Marne-la-Vallee near Paris (current site of Euro Disney) as the main character’s apartment building. Its interior is littered with HVAC ducts and cumbersome gadgetry that intensify the concept of imminent system failure.
Fritz Lang’s masterpiece bares remarkable resemblance to the heroic architecture of Antonio Sant’Elia’s “City of Tomorrow” (1914). This futuristic utopia, referenced by famous modernists including Le Corbusier, gets a noir treatment in Metropolis. The machine-city is the ultimate segregated urban environment — its privileged class occupies the upper levels, while the workers underground turn the wheels that keep the city alive. The film was made in the wake of the skyscraper boom in America and Le Corbusier’s proposal for the new plan for Paris and communicated a strong skepticism toward the current developments in architecture. It was shot using large-scale sets and detailed models, captured in what is considered to be the first use of moving camera in the history of cinema.
Eraserhead (1977) by David Lynch
The industrial landscapes of Philadelphia are an epic setting in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Disproportionate to the human scale, the buildings embody all the social anxieties about East Coast urbanism developing in the proximity of industrial production taking place in Philadelphia. Once America’s leading industrial center, the city degenerated into a community riddled with unemployment and despair. The area in North Central Philadelphia where David Lynch lived while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts has been dubbed “Eraserhood” after the film.
Blade Runner (1982) by Ridley Scott
Here is piece of cinema history familiar to most architects and those in love with sci-fi, design, cars, advertising, Vangelis, Harrison Ford, Alien, and general awesomeness. The production went wildly over budget, the film flopped at the box office upon initial released and had been forgotten until a community of video enthusiasts brought it back into the spotlight. Even more impressive than Ridley Scott’s eye for the attractive is the incredible mix of talented people he convened for the project, including H.R. Giger — responsible for the look of the alien in Alien (1982) — and concept artist Syd Mead who designed all the vehicles (and more recently worked on Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013)).
Here streets function as a basement of a vertical city left to the lowest parts of human society, a collage of neon signs, wiring, and fixtures whose gritty aesthetics draws from Ridley Scott’s previous film, Alien. The world of Blade Runner is less bizarre than disturbing, partly due to the fact that most elements of the grungy environment look like familiar, contemporary objects made to work past their design lifespan. It is a blend of postmodernist architecture and Eastern influences, envisioning future Los Angeles as a rather unwelcoming environment.