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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. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 2" joins films by Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders in conjuring the future from real locations.

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Great science fiction often tells us something about the world we live in -- and you don't need CGI wizardry, clever gadgets or elaborate sets to do that. In fact, movie auteurs such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Stanley Kubrick have conjured dystopian sci-fi visions by filming in real locations, creating a future that looks all too chillingly familiar.

Science fiction has a slippery definition, but for this article we'll take Robert Heinlein's definition: "Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present." Architecture provides a powerful real-world anchor for this speculation about the future: for example, the dramatic Dallas City Hall, at 1500 Marilla, is the perfect looming brutalist avatar for the evil corporation OCP in "RoboCop". Some films use real locations even more extensively, and to celebrate these all-too-familiar visions of the future, we've picked some of the films that deliberately make effective use of existing buildings.

'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2' (2015)

The final episode in the "Hunger Games" series, starring Jennifer Lawrence as heroic Katniss Everdeen, sees an army of rebels storm the Capitol, seat of government in the nightmarish world of Panem. To create the opulent Capitol, director Francis Lawrence filmed in many real buildings in Atlanta and Boston, Paris and Berlin. Here's the trailer:

  • Espaces d'Abraxas, Noisy-le-Grand, Paris Designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill, the imposing building is nestled in a picturesque commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris, and was also used as a location for Terry Gilliam's 1985 dystopia "Brazil".
  • Tempelhof Airport, Tempelhof, Berlin Opened in 1923, Tempelhof was the site of the Berlin Airlift. It was closed in 2008. You can see the aged airport's brutal concrete throughout the trailer.
  • Messe, Berlin You may not be familiar with the vast Messe conference centre, but you'll have seen what goes on inside: It's the home of annual technology trade show IFA, which has run since 1924. This chase scene was filmed in the bowels of the building -- look out for the distinctive orange walls.

    There's the distinctive orange pillars...

    Lionsgate

Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" uses a couple of the same locations in Berlin, including Tempelhof for the big superhero showdown and the Messe for a big chase.

... and there's those orange pillars again!

Marvel

'Gattaca' (1997)

Directed by Andrew Niccol, "Gattaca" opens with the caption "The not-too-distant future". It draws on both forward-looking and retro influences, from 1940s-style clothes to vehicles inspired by the then-futuristic concept cars of the 1960s.

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"Gattaca"

The 1950s architecture of California plays a big part in establishing this retro-yet-sci-fi not-too-distant future, in which genetics govern your social status.

  • Marin County Civic Center, San Rafael Opened in 1962, the final commission by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright stood in for the Gattaca complex. George Lucas also filmed his first movie "THX-1138" here in 1971, and in that same year Philip K. Dick came to the police station onsite to report his safe had been cracked -- and his suspicion the CIA was responsible.
  • Kramer Junction Solar Farm, Los Angeles This is the setting for the solar plant mirrors scene.
  • CLA Building, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona This distinctive pointy-roofed building doubles as the exterior of Vincent's apartment.
  • Sepulveda Dam Completed in 1941 and damming the Los Angeles river, the dam has been used by a long list of film and TV productions including "Escape from New York", "Iron Man 2" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation".

'Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution' (1965)

Filmed in real locations in and around Paris, "Alphaville" is a very odd film indeed. It's set in the future on a distant planet, but there are no special effects. 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.

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"Alphaville"

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

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

'Fahrenheit 451' (1966)

François Truffaut was a contemporary of Godard in the French New Wave, and 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 not one but two roles. And to evoke the story's illiterate society that burns books, the titles are read out loud rather than displayed on the screen.

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"Fahrenheit 451"

The pristine modernist locations, photographed by Nicolas Roeg -- later a boldly experimental director in his own right -- suggest a society that is meant to be close to our own, in which knowledge is replaced by contextless trivia. Sound familiar, Twitter users?

  • SAFEGE test track, Châteneuf-sur-Loire, near Orléans, France The monorail scenes were filmed on a now-demolished 1.4km test track originally built in 1959.
  • Alton estate, Roehampton, Surrey These modernist mixed-use estates are raised on piloti over Richmond Park, and are 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 A suburban enclave and the site of main character Montag's bungalow.

'A Clockwork Orange' (1971)

The infamous story of Alex DeLarge and his juvenile delinquent "droog" cronies, "A Clockwork Orange" was shot almost entirely on location. The sets were the Korova Milk Bar, the bathroom where Alex recovers after his police beating, and the prison check-in.

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"A Clockwork Orange"

Other locations included a hospital in Harlow -- a post-war "new town" and once a symbol of Britain's bright future. Yet the modernist architecture belies the decaying, rubbish-strewn urban bleakness roamed by disassociated youth.

'Rollerball' (1975)

Years before "Mockingjay Pt 2", Norman Jewison's satire on the bloodthirsty future of professional sports also went to Germany for futuristic locations that would appear painfully modern.

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"Rollerball"

Opening with the caption "The not too distant future", the film stars James Caan as a battle-weary athlete in the game of Rollerball, used by a global corporation to control the masses. Whatever you do, don't bother with the 2002 remake.

'Code 46' (2003)

"Code 46" is set in 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 seen in most science fiction.

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"Code 46"

The film 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. 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."

The locations represent the urban, technological "inside" and the desert, impoverished "outside". Winterbottom explained, "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."

  • Pudong, Shanghai The "inside" scenes.
  • Dubai The "outside" scenes.

'Children of Men' (2006)

"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, the realism tragically enhanced by the fact that the opening Fleet Street bombing was filmed not long after the bombings of 7 July 2005.

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"Children of Men"

The most striking use of a London landmark involves Battersea Power Station, which has appeared in everything from "Doctor Who" to the film version of "Richard III" starring Ian McKellen. Here, it's a heavily guarded enclave in stark contrast to the dirty and defeated country outside. These scenes take 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.

'Until The End of the World' (1991)

Wim Wenders' 1991 film "Bis ans Ende der Welt" is set in 1999, when a nuclear satellite is poised to fall to Earth. As with many of the films in this list, Wenders avoids gadgetry, apart from dashboard computers that talk to the driver. Hang on, we have those! Sadly we don't yet have a camera for the blind that records dreams.

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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. That presented quite the logistical challenge: he couldn't get permission to film in China, for instance, so he dispatched his girlfriend and lead actress Solveig Dommartin to China with a handheld camera. Then he ran out of money before he got to Africa. Probably just as well: the rough cut was 8 hours long.

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

Editor's note: This article has been updated having first being published in 2009. Special thanks to CNET reader Paul T Horgan for his suggestions.