The British Film Institute is showing a season of films and TV programmes celebrating sci-fi. Rakesh Ramchurn explores how the genre’s set design has anticipated the future and subverted the familiar
Whether it’s Sigourney Weaver tussling with acid-spitting aliens, or travelling at ‘warp speed’ with the Starship Enterprise, some of cinema’s most memorable moments come from science-fiction films that take us to exciting new worlds.
And crucial to the success of a sci-fi flick is its set design; the spaceships, dystopian cities and alien landscapes which force us to suspend belief.
The crux of the genre was described by sci-fi theorist Darko Suvin as a ‘cognitive estrangement’, which took viewers out of the everyday and forced them to experience the world as strange and disjointed. But how do filmmakers and set designers create these disjointed worlds?
One of the earliest sci-fi films is Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang and released in 1927. Despite coming from the era of silent film, its vision is still jarring today, relating the story of a class of workers who toil in the netherworld while the elite enjoy gardens at the tops of skyscrapers.
Lang was heavily influenced by a trip to the United States in 1924, and although tall buildings may barely raise an eyebrow today, in the early 20th century, for an artist travelling from the Old World to the New, Manhattan Island with its burgeoning towerscape was a glimpse of the future, and Lang brought this experience to his film.
The most famous still images from the movie show towering buildings dwarfing a street swarming with automobiles (the idea of mass car-ownership was also a long way off in the 1920s). Aeroplanes weave between the skyscrapers, and flyovers crisscross the scene, carrying yet more cars and trains apparently hundreds of feet above the ground. Note how these flyovers have little support with no signs of suspension. As Manhattan was showing, the future was a place where the architecturally impossible was slowly becoming real.
Metropolis was a big influence on another classic of urban dystopian cinema, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). The film sees Harrison Ford playing Rick Deckard, who pounds the dark, rain-strewn streets of a future Los Angeles to kill off a group of intelligent androids or ‘replicants’.
The cityscape is one of brooding skyscrapers dominated by the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, which produces the androids, while street-level scenes depict dense living and poor infrastructure.
Julian Gitsham, principal and practice leader for Hassell is a fan of the film and describes how its depiction of vertical living reflects problems with today’s trend for building tall in major cities.
‘In one scene, Deckard drives through town via a tunnel, goes into a basement car park, takes the lift and goes into his apartment, all without talking to a single person,’ Gitsham says. ‘When you build tall, you can become incredibly isolated. The film also shows Deckard entering whole streetscapes that the general public can’t access. We are designing better now, but there was a period of time when we were building gated communities, where you just close your doors and talk to nobody, and that makes cities fail.’
An interesting difference from Metropolis, however, is Blade Runner’s marked Far Eastern influence, found in the electronic adverts and the bustling street stalls Deckard visits at ground level. While Manhattan provided a glimpse of the future in the 1920s, by the 1980s the future was undoubtedly Tokyo with its hi-tech consumer goods and steamy neon lights.
An even bleaker vision of an alternative world is offered by Andrei Tarkovsky in Stalker (1979). This film begins in a unnamed, sepia-tinted town where a writer and a scientist enlist the help of a man known only as ‘the Stalker’ to take them on a perilous journey to ‘the Zone’ where a hidden room with mystical powers grants the desires of those who enter it.
Most of the film, which centres on the group’s movements in the Zone, was shot around two derelict power plants in Estonia, giving the film a desolate setting divided between the remnants of industrial buildings and the scrub of unkempt greenery.
Richard Martin, who lectures on architecture and film at King’s College London, spoke about Tarkovsky’s innovation in choosing to place his film outside the confines of a town or city.
‘The genius of Stalker is that it anticipates the fascination with post-industrial architecture and “ruin porn” – the spaces that are marginal and out of the way,’ he says. ‘We now see lots of decaying buildings around us as we have moved from industrial societies to post-industrial societies. This has provoked real fascination among artists and filmmakers, who instead of trying to build elaborate, grand worlds out of amazing architecture, have seen the fascination of decaying spaces.’
And in an example of life imitating art, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 led to the Soviet authorities setting up the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, referred to simply as ‘the Zone’, with a cult movement of young Ukrainians covertly exploring the area and calling themselves ‘Stalkers’.
But science fiction needn’t be so bleak. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) epitomises what people thought the future would look like in the 1960s, with Modernist furniture and space-shuttle interiors decked out in a white plastic finish.
Kubrick took the Modernist aesthetic in another direction in A Clockwork Orange (1971), well-known for scenes shot using the backdrop of Thamesmead South housing estate, Brunel University and a Team 4 house interior.
‘People think Kubrick was saying Brutalist architecture equals brutal behaviour, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that,’ says Martin. ‘A lot of the claims made for Modernist architecture revolve around the idea that it would produce a new kind of person. It was a very smart choice for him to choose the most radical and progressive architecture of his time to demonstrate this. It’s about the limitations of architecture, that architecture can’t do everything, despite what Modernists might have suggested.’
Sometimes filmmakers decide they need to create a new aesthetic in order to realise alternative realities. The most gripping scene in Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) sees a new-born creature bursting out of John Hurt’s chest after an egg has been laid in his mouth. The biological features of the alien are carried over into the design for the abandoned spaceship, which mixes industrial motifs with organic forms – the ship’s interior resembles a rib cage, and ducts appear as veins or tendons.
Until now, it seems that Suvin’s ‘cognitive estrangement’ has been achieved through the use of startling architecture, to shock viewers into believing in an alternative reality. But sci-fi films can also use more mundane built environments to provoke the estrangement needed.
For example, Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011) features an alien invasion not in the centre of power at Whitehall or Washington, but in an ordinary council estate, leading to a battle with local youths who have to fight off the invaders. The film was shot on location at the Heygate Estate in Elephant & Castle and Newham’s Carpenters Estate, both in inner London.
Practising architect Amy Butt has researched the role of tower blocks in sci-fi films, and believes Cornish chose the locations because of the inherent space-age quality of tall buildings.
‘In London in particular, where these blocks are located in areas which were blitz-damaged, they sit in areas surrounded by terraced houses, and have a very other-worldly presence,’ she says, adding that the use of an inner-city tower block as the focus of the film was ‘a subversion of the normal trope of the tower as an incomprehensible and futuristic space. It’s transformed into an everyday space, one that people are very comfortable in, and that they see as worth protecting from aliens.’
The mundanity of the setting gives the film its comic effect and shows that the familiar also has a role in science fiction.
The familiar was used to striking effect in the original Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffner, 1968). The film follows a crew who travel into the distant future and arrive at a mysterious planet whose biological hierarchy is inverted so that it is controlled by apes, who treat the primitive human inhabitants like animals.
The closing scene sees Charlton Heston’s character discover that the planet is actually Earth, which has been squandered and ruined by humankind in the intervening years. This is brought home to us by a shot of the Statue of Liberty, now partially submerged in the sea. The image of Lady Liberty – known to us through a Warholian layering on our imaginations from countless cultural references – shows that with science fiction even the familiar, cleverly subverted, can provoke horror.
Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, a celebration of film and TV’s original blockbuster genre, continues at BFI Southbank and partner venues nationwide until 31 December.