Movie Review: Futuristic Cities, LA Edition

January 15, 2014

A couple weeks ago I watched Her with some friends, the new Spike Jonze film that follows the romance between a man and his computer’s operating system. While I wasn’t very interested in the story itself (spoiler alert: man finds his true love, his true love finds better things to do), I was impressed with the film’s vision of a future Los Angeles. This near-future LA is a city of trains; clean, wide-open spaces; high rises; and high technology. This future seems like a really nice place, where one’s only worry is finding love, and where everyone, including the everyman hero of the film, can fall asleep with a gorgeous nighttime vista of the city just outside his floor-to-ceiling windows. The colors were beautiful, the advertising tasteful, the buildings new and efficient. Turns out the movie was filmed in Shanghai, with glimpses of current LA landmarks thrown in to make the setting believable. I came out feeling much more impressed with the main character’s world than with any of the actual plot. This is a lovely vision of Los Angeles, although perhaps, in its own way, as far-fetched of a vision for the near future as in any good science fiction.

And then a few days ago I re-watched Blade Runner, this time on Blu-ray, where the details of the city setting were startlingly clear. I think there’s a surprising kinship between these two films, since Blade Runner asks many of the same questions about the humanity of artificial intelligences and the possibility of loving a machine (in this case, an android instead of an incorporeal operating system). But the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (unflatteringly set in “November 2019”) is pure dystopia. The giant high rises are there, but instead of gleaming, they sparkle, with menace. There are flying cars and space colonies, but no cell phones in sight. I’m always fascinated with what things the filmmakers get right about the future and what things they miss; this LA keeps its dependence on cars, true to the present, but its density is outrageous compared to what we now expect over the next 5 years. The depicted degree of American and Chinese culture assimilation is way off, not to mention our obvious lack of genetically-engineered androids. The weather is wrong, shown as a constant monsoon, rather than the extreme dryness we’re currently experiencing, but the continuous rain is probably a nod to film noir conventions rather than a climate change prediction.

With respect to the story, I think Blade Runner is by far the superior film of the two, but of course it varies widely from Her in genre and mood, so perhaps it isn’t fair to compare them. The future LA of Blade Runner seems to be the opposite of the LA of Her except for the focus on density, so I’m glad I was able to see them together for comparison. While I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Her, if you like romances, then I’d say give it a shot - the visuals at least are lovely, and it’s fun to see such a positive vision of the future. Granted, the city is supposed to be beautiful but “empty,” unable to provide an emotional connection between people, which forces the main character to depend on his computer, but it sure looks like a place I’d like to live. I do recommend re-watching Blade Runner if it’s been a while, if only for the emotional jolt of seeing what the 1980s thought about the 2010s. It might still surprise you and encourage you to continue doing whatever it is you do to prevent the potential urban apocalypse.

Edit (1/20/14): I just saw this great article by Alissa Walker, who starts with a similar analysis of “Her” but goes on to a great argument about density in cities. If you’re interested in the urbanism of “Her” then I would definitely check out Alissa’s piece!