Did Back to the Future succeed because it was set in a small town?

One journalist argues Back to the Future was aided by its small town setting:

Strip away the time-travel facade and Back to the Future is a fun, zany small-town comedy, with its nastiest villain a high school bully and its biggest triumph a kiss between his two victims. Director Robert Zemeckis seized upon the concept of Marty McFly’s DeLorean trip to 1955 while looking through his parents’ basement and stumbling upon relics from their graduating class. He pitched the idea to Steven Spielberg, who agreed to produce the project. The strength of the movie is that its most fantastical element is rendered as something any audience member could imagine: the bizarre and frightening experience of meeting your parents as their teenaged selves. Compared to the current era of summer movies, so focused on omnipotent superheroes doing battle on a planetary scale, that simplicity feels revolutionary…

But Back to the Future topped them all, literally traveling back in time to tap into America’s small-town ‘50s nostalgia.

An interesting argument as Americans do like the idea of small towns. And I suspect that data may suggest that most recent blockbuster films – whether action/superhero movies, disaster films, and dystopian films – are primarily set in big cities. Big cities may offer bigger spectacles, more potential for destruction and a broader scale for both danger and heroism, while small towns in such films suggest more intimate lives. Of course, the devastation and action portrayed in such films would have a profound impact on a suburban or rural landscape (disturbing major sources of agriculture could be quite problematic) but there are fewer people and buildings involved.

Portraying a broken-down Chicago in Divergent

The new movie Divergent takes place in a dystopian Chicago:

And instead of a vibrant, healthy metropolis of canals and glass towers downtown, the Lake Shore Drive bridge at the Chicago River has collapsed; a few skyscrapers have fallen into jumbles of stones; a few are heavily damaged, the outcome of some unnamed catastrophe; and many more stand dormant and dark. There don’t seem to be any cars, and there don’t seem to be any people. A little water remains in the main branch of the river but not that much. And everywhere, vegetation runs riot…

Throughout the spring and summer last year, while the movie crew of “Divergent” shot around Chicago, production designer Andy Nicholson, who had recently finished work on the technologically innovative “Gravity,” often found himself driving through potholes. Every day he drove to the set, he said, and every day he would notice “a lot of Chicago roads needed resurfacing or seemed about to be resurfaced or were in the middle of resurfacing. You saw a lot of neglect in Chicago.” And when the crew ventured into old steel yards on the South Side, Nicholson noticed overgrowth not unlike what he pictured for Michigan Avenue in the film…

Said Haller: “They wanted to know what Chicago would look like 20 years in the future so they could then show its decline from there out. I told them: More tall buildings. And we don’t envision any new districts, but probably more expansion west. And we’re sort of slaves to transportation systems, so everything would continue to converge on the Loop.” He also told them about the city’s flood-fighting Deep Tunnel Project (in the film, one of the factions is headquartered in a network of massive underground tunnels). “I didn’t mean to sound optimistic,” Haller said, “but, barring ecological collapse, our dystopian possibilities are mitigated.”…

Despite seemingly intractable problems that would suggest it is a perfect 21st-century dystopian setting — perpetually heavy-handed government, gun violence, profound inequality — Chicago is, in fact, such a prosperous place that it’s likely new installments of “Divergent” will not film here. (The sequel, “Insurgent,” will shoot in Atlanta, and it is unclear what Chicago’s role will be.) The city is too expensive. Said Rich Moskal, director of the Chicago Film Office: “Filmmakers understand it’s a thriving place, which makes it difficult to push everything aside to film. Chicago can read, in places, as a city in decline. Yet, sitting next door, you’re also looking at some of the highest-priced real estate in the country.”

Predicting what cities of the future will look like is difficult for many films, whether projecting American cities will look more like Chinese cities in Her or creating all new cities in The Hunger Games. It sounds like the plan for Divergent was to try to “naturally” project what a decaying Chicago might look like in a few decades. It is interesting how they looked for inspiration to some of the older industrial area of Chicago, places that once housed more businesses and people but were left behind by a shift away from manufacturing. All major American cities likely have some areas that are like this, not all that far away from the glittering downtowns where business and political leaders try to funnel tourists and businesses. In fact, this is one of the more fascinating features of modern cities (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution): there are parts humming with culture, business activity, and sparkling features of modern life and then there are places that literally seem of a different decade or century.

At the same time, the presence of potholes in the midst of one of the worst winters on record doesn’t necessarily foretell a dystopia in the near future…

Large but empty developments in China

The New York Times reports on a large development recently constructed outside of Ordos, a city in northern China with about 1.5 million people. In an area that is planned to house 300,000, there are currently very few residents:

City leaders, cheered on by aggressive developers, had hoped to turn Ordos into a Chinese version of Dubai — transforming vast plots of the arid, Mongolian steppe into a thriving metropolis. They even invested over $1 billion in their visionary project.

But four years after the city government was transplanted to Kangbashi, and with tens of thousands of houses and dozens of office buildings now completed, the 12-square-mile area has been derided in the state-run newspaper China Daily as a “ghost town” monument to excess and misplaced optimism.

As China’s roaring economy fuels a wild construction boom around the country, critics cite places like Kangbashi as proof of a speculative real estate bubble they warn will eventually pop — sending shock waves through the banking system of a country that for the last two years has been the prime engine of global growth.

I wonder what it would be like to drive through such a large developed area that is basically empty. Such an experience would easily provide a context for a dystopian film. But in this case, the people haven’t been driven off by some odd disease or monster – it is the more prosaic, yet perhaps more potent, issue of economic trouble.

h/t The Infrastructurist