The future is now: Sci-fi films in real locations

Sci-fi tells us about the world of today by showing us the world of tomorrow -- and Kubrick, Godard and Wenders are just some of the directors to conjure the future from real locations

The modern science-fiction film is synonymous with CGI wizardry, clever gadgets and elaborate sets. While those are some of our favourite things, it's all too easy to lose sight of the human story in among the whooshing, 'sploding and transforming. One way to focus on the people is to place them in an all-too-familiar future that looks a lot like now. There's a fascinating strand of sci-fi cinema that does just that, with auteurs such as Traffaut, Godard and Kubrick creating the future by filming in real locations.

Science fiction has a slippery definition, but for this article Robert Heinlein's definition is spot on: "realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present". Architecture provides suitably futuristic locations for many sci-fi films: the famous Bradbury Building at 304 South Broadway, Los Angeles, is an atmospheric location for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner , while the dramatic Dallas City Hall, at 1500 Marilla, acted as the headquarters of evil corporation OCP in RoboCop.

Some films use real locations more extensively, both to evoke an unfamiliar future and to connect the themes of the film with the world we live in. The effect is often disconcerting and lends itself to the dystopic. We've highlighted the films that deliberately make as much use of existing buildings as possible.

alphaville

Alphaville

Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)

Electricity Board building, Paris Alpha 60 computer centre
Hotel Sofitel Paris le Scribe, 1 rue Scribe Previously the Allied Forces' press HQ during World War II, and also site of the Lumière Brothers first demonstration of cinematic projection in 1895

Alphaville is a very odd film indeed. It's set in the future on a distant planet, but there are no special effects and it's filmed in real locations in and around Paris. Characters drive around in cars but talk about spaceships. The plot involves a dystopian society ruled by an oppressive computer, but the hero is Lemmy Caution, a classic film-noir detective who refers to 20th century events.

The idea of this anachronistic juxtaposition was to pit an unreconstructed and nakedly emotional human against the cold, murderous logic of the system: director Jean-Luc Godard originally wanted to call the film Tarzan vs IBM. Now there's a film we'd pay to see.


Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (1966)

SAFEGE test track,Châteneuf-sur-Loire, near Orléans, France The monorail scenes were filmed on a now-demolished 1.4km test track built in 1959 by French consortium Société Anonyme Française d'Etude de Gestion et d'Entreprises (French Limited Company for the Study of Management and Business)
Alton estate, Roehampton, Surrey Modernist mixed-use estates raised on piloti over Richmond Park, seen in the opening sequence. Alton East's colourful, soft-edged modernist approach, built in 1958, clashes with the harder Corbusier-inspired Alton West, built a year later
Crowthorne, Berkshire Suburban enclave and the site of Montag's bungalow

Godard's contemporary, François Truffaut spent years developing this adaptation of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel into his only English-language film. Like Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451 is a boldly experimental film: as well as extensively using real locations, Godard cast Julie Christie in two roles and had the titles read out, rather than shown onscreen, to evoke an illiterate society. The pristine modernist locations, photographed by Nicolas Roeg, show a society that is meant to be close to our own, with knowledge replaced by contextless trivia -- sound familiar? -- and firemen burning books instead of fighting fires.


Clockwork Orange

Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Wandsworth Bridge roundabout southern underpass, London Attack on the tramp
Century House tower block, Borehamwood Alex's family's flat
Chelsea Drugstore, in the basement of McDonalds on the Kings Road, London The record shop
Skybreak house, The Warren, Radlett, Hertfordshire The interior of the writer's house, designed by British architectural firm Team 4, which included Norman Foster and Richard Rogers
Thamesmead South Housing Estate, London Alex attacks Dim and Georgie to the strains of Rossini's The Thieving Magpie
Brunel University, Uxbridge, London The Ludovico Medical Clinic entrance and the lobby of Alex's flats, as well as assorted interiors

The infamous story of Alex DeLarge and his droogs, A Clockwork Orange was shot almost entirely on location. Only the Korova Milk Bar, the bathroom where Alex relaxes after his police beating, and the prison check-in were sets. Other locations included a hospital in Harlow -- a new town and itself a symbol of Britain's bright future. Yet the modernist architecture belies the decaying, rubbish-strewn urban bleakness roamed by disassociated youth.


Code 46

Code 46

Code 46 (2003)

Pudong, Shanghai 'Inside'
Dubai 'Outside'

Code 46 tells the story of an insurance investigator who begins an affair with a smuggler of the travel documents required to pass from the urban 'inside' to the desert 'outside'. It's a globalised near-future where people speak a pidgin language borrowing from Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Farsi and Mandarin. The ozone layer is gone, genetic miscegenation is illegal, designer viruses are used to fight crime, and memories are routinely erased by the government. But the clothes, cars and locations are all of our time, with little of the fetishisation of gadgetry in most science fiction.

Code 46 was shot in Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Hong Kong and India, with many interiors shot in London. Director Michael Winterbottom admits this approach is partly for logistical ease: "I always like to work with the smallest possible crew, because the fewer people you have the more fun it is and the freer it is, the faster it is, and the more interesting it is. So for those reasons, and just for other reasons to do with character and fiction I prefer to take actors and put them in real settings and real locations and real situations rather than create artificial locations that serve the characters."

But in fictional terms, he says, "A lot of the aspects of the world of the film are amalgams of things that already exist... it wasn't about creating or inventing anything, it was just, 'this bit is interesting', 'that bit is interesting' and putting them together. Shanghai is the main city, but we put the desert of Dubai around the outside of Shanghai. You can juxtapose two elements that aren't together in reality, but you can see those connections in a slightly odd light."


Children of Men

Children of Men

Children of Men (2006)

Battersea Power Station The heavily protected Ark of Art
Various London landmarks Including Fleet Street, Admiralty Arch, Trafalgar Square, Old Street, Wimbledon dog track, Woolwich

Children of Men is set in 2027, in a society disillusioned by the loss of its ability to have children. Director Alfonso Cuarón roams a grimy, decaying England with documentary-style handheld cameras and gobsmackingly elaborate long takes (albeit stitched together with subtle digital effects). Much of the film was shot in real London locations, with the realism enhanced by the fact that the opening Fleet Street bombing was filmed not long after the bombings of 7 July 2005.

The most striking use of a London landmark is Battersea Power Station, which has appeared in everything from Doctor Who to Richard III. Here, it's a heavily guarded enclave in stark contrast to the dirty and defeated country outside. It's a satirical swipe at elitism, with bonus chuckles from a pig-shaped balloon tethered above, in reference to Pink Floyd's famous Animals album cover.


The Girl from Monday

The Girl from Monday

The Girl from Monday (2005)

Manhattan, Jersey City Er, mostly Manhattan and Jersey City

Hal Hartley's film divides opinion with yet another take on the totalitarian future. This time it's a corporate world of barcode tattoos where kids have to take attention-deficit pills, sex earns credits and prison terms are served teaching high school.

The Girl from Monday is heavy-handed and oddly shot, but Hartley is always at least interesting. The dream-like photography is anchored in real-world locations in Manhattan and Jersey City. Incidentally, Carmela Soprano and her out of Sliders are in it.


Until The End of the World

Until The End of the World

Until The End of the World (1991)

All over the place Seriously: 15 cities, seven countries, four continents
China The video fax

Wim Wenders' Bis ans Ende der Welt is set in 1999, when a nuclear satellite is poised to fall to Earth. Once again, Wenders avoids gadgetry, apart from dashboard computers that talk to the driver. Hang on, we have those! There's also a camera for the blind that records dreams -- we don't have those yet, sadly. The story follows a woman encountering a number of unusual characters in a journey around the world. In fact, Wenders planned to shoot on every continent. He couldn't get permission to film in China so he dispatched lead actress Solveig Dommartin, then his girlfriend, with a handheld camera. Then he ran out of money before he got to Africa. Probably just as well: the film hit 15 cities across seven countries and the rough cut was eight hours long.

What's your favourite setting for a sci-fi film? Seen any real-life locations that made you think you were in the future? Apart from the Apple Store, obviously. Let us know in the comments, and if you're still after a sci-fi fix, check out our favourite evil computers , try Red Dwarf's six greatest technologies , or ask where's my hoverboard?

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About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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