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Act One: Hollywood films featuring planning issues

In 2008’s Wall-E, Waste Allocation Load Lifter (Earth Class) operates in solitude on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Humans, with the aid of the waste-producing Buy ‘n Large corporation, have destroyed the planet’s soil, air, and vegetation. While they wait in a fully-automated space station for Wall-E and his kind to clean up the planet, generations are born and live out their lives. Seven hundred years later, humans have suffered severe bone loss from a lifetime ingesting liquid food and living in microgravity, are wholly dependent upon technology, and too obese to walk unassisted. When EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetative Evaluator) is sent to Earth, she discovers a seedling sprouting on the planet’s surface. Her directive is to return to the space station and bring news of the planet’s recovery to the humans, who will then return to live on Earth.

This film, doubtless seen by more children by adults, is one of many films featuring important planning issues. Through dialogue, setting, plot and character development, Hollywood films often comment on issues such as environmental degradation, urban form, and transportation. Along with TV, the internet and video games, film plays an integral role in shaping our attitudes and perceptions. For example, is owning a car a symbol of success? Is living in suburbia stifling? What will the future be like?

One of the most common examples is Hollywood’s depiction of typical urban lifestyles. Who could forget Woody Allen’s famous line in Annie Hall (1977) upon arriving in Los Angeles: “What, you mean we’re actually going to walk? My feet haven’t hit the pavement since I got off the plane!” Earlier in the movie, Allen’s character Alvie Singer, a lifetime New Yorker, is shown walking from Manhattan restaurant to analyst’s office, and everywhere in between. When his friend constantly brings up the idea of moving to L.A., Alvie’s response is, “I don’t want to live in a city where the only advantage is you can take a right turn on a red light.” Walking is a theme that runs throughout movies set in New York City. Although When Harry Met Sally (1989) begins when the two main characters drive from Chicago to New York together, they are quickly absorbed into Manhattan’s pedestrian lifestyle. The two spend the rest of the movie meeting, and walking to, landmark restaurants (Katz’s Delicatessen, Cafe Luxembourg), stores (Shakespeare & Co, The Sharper Image), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Washington Square Park.

Urban settings often occupy crucial backgrounds in Hollywood films, commenting on social and environmental planning (or lack thereof). Witness the plethora of urban dystopia films (Metropolis (1927), Soylent Green (1973) Blade Runner (1982), Children of Men (2006), The Dark Knight (2008) to name a few) where the future is bleak, dark, gritty, and urban. These films exaggerate the unfriendliness of large urban centers and project forward to futures where “all is city”: nature, and the positive aspects of human nature, are nowhere to be seen. Wall-E echoes earlier films with an ecological theme such as Silent Running (1972) where a botanist works on a space freighter preserving the only botanical specimens left from earth, and Medicine Man (1992), where a doctor finds a cure for cancer in a particular species of spider, which is subsequently destroyed in slash-and-burn rainforest fashion.

If Earth is doomed to an environmentally degraded, nihilistic future, shouldn’t someone else be in charge? Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Rollerball (1975), THX 1138 (1971) and Total Recall (1981) and The Matrix (1999), examine a future where “society” is maintained through mind and social control. Militaristic states control citizens through their own endless rulebooks, and free will is not permitted; Neo’s attempts to control his own destiny within the Matrix meet with conflict after conflict. A twist on this is Demolition Man (1993), where a cop from the violent past must be awakened from a cryogenic state to catch a dangerous murderer. Police officers in a more peaceful future L.A., where people are fined for everything from swearing to parking infringements, are unable to stop the killer. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, AI (2001) and I, Robot (2004), technology dominates humans in the absence of their own good judgment; I, Robot’s V.I.K.I. uses her army of robots to place humans under virtual house arrest to prevent them from killing each other and destroying the planet. In 2001, extraterrestrial technology is responsible for the species’ development, including the development of language and weapons.

Suburban settings and their social effects have been examined in film almost since their very beginnings. Ira Levin’s 1972 classic novel The Stepford Wives (film adaptations 1975 and 2004) features all-too-perfect suburban housewives, who turn out to be robotic shells of their former selves. This year’s Revolutionary Road (2008), based on Richard Yates’ 1952 novel, offers another look at the stifling social atmosphere and constrained gender roles of suburbia. Some of the best explorations of the conformity and boredom of suburbia can be seen in a trio of films in the late 90s. Who could forget Reese Witherspoon’s question, “What’s outside of Pleasantville?” and the blank stares it engendered? As the two 90s-era teens encourage 50s-era Pleasantville (1998) residents start to think outside the box, they begin to see life in colour. Truman begins to chafe against his too-perfect life (The Truman Show (1998), but is reassured by his 1950s product-placement-spouting wife and his mother, who tries to convince him he should have children. Finally, the masterpiece American Beauty (1999) shows depression, infidelity, bitterness and murder lurking underneath the typical suburban existence.

Transportation modes emerge as plot elements in many films, often placing the film in a particular city. Many action movies feature the characters hopping on trains, buses, and streetcars in pivotal chase scenes. The falsely-accused Dr. Richard Kimble escapes from a bus/train crash on his way to prison and embarks on a cat-and-mouse game that takes viewers through the underbelly of Chicago in The Fugitive (1993). Lieutenant Gerrard tracks him down at one point by differentiating the sound of the train in the background as a Chicago L; Kimble finally catches the one-armed man on the L train. Jason Bourne (Bourne Supremacy (2004)) spends the majority of the film trilogy chasing, or being chased by, CIA agents on subways, streetcars, and high-speed trains throughout Europe. Speed (1994) features a policeman trying to stop a bus that has been armed with a bomb that will explode if the speed drops below 50mph. In 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the name of the New Orleans route acted as a narrative device symbolizing Blanche Dubois’ drive and downfall, as well as a deep longing for the Old South. The entire biography of Forrest Gump (1994) is told as Forrest sits and chats with a variety of people while waiting at a bus stop. The narrative arc is framed by young Forrest introducing himself to the school bus driver, and his son repeating the scene at the end of the film.

Cars are often used in character development, becoming linked to personality traits. The classic Bullitt (1968) features the first car chase scene in a movie, giving audiences a fantastic look at urban San Francisco. The film was also seminal for its linking of cool cops and sports cars, a device that was used in many later movies as well as the TV series Starsky and Hutch and Miami Vice. The James Bond series is notable for its use of luxury sports cars (Lotus, Alpha Romeo) to embody the spy’s dangerous, high-end lifestyle. Beverly Hills Cop (1984) poked fun of this image, featuring Axel Foley, a down-at-the-heels Detroit cop who was known for his “crappy blue Chevy Nova.” On the non-motorized end of the spectrum, Steve Carrell’s 40 Year Old Virgin (2005) was partly defined by his daily bike ride to work. His lack of a driver’s license, along with his virginity and obsession with comic book collectibles, was used to demonstrate his immaturity; the end of the movie shows him learning how to drive, preparing to get married and selling off the action figures. Low-income teen Andie (Pretty in Pink (1986) was defined by her second-hand clothes, unemployed father and absentee mother, but she could still afford to drive her own car to school. The message is clear: if you drive a car you’re a successful adult, and the better the car the better your life!

Like other media that constantly surrounds us and provides us with subliminal (or in some cases, overt) messages, films give us opportunities to discuss and examine our values around the environment, urban form, lifestyle, and their social effects. Films help bring planning issues, such as how to plan more sustainable cities, into everyday conversation. As planners we need to be in touch with film as a media that influences attitudes and perceptions.


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