As anyone who has ever looked at this site previously knows, I am a huge fan of 60s and 70s sci-fi. One of the reasons I like it so much, even the ones without great stories, is that they are inadvertently retrofuturistic. They often project a very dated (in a good way) vision of the future based on what the mood of the times was.
But there is another, sometimes overlapping, category of sci-fi film I also love. Films that use contemporary locations with minimal alteration to project the future.
By careful framing, clever lighting and the context of the story, locations that you may have passed by dozens of times walking down the street become landmarks of a future civilization. Buildings created to celebrate the economic might, political systems and culture of their day are appropriated and turned into something futuristic and new. Sometimes something representing the exact opposite of what their original creators intended.
One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The bulk of this movie was shot in Century City shopping mall exactly as it appeared in 1972. Exactly, that is, except for the humans clad in black herding and training their ape slaves to do their bidding and serve them.
The mall was a temple of modernism and consumerism located on the former back lot of 20th Century Fox. However, in the movie, it becomes a place where supposed “lesser creatures” are beaten and tortured into submission. All for the purpose of serving the human elite.
Of course, it doesn’t turn out well. One of the apes is exceptionally intelligent, talks and is able to organize the others in a violent revolt. It is the first stage of an uprising which will see ape ascend to master and man turned into slave. And it all started at Century City shopping mall.
I wonder what Mussolini would have thought of 1962’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH. It stared Vincent Price and was shot in a very special part of Rome. It was the part of the city that dictator Benito Mussolini created some amazing examples of fascist architecture to glorify himself and his empire.
The most famous of these buildings is called Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. It was designed under Mussolini’s orders in 1935 and built between 1938 and 1942 as the Italians and their allies, the Germans and the Japanese, were trying to conquer the world.
It was intended from the very beginning to demonstrate the might and grandeur of the fascist empire and to be used for the 1942 World Exhibition. Instead, it ended up part of a mutant vampire civilization as adapted from Richard Matheson’s 1954 book, I AM LEGEND.
One last note, the very cool looking, iconic water tower, known as Il Fungo (the mushroom) used in the movie might also look familiar. It was also featured in an incredible sequence of images in Antonioni’s 1962, L’Eclisse. Which, come to think of it, wasn’t exactly a happy film either.
And then there is ALPHAVILLE. As I wrote about in another post called SUPERFICIAL ALPHAVILLE, this movie by Jean Luc-Godard in 1965 still amazes me. It’s just an incredible movie on several different levels.
The plot involves a cynical secret agent, played by Eddie Constantine, who infiltrates a fascist society controlled by a computer known as Alpha 60. The agent is to kill the computer’s creator and destroy Alpha 60. It gets complicated when the agent starts to fall for the daughter of the man he is supposed to kill, played by Anna Karina. In the end, Constantine prevails and Alpha 60 is destroyed.
Godard challenges the way of things in every frame. Anna Karina is mesmerizing in ways I still can’t explain. Filmmaking is questioned and critiqued. Society is questioned and critiqued. Just as importantly, it also looks damn cool.
Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, shot the film in and around Paris. Not one single elaborate prop or stage set was used. Existing buildings like the Electricity Board building and the Hotel Scribe were filmed. A local swimming complex served as a critical location. If nothing else, this film shows how futuristic you can make an existing, contemporary environment if you have the will and the talent to do so.
So, there you have it. Three visions of a future in which mankind is enslaved or destroyed. In one case by apes, in another by mutant vampires and in a third by a dictatorial computer. Yet, all three movies found their look in the buildings and surroundings of their times.
It makes me wonder if the architecture we surround ourselves with is as much a warning as it is a celebration. That the same power and arrogance of a bank building which makes us trust its occupants with our money can just as easily feel like authoritarian oppression with a more 1984 slant on the world. I guess it all depends on your point of view.
At least we don’t have to worry about talking apes enslaving us. That would be as silly as the idea of complex computers controlling us. Never gonna happen…