I was reading the other day about what’s called the “Blue Banana”. Basically this is an arc of heavy urbanisation that stretches from Cardiff in Wales, to Milan in Italy. Along the way it intersects with London, Paris and Berlin – three of the most strategically, culturally and financially important cities on earth. They are, due to constant expansion, becoming one large urban centre, linked by a series of high-speed rail networks and hundreds of growing communities. This is happening in our lifetime. The year I turned five the Channel Tunnel opened. It was an immense feat of engineering, the sole purpose of which was to connect the UK, in a physical sense, with a continent it has been separate from for something like sixteen thousand years.
This made me think. Assuming the current rate of expansion, and assuming that a Malthusian catastrophe isn’t upon us, this trend is only likely to continue. The large-scale industralization and conglomeration of farms has meant a migration of people from the countryside towards urban centres. I live near Edinburgh in Scotland, and this progress is noticeable. Two hundred years ago “Edinburgh” was three or four square miles of clean Georgian buildings. Today Edinburgh is swallowing up nearby Cramond, Leith, Fife and Musselburgh. London is now so large that it extends into the English counties of Berkshire, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey. The world is becoming one of megacities.
Which makes me think we need to look more closely at cities and embrace them for what they are. There’s still very much a bias against the City in favour of the Country, and this needs reexamined. Cities, with their grime, crime and isolation, are still beautiful. Let’s not forget that grime, crime and isolation exist in the countryside, and in the countryside I can’t get a latte and a Meatball Subway at 2am, which is when I really want it.
Cities in movies are characters and need to be treated as such. We still have a tendency to see film like a stage play, where the backdrop is just…a backdrop (I had a clever analogy there but I’ve wasted it). So here’s my tribute to the greatest cities in movies. These are places I’d like to visit.
Dark City (1998) – Dark City
You’ve probably never seen or heard of Dark City. Shame on you. I’ll tell you why, though. The next year two obscure writers produced a film that was an exact replica of Dark City, except it had kung fu and guns in it. It was called The Matrix.
The two films have almost the same conceit – sinister overlords are controlling every aspect of reality and a solitary hero who develops the ability to do the same . But whereas The Matrix had machines piping dreams into gooey, sleeping people, Dark City has real people living in a giant clockwork city orbiting the moon (I know, right? Doesn’t that sound like a better movie?!). It’s perpetually dark and while people sleep the overlords alter reality, so that a man who goes to sleep as a stockbroker wakes up as a shoe-shiner, with no memory of his affluent past.
The city itself is this grimly beautiful urban hell, reminiscent of the cinema of Fritz Lang (think M. or Metropolis). Buildings move about in the dark. There’s a place called Shell Beach but nobody knows how to get there. In summary : it’s like Leni Reifenstahl made The Truman Show.
Did I mention it has Jennifer Connelly in it?
Metropolis (1927) – Metropolis
The daddy of all science fiction films is hosted by the daddy of all cities. Metropolis needs no fancy name – it is what it says. Built on the backs of captive workers while aristocrats live in tower-palaces, it’s Ayn Rand’s wet dream. It’s interesting to note that people in the twenties genuinely believed that this was the future. It was a future where skyscrapers got bigger while conforming to their original proportions, where monoplanes flew between the Brownstones, where VWs and Citroens drove on high-rise equivalents of the newly-developed freeways. We always do this when we imagine the future – we take what we have now and make it bigger or more efficient. And of course the future sneaks up on us out of nowhere. Technological development is not linear.
But that doesn’t stop Metropolis from being the ultimate city, a German Expressionist masterpiece of a city. It’s a bit weird to think that a mere decade later a German would come along and really work on the idea of the blonde, youthful rich living off of the sweat of their swarthy slave labour. The future’s funny like that.
Franklyn (2008) – Meanwhile City
If you haven’t seen Franklyn, I have advice for you: don’t bother. I’ll summarise the plot. Sam Reilly wears a scarf and talks sadly about his imaginary friend. Eva Green is the most objectionable and pretentious artist in the history of art, constructing a film where she attempts suicide multiple times in the name of art, and Ryan Phillippe is a soldier with PTSD who lives in a bizarre dreamworld. Meanwhile City is how he sees London – a gothic, misty city full of policemen wearing absurdly large hats.
Franklyn is basically a big waste of everybody’s time, with three redeeming features: 1) Eva Green’s in it, and she can come round anytime 2) Sam Reilly’s in it, and he’s a ridiculously underrated actor, and 3) Meanwhile City looks like a genuinely cool place to hang out. I’d be more supportive of the police if they wore ridiculous hats.
The Phantom Menace (1999) – Coruscant
Take them or leave them (and I’d recommend leaving them, maybe in front of a freight train laden with uranium and hatred), the Star Wars prequels had a hell of a design team. I can still name a few of them: Doug Chiang, Rick McCallum, Kun Chang and Neil D’Monte – all geniuses in their field. Most captivating on the many scenes they designed is one planet we don’t get to see for terribly long. It’s not even a city: according to Wookiepedia* it’s an “ecumenopolis” – a world city, home to over a trillion people (that’s a one followed by twelve zeroes). Can you imagine trying to get a taxi in a city like that?
Wookiepedia makes it clear Coruscant isn’t such hot shit after all. it doesn’t have any parks or nice places just to hang out (upside: no hippie twats sitting in the park playing the bongos. When I used to live in Edinburgh I went to the park on Sunday to chain-smoke and cry my way through hangovers, and there was always some PRICK there with dreadlocks playing the fucking drums) and is rife with corruption and crime. And it’s host to the Galactic Senate, and if the European Union Parliament is anything to go by that must be the most boring thing ever. But I bet Coruscant has some bitching clubs.
On a side note, do you know what i find cripplingly annoying about sci-fi films? Themed planets. I’ll give you an example. In Stars Wars there are volcanic planets and ice planets, water planets and city planets. That’s just fucking stupid. How can one planet be just one thing? It’s like when the Star Trek planets have one culture, one government, one identity. I mean, look at our planet. It’s got hundreds, if not thousands of unique cultures, more geographical diversity than you can shake a probe at and enough biodiversity to make the weirdest aliens on Star Trek seem as dull as Buzz Killington. Do your homework, sci-fi writers.
Se7en (1996) – The City
Dennis O’Neill of Batman fame described Gotham City like this; “Batman’s Gotham City is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at eleven minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”. Se7en‘s city is Manhattan below Fourteenth on the wettest day in hell. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman search for the titular serial killer through a maze of decaying, rotted, rain-damaged buildings. Everything is covered in a thick haze of rain splash. The visual effect, of course, is to make it the least inviting city on earth without giving it a name. It could be anywhere. There are no seasons. For some reason it reminds me Dark City, as it has that same oppressive, overwhelming feeling, as if all of the inhabitants are being slowly suffocated. After I read The Hobbit I used to have nightmares about Mirkwood, the endless, silent, inescapable forest, and I get the same feeling while watching Se7en. This city eats people. It certainly eats the bits of Gwyneth Paltrow you couldn’t fit in a coolbox.
*If you’re wondering what Wookiepedia is, it’s a website where people devote as much time to “uncovering” “truths” about the fictional series Star Wars as Christian scholars put into “uncovering” “truths” from that other great fictional series, The Bible.