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Conceptualising Fictional Cities September 30, 2010

Posted by Oli in Battlestar Galactica, Ecstacity, The Matrix, Urban Geography, Visualising Cities.
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Coruscant, capital of the Galactic Republic, an ecumenopolis with a population of 1 trillion

Technology is reproducing cities very rapidly. Or shall I say producing cities? Not artificial cities, but experiential cities that are pure hyper-reality, a simulacrum space par excellence (to mesh Baurdiallardian and Deleuzian language). Reproducing cities is as easy as driving a car with a camera mounted on top and putting the results online, but virtually producing entirely new cities from scratch requires a certain technology that can interpret the most creative of urban planners/builders; a technology which has only really been available in the last few decades or so. Visual arts technologies are creating architectural masterpieces that we immerse ourselves in, allowing us to exit the desert of the real and enter an avatar-populated hyper-reality which invokes upotian, but often dytopian fantasies of excess, violence, hedonism and inequalities. Film and computer game technological production techniques are at the forefront of this process and our cultural landscape is awash with these hyper-real cities that we can plug into and add to our memories of mental cityscape construction (a notable exception to this is the wonderfully crafted Ecstacity by Nigel Coates which exists on the pages of it’s Guide Book). But given this increase in the variety of destinations, which city is the best one to visit? Liberty City? Caprica? How can we analyse these fictional hyper-real cities, and how can we navigate them to fully comprehend the multiplicities of narratives, read the layers of urban palimpsests and listen to the heteroglossic voices? This post tries to find out….

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Battlestar Gallactica: A review October 8, 2009

Posted by Oli in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix, The Wire.
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Having just finished watching the entire four series of Battlestar Gallactica, rather modestly, the conclusion of the show evoked a wide range of thoughts, emotions, arguments and queries about the nature of society, religion, philosophy and morality. So where to begin?  Not much to deal with is there?

First things first, if you haven’t seen it all then stop reading now; go out and buy the boxset (or download it), stop watching any series you are currently engrossed in (unless it’s The Wire, or the first half of season 1 of 24) and clear a week in your diary.

A detailed synopsis is available on the Battlestar wikipage, but very briefly, the series details the journey of humans as they escape from their home planets (called the 12 colonies), having just been nuked by humanoid robots (Cylons). The Cylons then chase the remaining humans, led by a military ‘Battlestar’, called Galactica through the universe. The president of the fleet, inspired by mythical visions and prophetic texts (akin to the Bible) is leading them to a new home, ‘Earth’ (the fabled 13th colony), only to find that this planet has also been nuked. It turns out that this destruction-chase-resettlement cycle has been going on for a while, with humans creating Cylons, Cylons rebelling against the humans, war, then resettlement. However, in the final battle, a truce is agreed, and together, they find ‘Earth’ (as we knew it 150,000 years ago) and decide to forgo their technologies and create a new civilisation with the primitive hunter-gatherers they find on the planet, based solely on their interactions, language and minds (and all the culture and socialisation therein imbued). Hence, throughout the series, what we see as human-like technology and culture, is in fact the basis of our current society. This is ossified by the final scene that is set in our present New York City (some 150,000 hence) – with the cycle seemingly over. However, it concludes with what feels like a warning that our current obsession with AI and technology may be fueling another occurrence of man-made robot rebellion (re Frankenstein, Terminator or any other Sci-Fi cyborg-related story out there) and the cycle will start again once more (note – this echoes the message I teased out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in a previous blog post).

The show is rich in philosophical and societal tangents and it seems almost ignorant to boil the show down to one ‘theme’, but if there is one thought that permeates throughout the series (for me anyway) is the spirituality of it – references to God, gods, souls, angels, demons and a ‘higher purpose’ are rife throughout and ultimately conclude the show. However, this is not to say that the show has a preachy evangelistic message, far from it. The adult dialogue and (for the most part) undiluted and deliberately esoteric language demands attention and forces the viewer to engage with what religious people will proclaim is ‘God’, and what other people ignore or fail to comprehend. There are many Christian references, with Christ-like resurrection, angels and even the importance the Bob Dylan track ‘All Along the Watchtower’ with it’s direct biblical quotations, namely Isiah 21:5-9. The hook of the show is essentially that some ‘higher power’ has been guiding the fleet and presiding over (or the direct causation of) the ‘cycles’ of destruction and rebirth, and with freewill the way it is, waiting for the humans to decide to stop the cycle by engendering a ‘clean slate’ which is what we see in the finale.

What is interesting to me is echoed in the closing dialogue of the show:

The reference to mathematics and complex systems is elsewhere in the series, however, the interplay between the workings of mathematics and the planning of a deity is a deliberate attempt to align the two. They are further interwoven with the remark “You know It doesn’t like that name”, with the word ‘it’ used instead of ‘he’ – the more traditional definitive article of a deity (the retraction of this afterwards I put down to a final exchange of comedy between these particular two characters that has played out throughout the series). Herein lies the crux of the matter. The producers of the show, while they have talked about how they like the show to be interpreted however you choose, seem to be alluding to the visceral knowledge of ‘something else’ other than what can be attributed to empirical observation. This ‘ether’ can be interpreted though a range of experiences, idioms or processes including complexity and mathematics, an infinite and collective consciousness, the emotional swell felt with a piece of music, or by assigning it the name ‘God’. Unlike The Matrix, which also has as its hook the breaking of a cycle of war between humans and machines, Battlestar Galactica plays on the otherness of experiential humanism by engaging with the significance of it to our behaviour, both individually and collectively. The limitations of the human body to experience this otherness is all too obvious (such as the fact that the human eye only sees only a small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum) and there is a wonderful piece of dialogue between two Cylons earlier on in the series which alludes to this fact. The characters struggle with these other ‘forces’ at work (interpreted as either destiny, God, luck, angels, fate etc) and some accepting their humanity for what it is, others fighting it every step of the way. The exploration of this matter is far from perfect (as it is to be expected, laced with Hollywood banalities), however, for the thoughts it leaves you with alone, it is worth the hassle.

The fact that the filmmakers suggest that the present day human race are decedents from the Cylons, with the overt implication that the Cylon-human hybrid little girl (seen in the video above) is Mitochondrial Eve, is also one of many interesting tangents (one that Bruno Latour would no doubt have alot to say about) that could be extrapolated from BSG (there are many books delving much deeper into the topics – this being one of the best). It’s geopolitics and commentary on contemporary American foreign policies is particularly striking, sometimes forehead-slappingly determinate, but always thought-provoking and comes with notable acting performances by some. In answer to the question posed by this journalist, I would levee a big frakking ‘no’, however it deals with a much broader range of issues, and arguably leaves a more emotional lump in the throat than Baltimore’s finest.

Visualising Cities: Part 3 – “…starring, Sydney as Nowhere in Particular…” February 17, 2009

Posted by Oli in Films, Sydney, The Matrix, Urban Geography, Visualising Cities.
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Carrying on my series of visualising cities (see Part 1 and Part 2), I wanted to focus on one of my specialist cities….

No doubt you have all seen the Matrix films, and no doubt you would have recognised the fact that it was Sydney in the background, playing the role as that anonymous, gritty, futuristic city that the Waschowski Brothers wanted. What is also common knowledge is for that very reason, many of Sydney’s icons were erased from the film, deliberately not shown in order to preserve the placelessness of the city (although, it is easy for those who have spent any prolonged period of time in Sydney to pick out particular buildings and places that are used constantly throughout the film). The script of The Matrix and its subsequent sequels demanded anonymity, and although this annoyed many of the people in the upper echelons of Sydney’s corridors of power, Sydney remained relegated to a supporting role, a paradoxical role of always being in view but never being seen. Trawling the Internet sites and various blogs, it then becomes perplexing when people believe the city on show is Chicago. The reasons for which are the use of Chicago street names, the ‘Loop’ sign on the front of the subway train (referring to a train line in Chicago – even though Chicago has not got much of a subway, only an elevated railway) and the fact that the Wachowski Brothers are from Chicago originally. For some it can be infuriating that Sydney is so hidden from the world in such a successful film, but for others, the brief cameo roles played by the BT tower and the Allianz tower on Market Street, or the fountain on Martins Place, provide them with a sense of pride, a little wink to the world that they know where it is even if the rest of the world does not. Other films have used Sydney as somewhere else – with Kangaroo Jack (with Sydney as New York), and Superman Returns (as Metropolis).

Contrast this situation with that of Mission Impossible 2 which gratuitously shows Sydney in all its glory, with hanging shots of the Opera House and rugged cliff faces of Sydney Harbour. If the rumours are true, this was at the request of Tom Cruise who wanted one of his films to show Sydney to its full potential glory – something we have to thank Nicole Kidman for (although being in the run up to the Olympics helped  – in the same way the Mummy 3 was hastily put together before the Beijing Olympics to showcase Chinse culture). The difference of Sydney’s role in these two films (the Matrix and Mission Impossible 2) is immense, yet for Sydney itself the role it has played in film and the global film industry as a whole has benefited immensely from both these films. The opening of Fox Studios in Moore Park is the reason why these films (among many others) have been shot in Sydney – a move which was controversial at the time, and for many factions of the industry, still very much is.

Sydney is a favourite among Hollywood filmmakers precisely because it can double as pretty much anywhere in the world (you can read my journal articles if you’re interested to know a bit more), but seeing it disappear into the background in many films is testament to the aesthetics and architecture of the city itself. Cities in films are a crucial way in which they can gain popularity, and in fact film maps of particular cities are an important part of their tourism agenda (see Film London’s movie maps – the most viewed item on the website apparently). If a city is ‘erased’ from a film, then so are the emotional, iconic, rhetorical and personal networks associated with them. If a film (or TV series) is set in a city then there are already in place certain assumptions within the viewer, which can either work for or against the filmmakers. If the narrative of film calls for a generic city however then without CGI, the city identity needs to be erased. But can it ever be properly erased? Remember the scene in the Matrix when Morpheus loads Neo into a training simulation near a fountain (the one with the women in the red dress)? That fountain holds a prominent position in Martins Place in the centre of downtown Sydney, and therefore hold certain visual connotations to that city and cannot be truly ‘generic’ (also I distinctly remember seeing large amounts of Chicago in the Dark Knight’s Gotham City). This gives people a sense of place, be it through a personal memory or a recalled image, but links into the visual images of the film.

Cities, or more precisely, the buildings in them can be visually stiking and their skylines make for impressive aesthetics in films. Trying to erase or ‘unidentify’ a city is a perilous task and can only be achieved veneerily; the complexities, networks and chaotic structures of cities cannot be easily hidden.

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