Spielberg, Dystopia and … Birmingham

by David Adams and Wil Vincent

Birmingham Street used in Spielberg'd forthcoming film
Spielberg in Birmingham. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ell-r-brown/28978795090

Some people will have picked-up on Steven Spielberg’s recent visit to Birmingham.  The director of E.T., Jaws, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and current hit The BFG was shooting footage for his dystopian sci-fi thriller, Ready Player One – the film adaptation of the award-winning novel by Ernest Cline.  Set in 2044 with many people living in bleak stacks of homes piled on top of each other; this forms a rather grim urban backdrop.  Photographs of the Birmingham filming locations posted on Twitter, for example, show graffiti-covered walls, streets covered with litter and smashed cars.[i]  The film is scheduled for release in 2018.

Pollution, over-crowding, man-made and natural disasters, and controlling forces of surveillance, all feature heavily in many films, books and other media about urban malaise.  In fact, a whole host of environmental, socio-cultural, political, economic, religious, psychological and technological issues exercise the creative energies of authors and filmmakers.  There is perhaps more to these fables, though.  In some ways, they provide warnings to future developers, planners, decision makers and others involved with the designing, building and managing of the environment.[ii]  Paying heed to these portents also gives us some hope to how problems might be resolved before crises hit.

blog-36-taster-1One early example of classic urban cinematic science-fiction is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Released in 1927, it shows the horrors of the modern, industrial city.  With obvious nods to the architectural visions of Le Corbusier, the vertiginous skyscrapers of Metropolis contain opulent rooftop apartments for the ruling class.  At ground level, though, the horrors of an industrial working class are seen slaving away to ensure that capital accumulation and the motors of commerce continues.  In the 1950s, Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth published a persuasive text, The Space Merchants; this presented a version of Lang’s Metropolis with its sprawling, overcrowded cities whose inhabitants are addicted to unhealthy food and cigarettes controlled by a capitalist military-advertising complex.[iii]

Another overcrowded and densely-populated scene features New York City in The Space Merchants.  It represents a gruesome vision of the future, inspired partially by planning designs overseen by Robert Moses.  One of the most powerful urban planners in New York’s history, Moses is perhaps infamous for his involvement in clearing away neighbourhoods in order to make space for fast-flowing freeways and high-rises.[iv]  His ‘top-down’ view of development brought him into direct conflict with notable activists such as Jane Jacobs, who championed to keep local areas intimate and diverse.  She argued that cities were for pedestrians and should contain a blend of commercial and residential uses.[v]  Her advocacy undoubtedly helped ‘save’ many aspects of Western cities from unsympathetic forms of development.  Although, of course, neighbourhood preservation has been criticised by some for contributing to gentrification; whilst a combination of socio-economic factors also meant that white and affluent classes fled urban cores for the suburbs during the mid-to-late twentieth century.[vi]

There are more hopeful messages, though, and the relationship between utopia and dystopia is complex.  It is widely recognised that cities are crucibles of social, cultural and technological innovation.[vii]  Also, tales of future urban environments, located in some distant time and space, are sometimes represented as having emancipatory qualities.  Historically, Thomas More, Thommaso Campanella, Johann Valentin Andrae and Francis Bacon have all evoked futuristic fantasies of idealised societies on Earth; whilst Johannes Kepler, Francis Gowin and Cyrano de Bergerac have, in their different ways, sketched-out utopian values and customs on other planets.  In the more recent past, Ernest Callenbach’s utopian novel Ecotopia, focuses on a future San Francisco that exists in a steady / stable state economy following the disruption of civil war.[viii]  Creativity, equality, recycling and resource protection are key messages in this account.

More recently still, the 2008 film City of Ember, based on the novel by Jeanne DuPrau, and outlines how urban environments are resilient to man-made and environmental threats.[ix] When the story begins, the main characters are seeking refuge in the subterranean city of Ember after an apocalypse has rendered the Earth’s surface uninhabitable.  Supported by a diminishing energy source, its residents and resources are tightly controlled.  And yet, unlike most of the urban dystopias, City of Ember ends on a largely positive note: in the film, two characters escape from the city and make their way to the planet’s surface to discover that Earth is habitable again.

There are many other examples, of course.  Ultimately, though, Spielberg’s Ready Player One and other similar narratives should serve as a reminder that the dystopian visions of society are not entirely inhibitive: science-fiction offers some cautionary tales, commenting on the implications of exploitation, environmental degradation, surveillance that stalks the imagination.  These narratives can also be seen as chance to recapture dreams of helping to design, create and manage better places of the future.



[i] Beardsworth, L. (2016) ‘Watch incredible Ready Player One car chase footage filmed in Birmingham’, in The Birmingham Mail 6 September.  Available from: http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/film-news/watch-incredible-ready-player-one-11850793 [last accessed 20 September 2016].

[ii] See, for example, Gold, J. (2001) ‘Under Darkened Skies: The City in Science-fiction’, Geography 86(4): 337-345.

[iii] Pohl, F. and Kornbluth, C. (1952) ‘The Space Merchants’, Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1952, Single Issue Magazine, Galaxy, New York.

[iv] For a critical review of Moses’ work, see Berman, M. (1982) All That is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin Books, New York.

[v] Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Vintage Books, New York.

[vi] See, for example, Fishman, R. (1987) Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia. Basic Books, New York.

[vii] See, for example, Sassen, S. (2001) The Global City: New York, London. Tokyo, Princeton, New Jersey.

[viii] Callenbach, E. (1975) Ecotopia. Banyan Tree Books, Vancouver.

[ix] DuPrau, J. (2004) The City of Ember. Yearling Books, New York.

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