By Ryan Schleeter, National Geographic
More than 50% of the world’s population already lives in cities, and this number is expected to grow to a whopping 70% by 2050.
More and more people move to the world’s fastest-growing cities each day—Karachi, Pakistan; Shenzhen and Beijing, China; Lagos, Nigeria; and Bangkok, Thailand, lead the list. Most of these migrants move from rural areas to megacities, not from other urban areas.
Cities are not only hubs of the world’s economic, cultural, and political activity; they are also the primary shapers of everyday life for billions of people.
Put simply, the world’s population is growing, and its future is urban.
In the grand tradition of attempting to understand the world around us, city dwellers have penned books, made music, and snapped photographs to both influence their cities as well as explore they ways their cities impact them. For more than a century, film has been one of the most powerful media for examining the state of our cities and imagining their futures.
Whether they’re set in real cities adapted for the screen or wildly imaginative sci-fi landscapes, films offer a glimpse into urban geography in action and where our cities—and four billion city dwellers with them—are headed.
Space and Imagination
From the early days of film, the built environment has played an important role in shaping narrative and establishing context. Silent films—the only type of cinema available until the late 1920s—were particularly reliant on cities and other geographic space to fill in for lack of recorded sound. These films grew in popularity due in part to the fact that they allowed audiences to go on a virtual tour of the world’s iconic cities.
Charlie Chaplin—without a doubt the most prominent figure of the silent film era—wrote and directed films set in locations such as Los Angeles, New York City, and Berlin. His film City Lights presents the diverse human geography of a city: Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp” character, a suicidal millionaire, and a blind girl selling flowers on the street.
Another silent film, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, uses a bustling city as an adventurous, tempting escape for a troubled rural couple.
Eastern European and Asian filmmakers also used urban landscapes in groundbreaking films. Soviet director Dziga Vertov, for example, chronicled urban life in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa, Kharkiv, and Kiev in his experimental Man with a Movie Camera.
The French series of movies Fantomas followed the title criminal as he robbed his way across Paris. Yasujiro Ozu’s I Was Born, But . . . concerns the pressures of a middle-class family in Tokyo’s busy suburbs.
In the modern age of increasing global urbanization, cities continue to play an important role in film, and experts in both film studies and urban geography are taking note. Barbara Mennel, author of Cities and Cinema, identifies key intersections between the two fields: space and imagination.
“First, in order to construct cities, people imagine how they could look in the future. Directors and screenwriters have to use their imagination to think about how something will look on the screen . . . The second point of contact is the spatial aspect of both the city and film. In film you create what we in film studies call depth. There’s this notion that you could actually go ‘into the screen.’ In film it’s an illusion and in the city it’s real, but depth and space can make the environments in films feel real.”
From Los Angeles to Metropolis: Cities in Film
As film critics have begun to pay more attention to cities and urban geographers to film, some notable and frequently analyzed examples have emerged in urban film studies.
The most commonly cited analysis of urban landscape in film history is Metropolis, a 1927 silent film directed by Fritz Lang. The film is set in the futuristic, industrial city of Metropolis, ruled by small group of wealthy elites and run entirely by workers toiling away in “machine rooms” beneath the city.
Since its release, Metropolis has been closely associated with the concept of urban dystopia. Lang imagined a city that fulfilled audiences’ wildest dreams about what the urban future could hold—shiny skyscrapers, speedy monorails, luxurious urban gardens—but limited that dream to a privileged few, leaving the seedy underground of the city for the majority of the population.
Because of the controversy surrounding the film’s social commentary on the growing socioeconomic divide in European cities of the era, Metropolis was actually edited down—censored. The restored version was not released until 2010.
Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic Blade Runner has many notable similarities to Metropolis—both in its vision of the city and the imagery used to convey it. Blade Runner, however, is set in a real city, extending Lang’s dystopia to the real lives of millions of city dwellers. Blade Runner is set in Los Angeles, but you probably wouldn’t know it if not for the opening credits.
Set in 2019, Scott depicts Los Angeles—famous for its urban sprawl and extensive maze of freeways—as an ultra-dense network of skyscrapers populated with flying cars. As in Metropolis, the wealthy are placed physically and metaphorically above the working class and aura of oppressive control permeates the film throughout.
Other Cities, Real and Imagined
Many other filmmakers continue to experiment with representations of cities of the future. Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai blended contemporary romantic melancholy and an interconnected sci-fi future in his film 2046. French director Jean-Luc Goddard blends elements from sci-fi, noir, and political thrillers to transform Paris into an Alphaville of the future. John Carpenter’s Escape from New York envisions the entire island of Manhattan converted into a massive maximum-security prison. The Star Wars films imagines a city grown to encompass an entire planet, a popular sci-fi phenomenon called an ecumenopolis. Akira is a landmark anime film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo, set in a dystopian Tokyo—Neo-Tokyo—overrun by biker gangs, oppressive leadership, and psychic dissidents.
Place and the Global City
While Metropolis and Blade Runner are two of the more well-known and analyzed examples, when you look close enough, most films have something to say about place and space. After all, every film is set somewhere.
But what exactly these films are saying about cities is changing, according to Mennel.
“Cities almost don’t have iconographic meaning anymore. We see more films now where the city doesn’t have a name, a character, or a relevance to the narrative. In some ways, the filmmaker is saying that it doesn’t matter where they are.”
Of course, any geographer can tell you that place certainly does matter, but the fact that more films are representing the world as “placeless” reveals one of the many impacts of globalization—our cities, while diverse in history and culture, are slowly beginning to look and feel the same.
What are your favorite cinematic cities of the future? (Editor’s note: Mine are probably the Johannesburg of the fantastic District 9 and the London housing projects in the best geography film in a decade, Attack the Block.)