The Cities Science Fiction Built: Looking at The Fifth Element

Adam Rothstein’s piece called The Cities Science Fiction Built takes a look at many of the science fiction films and books in Western media. He attempts to show how exactly the spaces created in these narratives derive from our own current cities, or very specifically attempt to counter them. He provides a lot of different examples, but the one I would like to focus on is the space described in the movie The Fifth Element. Rothstein uses this movie as an example of science fiction taking aspects of a city we know well today and keeping that essence in a fictional future with many new changes. He points out that the film still includes fire escapes that would not seem to serve much of a purpose so high up, since the skyscrapers have gotten so tall. In fact, I think it’s safe to say fire escapes are pretty useless even now. Exterior fire escapes ceased to be required after the 1968 building code. Their existence now and in the film seems to be based on something that most people just naturally associate with New York City. So it would seem that the creators of this future New York felt that taking away these details that have made New York recognizable as New York would not be helpful to the growth of the city, even 200 years down the line. So I wonder: how important are landmarks and iconography to a city? Is it worth it to keep details that serve no utilitarian purpose anymore for the sake of recognition? Is it progress vs. cultural history, or can they live in harmony? According to what is shown in the movie, they seem to live in harmony. Rothstein mentions that apart from the futuristic gadgets, the main character’s apartment is distinctly New York, and so is the building architecture and facades outside. This version of an intelligent space seems to believe in marrying the future with the past. But what about the present? Does this version of New York include a brunch culture and Shake Shacks? How do you decide what is important enough to keep and what can be discarded or rebuild bigger, better, faster? I suppose it could be those things that people associate most closely with the city, but is that what people from the outside looking in are associating with it or the actual people living in the city? Who’s version matters?

Intelligence in the Fifth element involves self-making beds, improved coffee maker
s, flying cars. It is the intelligence of utilitarian items. People seem to have similar mannerisms, emotions, reactions to the present. People haven’t changed, just the items around them. In a way, the city is also given this personality that therefore never changes. It has gained extra utility, it has been added to and improved upon, but it stays the same in terms of it’s character.

I would say the areas The Fifth Element doesn’t explore is the reality of these decisions to keep the character of New York alive. Would it be so simple as to just build on top of what is already there? It seems like it would be an immense struggle to have changed so much and still keep the essence of the city the same. This is clear today from just looking at areas in Brooklyn vs. 10-15 years ago. The Williamsburg and Bushwick of today are not what they once were, and most of their current residents either have no idea what it was or have forgotten. Gentrification is a real problem and understanding how to walk that tightrope between progress and wiping out what is currently in a space is something that was not addressed in the space created for The Fifth Element.


  1. I thought this was super interesting and relates a lot to what I have been exploring for this assignment too. I especially liked when you talk about keeping the essence of a city. That concept is really powerful and I agree with you when you say that Brooklyn (or Bushwick) are not what they were 10 years ago. Although I agree with that, it did remind me of how some developers are trying to develop “the feel” of Brooklyn to sell new property. That reappropriation of a specific culture or ‘feel’ seems like a powerful theme to navigate, especially when future thinking. It would be interesting to explore if places like Hudson Yards are building upon some ‘feel’ or going tabula rasa, like the Manifesto referenced in the article would intend.

  2. What is it exactly that captures the “essence” of a city? I too am intrigued by the strange marriage of old and new. Steampunk as a genre also does this, except it reverses the setting to a past yet with reimagined anachronistic steam-powered technology—Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes to mind. In both films, there is a commonality of “nostalgia” that provides a reference point and enables recognition of, and familiarity with a known city. “Memory of the city”, becomes an important player in the perception of the city. As designers, should we aim to maintain a balanced sense of nostalgia and history in the changing city? Thank you for bringing our attention to the importance of landmarks and iconography in the individualism, or moral worth of the city.

  3. I’m very intrigued by the points you bring up about marrying the old and the new, considering what is important to keep or continue incorporating elements that people expect of a certain space. It reminds me of palm trees in California. The signature tree of CA, the Canary Island Date Palm, had become synonymous with our imagery of the area. However, they present quite a few problems; they’re wildly expensive (at about $20,000 a tree) and they do not give back to the environment the way other trees do. Many palms in the area are becoming infected with a highly contagious fungus causing them to wilt and die. While this has provoked many areas of California to refrain from planting new trees, areas such as Hollywood does not have the same luxury. When people go to Hollywood, they expect to see these tall, luxurious trees. Just like NYC’s romanticized fire escapes, palm trees have become such a significant symbol of the area that lack of their presence would be utterly disappointing. Yet this is just another form of intelligence, isn’t it? Our act of associating has become a significant form of memory and communication, perhaps not the most beneficial, but still an intelligence.

  4. I really enjoyed our discussion about The Fifth Element last class… so much so that I re-watched it for the first time in probably a decade over the weekend. I think your observations about the marriage of past and future in the film are spot on. Despite the (debatable) improvements to utilitarian items, Korben’s apartment still feels so distinctly New York. The tension between progress and nostalgia/character is quite interesting. I wonder if there are ways of uncovering existing intelligences in a community as a means of sparking progress from within while resisting dramatic changes in character (displacement/gentrification).

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