Thursday 1 January 2004

From dystopia to myopia: Metropolis to Blade Runner

Future Vision: Future Cities, London, 6 December 2003

From Metropolis to Blade Runner, representations of the city often suggest a bleak view of the future. Has the image of the city become more dystopian? Does culture provide us with an imaginary future, or does it presage the way that we will influence the real future? The film session at the Future Vision: Future Cities conference, held at the London School of Economics, looked at the changing historic visions of the city using cinematic examples from different periods.

For Kim Newman, a novelist and film critic who spoke at the event, filmic depictions of the future are very much reflective of their times. Typically they fail at the box office but acquire cult status in retrospect. Their very downbeat projections and dark fantasies are strangely seductive. It is, I think, worth noting that films such as Alphaville, Blade Runner and Dark City (discussed below) adopt film noir-like devices to portray shadowy, brutal streets through which their lone anti-heroes prowl. This perhaps reflects a brooding cynicism pervading contemporary thought on all things urban after Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis.

H G Wells dismissed Metropolis (1927) as a mix of ‘almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general’. The creators of the Blade Runner cityscape, on the other hand, openly acknowledged their heavy debt to Lang’s vision. Was Wells right? Xan Brooks, film editor at the Guardian Online, speaking at the event, described the film as a modernist representation of an ordered society, exhibiting the sense that there was a relatively uncontested view of where humanity was heading. Despite the theme of industrial conflict, I would add, there was at least a shared framework of meaning. That is lacking today.

The apparent absence of a futuristic vision on celluloid in the post-war period arguably reflected a deep pessimism in the Western cultural elite with regards ‘progress’. The sci-fi classics of the 50s tended to substitute alien encounter for the ‘red menace’ of the Cold War. In Japan, the cultural impact of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were being exorcised in the incredible guise of Godzilla (1954), described by Stephen Barber (Projected Cities: cinema and urban space, 2002) as a ‘spectacularly mutating form engaged in a direct, irresoluble combat against the surfaces of the city’. Was this just a run of the mill B-movie or was it an early example of the city as polluted landscape? Godzilla, with his ‘radioactive breath’, is the result of American nuclear testing. But the toxic lizard takes on a malignant resonance of its own in its intent on destroying Tokyo.

There seemed to be an optimistic cultural turn in the 1960s but the ambivalent attitude to technology and notions of progress seemed to persist in a modified form. In Alphaville (1965) for instance, Jean-Luc Godard presents a dystopian nightmare world hostile to individuality, love and self-expression. Godard was apparently thinking of calling it Tarzan versus IBM. The film warns of the ‘computerised horrors of the city’. The hero of the piece seeks his own reality by battling against its cold rationality and artificiality. This privileging of the emotions was a significant departure. After all, Wells’ lambasting of the sentimentality of Metropolis would be inadmissible to the advocates of the counterculture.

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange (1971), anticipated the counterculture’s giving way to punk nihilism. It unapologetically indulges us in the amorality and brutality of urban thuggery. This film seems to represent a turn away from the concerns of its dystopian predecessors with mechanical progress, the toxic city and counter-cultural idealism. How do we account for this abandon of such grand themes, or the ‘vision thing’? Unlike the earlier films, Kubrick presented not just a bleak depiction of the future, but a near future in which both city and its most marginal inhabitants are utterly degraded. This quintessentially British dystopia of the period (when considered alongside Derek Jarman’s anarchic Jubilee) is worth comparing with the much grander degradation of the screen adaptation of Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (1968).

Aldous Huxley dubbed Los Angeles ‘the City of Dreadful Joy’ and in one of his post-Brave New World novels, a ‘ruinous sprawling ossuary’ subject to ‘deforestation, pollution and other acts of ecological imbecility’. In Blade Runner (1982), Ridley Scott added cheap neon, digitalized advertising hoardings and teeming streets to bring this particular LA up to date. According to Xan Brooks, the film presented a post-modern collage as opposed to the ordered cityscape of Metropolis. The old and the new coexist, he said. This is certainly I think, in contrast to Lang’s portrayal of opposing worlds, the elite cityscape against the mechanized workers slaving below.

William Gibson was writing Neuromancer (1984) as Blade Runner opened in cinemas. He claimed not to have seen the film until well into writing his novel. However, each has been credited with initiating the cyberpunk era of science fiction. The introduction of the virtual dystopia to the genre was seemingly grafted onto the themes of urban decay and moral crisis visited in A Clockwork Orange and Blade Runner. It was as if the ‘punk’ had vacated the brutal alleyways of 70s London and the sprawl of LA to stalk cyberspace instead. But how has the dawn of ‘virtual reality’ impacted on the film city of the future?

In Dark City (1998), Alex Proyas presents a stylised metropolis, an ominous and dark dreamscape. Arguably Blade Runner still casts a shadow over these later films. Yet, like Neuromancer before it, Proyas’ film paves the way for the Matrix trilogy in as far as it ‘depicts a world that is illusory and malleable’. For me though, Dark City is a retreat from engagement with the city as a material or social entity. The political industrial dynamic of Metropolis and the gritty urban realism of Blade Runner are shelved. Alphaville may have been anti-rational but it didn’t indulge in the mystical contortions of these films. We may associate the birth of new ageism with the 1960s but only in the 1990s (alongside Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, et al) was it to really take hold. Why is this?

The renowned academic Russell Jacoby has said: ‘The world stripped of anticipation turns cold and grey’. In contemporary cinema, fantasy is the antidote. From the late 90s on, there has been a marked retreat into the inner world, into childhood and away from dirty, complicated reality. This is a dramatic break from Lang’s clearly framed if simplistic depiction of the workings of a futuristic city. As a moral tale, Metropolis towers above the relativist creations that followed. Fractured, partial conceptions of the future dominate today. Indeed, Barber has noted the ‘wry abuse of, or oblivion directed at, linear narration’ in contemporary explorations of the urban.

But is this solely a cultural phenomenon? I would argue that, on the contrary, it reflects the loss of the cohering influence of the defining political projects of the 20th century. As ideological and institutional foundations have crumbled, so have our social narratives and their cultural expressions. Unlike the lead in Dark City, we have a diminished sense of self that cripples our potential to shape the world around us. The future is thus narrowed in its conception or emptied of meaning. Lang’s work is arguably impressive today because its breadth and mastery are counter to the low horizons we now set ourselves. In virtually every sphere of life, those bold enough to present ambitious visions of the future are met with cynicism. This amounts to a short-sightedness that denies the creative capacity of human agency. And, if it goes uncorrected, will inhibit our potential to conceive a future worth realising.

Note: Thanks to Sandy Starr for advice and comments.


This article was originally published on Exploring Dystopia.

 


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