Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Best Fictional Skylines

I've said it before, when it comes to Hollywood, sometimes architecture can be a character as unique and present as its cast. Whether it's Beetlejuice, A Christmas Story, or Moving Violations, these movies would be nothing without their homes. 

But architecture plays an even more prominent role when location is key. Romantic comedies aside, most movies can't be set in an arbitrary locale. Police procedurals typically tell the same stories over and over again, but could Cold Case been filmed anywhere but Philadelphia? It couldn't, which was proven when filming moved to Vancouver and the show was promptly cancelled. 

From Twelve Monkeys to Philadelphia to Philadelphia Story, our own city has served as the backdrop for stories that couldn't have been told anywhere else, stories where Philadelphia was its own unique character. 

Beyond the skylines that define some of our favorite dramas and action flicks are the even more exciting fictional locales, and those behind the scenes blessed with the architectural obligation to design cities that suspend our disbelief, cities as utterly unbelievable as the characters that live in them.

I'm talking, of course, about our superheroes. Whether it's Bruce Wayne in any incarnation of his fictional Gotham or Rick Deckard in Blade Runner's wildly overestimated Los Angeles of 2019, these movies would fail without their cities. Their cities are every bit as dynamic and influential as their heroes, villains, and damsels in distress, if not more so.

So what are your favorite fictional cities, past, present, or future? These are mine, in no particular order.

Caprica City, Battlestar Galactica

When it comes to science fiction and superheroes, especially on the small screen, Vancouver, BC is the go-to city. It's no surprise. While the city may not be significantly tall, an abundance of sleek and sexy towers built in the last 20 years make it look incredibly futuristic. If by "futuristic," you mean, "right now." Pair that with clean streets and the majestic backdrop in the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver doesn't look like any city most Americans experience every day. 

While the Battlestar reboot played into the old standard of using Vancouver to be otherworldly, they took the time to CGI the city's skyscrapers with some unusual adages. 

CW's Arrow

Let me start by saying this: the CW's Arrow has become as horrible as anything the CW offers. What started off as a dark anti-hero action story that only vaguely touched on its inspiration - DC Comic's Green Arrow - once rivaled some of Christopher Nolan's best Batmans.

But after its initial season, its best and most veteran actors began to vanish (Susanna Thompson in particular), and, like the CW tends to do, we were left with a cast of 20-somethings running a city no 20-something should be running. Seriously, would a city with a murder rate that would make Honduras blush really have a Queen Consolidated or Palmer Industries? And even if they did, would they be run by sexy Millennials who leave hiring up to their dicks? 


But the CW's pantheon of superhero serials isn't meant to be believable, or even echo their source material. They're romantic dramas aimed at teenagers who love discourse and want to "save" Oliver Queen and Clark Kent from themselves.

What does make Arrow unique, at least in its first two seasons, is how it addressed the fictional Starling City skyline. Between scenes, we wouldn't see CGIed images of Vancouver  or even one city. Instead, we'd see Boston, or Berlin, or Philadelphia. Without resorting to technological trickery, Arrow gave us a Starling skyline that nearly every viewer could identify with. 

Fifth Element's 23rd Century Manhattan

I lied, there should be some order to the list, because the Fifth Element's 23rd Century Manhattan isn't just the most cleverly thought-out fictional city in cinematic history, it hosts one of history's most unique sci-fi masterpieces. At the time of its release, it was Europe's most expensive film ever made. To date, it remains Europe's most profitable science fiction film. And to piggy back on that, the Fifth Element isn't a movie, it is a film.

Say what you will about George Lucas's invention of the "Space Opera," Luc Besson's Fifth Element is art, and one of its most artistic elements is its Manhattan. 

Unlike Star Wars and other science fiction franchises, the Fifth Element isn't a product, it's a story. Part humanitarian journey, part poetry, and part slapstick French camp, the Fifth Element is perhaps the most unique and eccentric science fiction film ever released. 

Unlike it colleagues in the genre, the Fifth Element's futurism isn't a plot point, it's simply incidental. You won't find Ruby Rhod and Diva Plavalaguna action figures because it was directed for fans of classic cinema, not science fiction geeks. 

But even so, its 23rd Century stage was so well set - the product of a 38 year journey that Besson began at 16 - that pieces of futurama entirely unrelated to any plot point find themselves in every single scene. From Manhattan's JFK Airport docking a transstellar cruise ship to street vendors hovering midair in Chinese fishing boats to an unexplained fog that lingers at the foot of the city, Luc Besson gave us the best fictional city by not explaining anything about it.

I, Robot's Chicago

Alex Proyas's adaptation of Isaac Asimov's stories of the same name is set in 2035, but with the exception of its sentient robots, is relatively realistic. Truth be told, I, Robot is a movie that could have been set anywhere. In fact, it probably should have been set in the Silicon Valley. But Proyas's attention to Chicago's skyline sets it apart from the muck. 

Whether the corporation is U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men (USR) or Comcast, it's easy to envision 2035's Chicago looking exactly like it does in the movie. And like the Fifth Element, Proyas throws in a few pieces of unrelated information to prove he wants us to watch his movie from the mindset of another time. 

"Please tell me this doesn't run on gas!"

Blade Runner's Los Angeles - 2019

While Blade Runner's Los Angeles should have been set another century in the future, we have to keep in mind it was released in 1982, more than 30 years ago. But Ridley Scott's Los Angeles of 2019 was more than just arbitrary futurism. Like Besson's Manhattan, Scott's Los Angeles was a deeply considered city. 

We aren't entirely shown why this incarnation of Los Angeles exists, rather we're expected to view it from the mindset of someone 30 years removed from the movie's release. 

But even in its dystopic state, Scott's future Los Angeles still retains a very Los Angelean quality. A personality that even today, we can still envision as the fate of Los Angeles. A gritty, dirty, beat down city full of hovering traffic, digital signage, and Asian influence, surrounded by deserts home to the elite. 


So what are your favorite fictional skylines?

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