Silence. Logic. Security. Prudence.
September 27, 2004 9:11 AM   Subscribe

The evocation of dystopian space with contemporary settings. One of the many challenges faced by directors of low- or no-budget SF films is the convincing depiction of futuristic space, especially where it needs to appear oppressive or totalising. What are you to do, when you lack the wherewithal to create elaborate sets, and even the cheesiest CGI is well out of reach?

You use extant buildings and artifacts, and you crop carefully. But which ones? Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Civic Center appears particularly popular in this context: here it is in THX1138, and here in Gattaca - the latter a film which also featured the Citroen DS and Studi Avanti to precisely evocative effect. (What's so sinister about this poor building? In real life it's stunningly pretty.)

Jean-Luc Godard had a field day in Alphaville, with the anomic architecture of mid-60s, high modernist Paris, and again with the same sorts of mainframe installations Lucas relied so heavily upon in THX. Even (cough) Logan's Run found low-rent dystopia in various Dallas and Fort Worth settings, here Fort Worth's Water Gardens.

Maybe the poor Marin Center's a bit played out, huh? As an aid to future directors, then, let me ask you: What are some dystopic settings near you?
posted by adamgreenfield (47 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Great post. Very fascinating research.

I live near a lot of military installations, so there are plenty of fallout shelters, gun mounts, abandoned bunkers, etc. One of my favorites is a pre-civil-war-era fort on a man-made island - Fort Wool. (Geocities link, who knows how long it'll last.)
posted by mragreeable at 9:27 AM on September 27, 2004

Wonderful post!

I had completely forgotten that Philip Johnson's Water Garden was used in Logan's Run-- all the more poignant considering Johnson is still alive at 99.
posted by gwint at 9:32 AM on September 27, 2004

It was looking a little, well, not sinister but perhaps dystopian for a while there before it was cleaned up and restored. I look at it now and I think "the 70s" not "the future." While most of FLW's stuff is remarkably ahead of its time and has aged very well in the past decades, a lot of it is beginning to look like the past, perhaps because much of his signature style was popularized in private homes in the 70s and 80s. If FLW had been working in the present, he'd be a merchandising empire like Martha Stewart or Dr. Atkins.
posted by scarabic at 9:36 AM on September 27, 2004

There's a curved part of the underground concourse between the Broad Street Line and Market Frankford line here in Phila. that would be perfect. It always gives me the willies even without a multimillion-dollar budget.

P.S. adam - It's good to see you posting again, and this is another good one. But while you were out, it was established incontrovertibly that multiple paragraphs breaks in FPPs are craptacular. Thank you.
posted by soyjoy at 9:50 AM on September 27, 2004

A completely off-topic post prompted by the first link:

Does anyone know of a font that is similar to the "Caution Weightless Condition" text in the wherewithal link?

posted by lowlife at 9:51 AM on September 27, 2004

adamgreenfield are you trying to turn mefi into marginwalker? (not that I'm complaining... just noticed a lot of activity on your part as of late.)

b1tr0t, I had insane deja-vu walking around Sydney and didn't realize why until months later when I saw the extra features on the DVD. There's nothing like standing on a corner in a city you've never visited and feeling certain you've been "there" before and not knowing why. Freaked me out.
posted by shoepal at 9:54 AM on September 27, 2004

That's fascinating, I've wondered what the water things were in Logan's Run whenever I've seen it.

I'll nominate Milton Keynes city centre as a large-scale dystopia. It's the city of the future rendered in concrete grey.

This hotel in Berlin is worth a look. I came across it while looking for a building used in 'Buck Rogers in the 25th Century', anyone know the place I might be thinking of? It had balconies on mulitple floors around a central atrium, with ovals of seating sticking out from balconies into the open space. I've seen it in other things and suspect its actually quite well known.
posted by biffa at 9:54 AM on September 27, 2004

Michael Winterbottom uses a lot of contemporary locations and settings to visually describe the near-ish future in his recent movie 'Code 46'. Mostly Singapore, I think, though I couldn't tell you which buildings. As with many of the other movies mentioned, the architecture is used to evoke a sterile environment lacking in personality and emotion. Okay movie, but looks terrific.
posted by Hogshead at 10:10 AM on September 27, 2004

I don't know how dystopian one might consider it, but the Sculptured House is a local landmark here in Denver.
posted by jazon at 10:16 AM on September 27, 2004

The Marin center is popular because Wright was such a fricken genius that it manages to look futuristic no matter when you're shooting your movie. It's not sinister. But it is in California, which makes it affordable for the second unit. You should visit it.

Logan's Run also used the brand-new DC Metro as a set. Now the Metro looks more like the ruins of Washington in the same movie. :)
posted by anser at 10:31 AM on September 27, 2004

Off-topic font ID: That looks like Eurostile Bold and Bold Extended (or maybe Microgramma)
posted by Down10 at 10:33 AM on September 27, 2004

Arthur Erickson managed to pull off some 60's style dystopian/kitsch in Vancouver - eg. Robson Square (aka "peasants under glass") and Simon Fraser University. Can't find any photos in a quick search which really do justice to the latter, but it's been featured in many cheesy sci-fi productions over the years, including a recent Arnie disaster.
posted by dinsdale at 10:46 AM on September 27, 2004

As for future-techure, I would have mentioned the freeways and tunnels that go from Oakland to Alemeda as very urban and modern-looking (like the Playstation game WipeOut). These were featured in The Matrix Reloaded during the freeway chase scenes.

I really can't think of anything else in the Bay Area that carries the edgy, hyper-modern look. Most buildings here are rather modest.

I have to say that I love the Marin Civic Center. What a fantastic building -- I'm continually inspired by it upon every visit.
posted by Down10 at 10:47 AM on September 27, 2004

posted by liam at 10:54 AM on September 27, 2004

May I present the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center?
posted by troutfishing at 10:55 AM on September 27, 2004

Font: Bank Gothic?

Place: Any big city, USA. I call my film Cementland.
posted by user92371 at 11:12 AM on September 27, 2004

posted by kenko at 11:25 AM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

I nominate UC Irvine and Century City. Both were used in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes." UCI's architecture always creeped me out; it's like they did it in the style of American Dystopic Oppressive.

Also, I went to Cal Poly Pomona, and the Giant Pointy Building in "Gattaca" is our CLA Building (CLA stands for Classroom, Lab and Administration). It's a hell of a sight from the nearby 10; the CLA looks like a rocketship blasting out of the middle of a citrus orchard.
posted by RakDaddy at 11:34 AM on September 27, 2004

I suggest the UMass Fine Arts Center (last photo via here) in Amherst, MA is promisingly unpleasant.

On closer inspection: troutfishing, you read my mind. The scariest thing is that that visible part of the building is almost entirely the campus hotel. The student offices and such are mostly located underneath that cement ziggurat.

The NYU Bobst Library is intriguing, but I wouldn't call it distopian.
posted by Songdog at 1:01 PM on September 27, 2004

University of California, Irvine's buildings that were used in The Planet of the Apes.

I used to hang out, work, and volunteer at various places on that campus. It was only weird for a little while.
posted by loquacious at 1:31 PM on September 27, 2004

You will probably recognize the Sepulveda Dam and Vasquez Rocks.
posted by euphorb at 1:33 PM on September 27, 2004

Wow, thanks for the font suggestions! Bank Gothic and Microgramma both look close; to my eye, Microgramma seems closer (it's a touch blockier), but I'll have to bust out my copy of the movie to double-check.
posted by lowlife at 1:37 PM on September 27, 2004

There's also a ton of variations of microgamma, from the thinnest light-condensed to the burliest bold-extended-black.
posted by loquacious at 2:29 PM on September 27, 2004

"I really can't think of anything else in the Bay Area that carries the edgy, hyper-modern look. Most buildings here are rather modest."

Um. Powell Street Station? Admittedly, this is a very retro hyper-modern look, and since Lucas used it the place is forever to be cliche, but those long walkways of knobby hextiles make for a thoroughly 70s future-dystopia.

The interior plaza of the Embaracero Hyatt, with the hotel's terraces reaching upward, has a certain post-space age look about it, too.
posted by majick at 2:30 PM on September 27, 2004

No matter how many times I wander through it the Empire State Plaza in Albany, NY never fails to get my attention.
posted by cedar at 2:35 PM on September 27, 2004

The UCSD Central Library appeared once in an episode of Mission: Impossible as the stronghold of an American militia group. Even when artfully concealed by trees, it suggests a docking port for the Death Star.
posted by SPrintF at 2:53 PM on September 27, 2004

Further to Hogshead's reference to 'Code 46', the movie also added the nice touch of having a patron in a karaoke bar who's singing along to the Clash's 'Straight to Hell' played by The Clash's Mick Jones.
posted by liam at 3:09 PM on September 27, 2004

Not really dystopian, but the National Center for Atmospheric Research building (by I. M. Pei), in Boulder, Colorado, was in Woody Allen's Sleeper. It's an amazing building.
posted by carter at 3:31 PM on September 27, 2004

Oh, and the Scuptured House (see above) was also in Sleeper.
posted by carter at 3:43 PM on September 27, 2004

OT: troutfishing and Songdog, are you ZooMass alumni or did you stumble across those fine, fine pieces of collegiate cement elsewhere? Just curious =)
posted by cyrusdogstar at 4:25 PM on September 27, 2004

cedar: That's what came to my mind too. This (from your link) is pretty weak defense, but even it goes too far: "Others, however, praise the complex of buildings for not being trendy and predict this architecture will stand the test of time." It's one of the most hideous, inhuman places I've ever set foot in, and I hope never to repeat the experience.
posted by languagehat at 5:08 PM on September 27, 2004

I'll third cedar and languagehat's mention of Empire State Plaza (a.k.a. Rockefeller's Last Erection). Besides the Albert Speer business above-ground, there's an extensive concourse system beneath it all, in whitewashed concrete and tile, that may be even more soul-reaming. Really THX-eriffic.

The particularly sad thing is that just west of the plaza is a lively neighborhood of mixed residential and commercial zoning that would be bigger today if it weren't for the giant Modernist Habitrail plopped downtown in the sixties...
posted by letourneau at 5:21 PM on September 27, 2004

Albany, and SUNY Albany's campus--and the underground tunnels.

Nearer to home, Lincoln Center hasn't aged well, and Rockefeller Center still looks like the future to me, in a 30s way. My own neighborhood (and environs) is chock full of decay, but looks pretty normal to me, and may soon be altered beyond recognition. : <
posted by amberglow at 6:07 PM on September 27, 2004

letourneau: I remember being a newlywed in nursing school while my wife was a state drone. We practically lived in those tunnels -- we did our banking there, ate our meals there and hid from the landlord there -- at one point there was even a halfway decent bar down there. Back before the state started moving offices uptown to the state campus the underground was populated and busy, actually providing a refreshing contrast to the sterile concrete above.

When you talk about the neighborhood don't forget the Knick. That eyesore took out a swath of mixed zoning historical buildings in the forlorn hope of drawing a sports franchise.

BTW, there are maintanence tunnels connecting the two, if you think the public concourse is creepy you should see the not-so-public part.
posted by cedar at 6:09 PM on September 27, 2004

First place I thought of was the White House and US Capital. But apprently not what the poster was going for.
posted by billsaysthis at 6:33 PM on September 27, 2004

I'm slightly surprised no one has yet mentioned Terry Gilliam's Brazil. It's not precisely sci-fi or even future-shock-y, but it certainly qualifies on the dystopian front. This (scroll down to item 8) offers a bit of information on some of the locations which were economically used by Gilliam for some stunningly weird images.
posted by hoboynow at 6:34 PM on September 27, 2004

cyrusdogstar - I'm not a U/Mass non-alumnus, nor did I ever enter U/Mass biological research greenhouses to pluck Coleus.
posted by troutfishing at 7:39 PM on September 27, 2004

Speaking of Gilliam's use of Battersea Power station, London's Barbican offers denizens a dystopic and oppressive, yet photogenic architecture. It's like a giant spaceship of concrete landed in London. I love it! There's faux nature in the form of freaky genetically modified looking sealife swimming in a flowing concrete stream, Cinemas, Art galleries, Offices, Dwellings, locked gates, cafes, restaurants, and private verandas overlooking nothing but concrete views. It is worth visiting if you are ever in London. They even have a hostel and a Tube stop for your public transit pleasure should you need to leave the estate. But why leave?!
posted by shoepal at 7:51 PM on September 27, 2004 [1 favorite]

For the Scenes on earth, in Total Recall, there was some great usage of the Brutalist architecture of Mexico City.
posted by Duck_Lips at 8:29 PM on September 27, 2004

shoepal, the remorselessly dark 80's British TV series "Edge of Darkness" had a memorable chase sequence set in the Barbican not long after it opened. This section included the only joke in the whole program, where a hapless cop tells his superior that he is on the roof of the building - the sergeant demands to know why the cop is on the roof when he was told to cover the exits, to which the reply is, "I followed the exit signs and ended up here".
Not very funny, but even grudging chuckles were difficult to come by watching that show.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 11:52 PM on September 27, 2004

Nice to see my old home town mentioned in the Brazil piece above (the sand on the beach is sand coloured now...).

The now dismantled (since March this year) BP Chemicals plant in Port Talbot was used as the city in Hardware when ever its seen from a distance.
posted by couch at 3:08 AM on September 28, 2004

Atlanta's High Museum, by Richard Meier, was Hannibal Lecter's antiseptic-looking prison in Michael Mann's Manhunter. There's a great tracking shot that follows Will Graham (William L. Petersen) down the Museum's central stairwell. Whenever I'm there I start listening for slurping sounds.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:48 AM on September 28, 2004

Whether you're thinking of filming a sci-fi picture, or looking for a truly fabulous food court to have a snack, visit the The Reagan Building in downtown Washington DC.
posted by Stoatfarm at 7:18 AM on September 28, 2004

I'm relatively confident that the headquarters of Oralce Corp were used in Robin William's Bicentennial Man.
posted by of strange foe at 8:14 AM on September 28, 2004

posted by of strange foe at 8:16 AM on September 28, 2004

Good thread.
posted by Dick Paris at 8:43 AM on September 28, 2004

The CLA Building

I went to school there when they were filming it, and my friend got an autograph from Uma Thurman.

By the way, most of the freeway stuff from the Matrix were filmed on the grounds of the Alameda Naval Air Station, not on any actual freeway in the San Francisco Bay Area. It should also be noted that the Posey Tube (connecting Alameda Island with mainland Oakland) was used in THX 1138.
posted by calwatch at 10:14 PM on September 28, 2004

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