Arch 443/646: Architecture and Film
Fall 2010

The Fifth Element (1997)

Brazil (1985)


Discussion Questions:
last updated January 2, 2011


In this set of questions we will explore the use of sets in modern Metropolis films. Blade Runner used a combination of models and modified site shooting. Fifth Element (model pictured below) used models and "green screen" shooting (fairly new at the time of the making of the film. Brazil used a very wide variety of real buildings to create its interpretation of the city.

Your name is ABOVE your set of images and phrase. Feel free to draw in comparisons to any of the other films we have viewed this term if it helps to support your answer.



  1. Elaine Chau : Vertical movement in the city. Compare use of vertical movement in Fifth Element, Brazil and Metropolis. x

The use of vertical movement in the city helps the viewer to understand its scale in relation to the current model of a city, which is more of an undulating skyline typology. In all three movies, the future city is a vertical dystopia. In order to accommodate an expanding population, buildings begin to expand in all directions. There is always one building that rises above all – this is where the maker of the city resides. Tall buildings emphasize a focus on industry and the need for continual progress.

In Fifth Element, vertical movement helps to reinforce the idea of a technologically advanced city. Most of the film takes place between the spaces of the buildings so that one always feels enclosed within a system that is rather maze-like. The buildings appear to be composed in endless layers. Developments run seamlessly from above grade to below grade. Vertical development is the most efficient way in organizing a city as large populations can be accommodated while maintaining a tight network of utilities and communications. Transportation does not only run in horizontal planes, but it also moves vertically along the heights of the buildings. This type of vertical movement helps us to see the traditional city in a new light where nothing is limited. This new type of system helps to relieve traffic congestion. If one was not familiar with the city, it would be extremely difficult to navigate.

Metropolis uses verticality to communicate the separation of classes in the literal and metaphorical sense. Vertical movement from above grade to below grade highlights the magnitude of this separation. This is seen in the elevator that transports the workers into and out of the subterranean realm. Verticality between the two worlds gives the viewer a greater sense of depth and perspective.

Brazil explores a world that is a mix of realism and fantasy. It plays with verticality in terms of falling in and out of the two realms being explored. The plot of Brazil is difficult to follow in that scenes move very quickly from one another – there is a lot of physical movement. This enforces the idea of the city being a dystopian society. Like Metropolis, Brazil uses verticality to express the separation of classes and the struggle against the bureaucracy. The main character of Sam Lowry has frequent dreams of flying above the city. Achieving vertically is equivalent to acquiring freedom – it is an escape from the bureaucracy.


2. Anne Cheung : Comparison of Fhlotsan Paradise to the more opulent spaces in Brazil (fancy restaurant). How do these feed into a different notion of decadence in the City? You might want to reference Lang's Metropolis and the nightclub scene here as well as Bladerunner's bar scene.


The Fhlotsan Paradise in The 5th Element is a place with all kinds of entertainment that allows one to be totally emerged into different kinds of pleasure. The space itself is completely detached from earth; physically detached as it is a giant cruise floating on water; “spiritually” detached because the minds of the people on the spaceship are completely distracted by the luxurious activities and amenities provided. The architecture/ interior environment in the Fhlotsan Paradise appears to be overly expensive. Many of these interior spaces actually resemble acclaimed buildings and interiors in different culture and cities; for example, Korben’s hotel room resembles a room in a Persian palace. On the other hand, the “fancy” restaurant in Brazil is a chaotic joke. The “food” served in the restaurant looks like meshed up baby food, and can only be identify by a photograph of the actual dish. The environment at the restaurant is distracting and noisy. The order of a civilized society is completely ignored and neglected. As the restaurant scene shows, a terrorist bomb attack happen yet people just simply ignore the fact that somebody is dying in the background and keep enjoying their meal and conversation. It is the most ridiculous place to be in, yet it is in fact, the “fancy” restaurant in the movie.

Both places reflect culture and morality in a future city but in different ways. Fhlotsan Paradise is similar to the nightclub in Lang’s Metropolis, people go there for luxurious performances that they don’t normally see in their boring daily lives, for example Plavalaguna’s performance in the opera house. Other than that, there’s also a sense of wildness in these two places. They are filled with excitements, energy and seductions, and Korben’s contradictory emotionless response to DJ Ruby Rhod is very rare and unsual in that kind of atmosphere. The nightclub and the Paradise are both high-end luxurious places where people go for, what I would call, “guilty pleasure”.

Brazil portraits a metropolis of the machine’s, likewise is the one in Bladerunner. In both cities, reality seems to be disorganized and confusing. The fancy restaurant is almost a representation of the whole city in Brazil – a place of insanity and madness. If the type of food they serve, and the chaotic atmosphere they provided is what an expensive restaurant would have, then, Brazil’s metropolis is by no doubt in a culture without sensory enjoyment. The sense of taste, sight, sound and texture is no longer a concern but the fact of the thing or the person is what matters the most. Likewise, in Bladerunner’s bar scene, people seek pleasure in frenzied madness, ie. drugs, alcohol and sexuality, they do that as if there is no other way to escape from the world other than participating in disorganized insanity.

The city in both Brazil and The 5th Element has lost its own identity and cultural value. However, places like Fhlotsan Paradise and the fancy restaurant seems to be able to present an identity in the society. Therefore, they become a place to escape from city life; a place where people can emerge themselves in pleasure and madness in order to forget about the bothersome issues in life.


3. Andrew Dadds : The use of neon. Talk about the impact of this in Fifth Element, Blade Runner and Brazil. How does this affect our reading of the city.


brazil bladerunner

In the three films, the use of neon signifies the augmented city of the future. In the films Blade Runner and Brazil, it is evident that natural lighting is used to a minimal extent, thus the realm of artificial lighting dominates the city. Neon is used not only to create signage (most evident in Blade Runner), but also to augment an atmosphere of artificiality and unfamiliarity.

The cities in the three films are often “gritty” and void of colour or vibrancy; the use of neon adds an aspect of extravagance to an otherwise film noir atmosphere. The sets of the films chose to minimize natural light; as such the films avoid illumination via an ominous single light source. Instead bright neon lights paint a setting across the dark architectural environment, breathing ambient illumination and artificiality. The heart of neon lighting is not one that is naturally occurring, but it takes on the guise of augmentation, whether it is illuminating advertising, graphics, or architecture. Essentially, the idea of ambient illumination via neon lighting can be understood as the replacement of the natural by the augmented. Each of the films rarely leaves the city, and one experiences a purge of natural elements by such devices as neon lighting. The resulting affect becomes one of unfamiliarity. Atmosphere and lighting is distanced from that which would occur naturally, the viewer is always experiencing new environments where what is man made is most important. The environments become completely constructed, pulling the viewer deeper and deeper into fantasy, turning their backs on what is considered reality. Blade Runner specifically uses neon lights that are not to be read or understood, merely experienced as a symbol, or as something that is meant to confuse and distort any notions of legibility in the setting. Things such as non-existent brands, and distorted Chinese symbols are translated into neon lights in order to support the atmosphere of unfamiliarity.

The directors transform banal architectural scenes by eliminating the natural element of sunlight, and opt for a space-age affect of artificial illumination, one of commercialism and dystopia. The resulting setting is liberated from any sense of “Earthly” qualities, and enters the realm of augmented fantasy.


4. David Domanski : The Portrayal of the Architecture at the "main" city level. Compare Fifth Element, Brazil, Blade Runner and Metropolis. Include in your discussion the actual placement of the "main" city level.


The social and technological underpinnings of modern advancement into the futures imagined in each film are evident in the architecture of the megalopolis at its “main” level. We hypothesize that city’s main level is where the majority of day-to-day city interactions take place. Intrinsically, the location of home, workplace, social space and mode of transit between each define the placement and character of the “main” city level. In Metropolis, the monumental scale in architecture stitches people and places together with an array of bridges and highways at different elevations of the built city, suggesting an increase in the physical and social gap between people by increasing in technological efficiency. The main city level is at grade, at the pedestrian level, between the employer’s penthouse and the worker’s underground chambers. Blade Runner differs from Metropolis as it locates a diverse populace across several strata of the city, portraying transit less in public infrastructure and more in personal vehicles, favouring particularly airborne vehicles. The main city level is portrayed on the ground plane - an existing network of streets, pedestrian walks and building fronts fallen into a decrepit state. Diverse cultures of pedestrians walk about this eclectic public realm; off-shift workers sit at street vendors in rain or shine, drinking coffee and carrying on. Here we witness the abandoning of a social collective responsibility for the quality of the main city level, a consequence of unchecked personal advancement mirrored in unchecked technological advancement. The Fifth Element carries this pluralistic individual quality to transit and life, but differs from Blade Runner in that the main city level is moved above the ground level - a decaying, foggy swamp of building foundations and litter. The main city level is again portrayed as an efficient and intensely dense environment of interaction, as in Metropolis. Moving the main city level above grade gives it even more of a virtual character than in Blade Runner, emphasizing the need for connection points in the built environment to bridge physical and social gaps. Brazil contrasts from all three in that it its main city level is not that of citizens, but that of the governing administration. Also, Brazil intentionally, and satirically, impedes the main character from escaping his own realm and connecting with that of “real life”. A main city level is seen at grade, an outside environment but still maintaining an interior character where misfit children run unchecked in a slummy context; another seen in the bourgeois event halls that often fall victim to terrorist bombings; yet another seen in the massive warehouses of department workspace, around which a militia of employees base their lives. Together they don’t produce much of a common ground upon which a “main” level can be defined. Each film voices a critique of the impact of modern technology on society and culture, evident in the architectural quality and placement of the “main” city level.

  5. Mark Kim: filming angles. Brazil begins to make use of extreme filming angles (up or down) to change our reading of the spaces in the film. Describe how these extreme angles differ from the view angles we have more typically seen in the other films.  


Scenes in Brazil often uses wide angle lenses to make foreground appear very large and create a forced perspective where things appear to stretch into the distance. This technique creates an uneasy feel as the unnatural angle, which is wider than what our eyes typically perceive, and beings to trick our mind as how we read space. By presenting spaces to appear larger, it is creating a sense of dominance of architecture/landscape over the main characters. This is an allusion to the overarching theme of absurd blunder of bureaucratic nature of the government and how it treats citizens with no regards. Particularly in the last scene where Sam Lawry is being tortured, wide angle is used to show the extreme scale difference between Sam and the cylindrical room he is in. As well, when the camera focuses directly on the guards, it makes the guard appear very large because of the wide angle of the lens. Other scenes where top angle is used show the confines of space that is otherwise not possible to show with typical camera positions. For example, the scene where Sam is held inside a small rectangular room lined with padding, the overview look gives a great view of the tight, uncomfortable space. The camera technique, which uses illusions to make things bigger and longer, gives audiences a feeling of uneasiness by presenting forced perspective shots. This technique is appropriate for Brazil’s whimsical and non-sense plot and theme, as it exaggerates everything in the scene. 


6. Peter Kitchen: the role of the police/authority. Compare the impact of this on Fifth Element and Brazil. How does it modify our perceptions about the Metropolis?




7. Renee Lu : eating and food. Eating is a focus in Bladerunner, Fifth Element and Brazil. Fast food takes on a different meaning in Brazil! How does the focus on eating change our impression of the state of life in the Metropolis?



When I was watching Fifth Elements, the scene where the first two images are taken from, I thought Dallas was actually sitting outside of the traditional food station which we usually see along Chinese or Japanese street. I suddenly felt some sentiment which is quite different from the overall atmosphere of the film. however, when Dallas’ letter arrives, and the Chinese guy picks it up for him, I realized that Dallas is eating at his apartment window. I was a little disappointed but cannot deny that this setting goes well along the future Metropolis depicted in this film.

Both Fifth Element and Brazil imagine the efficiency as the main theme of people’s lifestyle. Getting the food becomes faster and easier. In the scene taken in Priest’s home, when Leeloo is treated with huge amount of food, she quickly learned the most simply way to get food - put the empty bowl in a microwave alike machine, push the button, and Bang! An empty bowl turns full with food. It takes about a second! Can you imagine any way faster than this?!

In the future metropolis, all types of restaurants are disappeared except our famous fast food – McDonalds. In the movie, it not only survived but also becomes more vivid and dominant in the market. We can see that McDonald leads the lifestyle of the future. This very well reflects the aggressive expansion of this fast food enterprise during our age.

Brazil is an unbearable movie. In the scene when Sam is having dinner in an upscale restaurant with his mom and aunt, we can sense a strong atmosphere of chaos and precipitancy. The menu is boringly simple. Without carefully reading the menu, his mom and aunt quickly focus their decisions between No.1 or No.2. When Sam tries to read the menu and make his decision, the impatient waiter squabbles with him and push him to randomly pick a number. As soon as they finished order, the appetizers are served. All of them get the same looking appetizers but with different colours. Each of them has a picture of the dishes they ordered on the plate. At first, I thought the first dish was not appetizer but the main dish they ordered; and they suppose to eat their dishes while looking at the pictures on their plates, imagining what we are eating are the dishes on the pictures.  No wonder they don’t care about which number they are choosing. There are not many differences except the colour and the picture on the plate. I think this setting fits the movie better to demonstrate that eating food in a future metropolis is simplified into getting nutrition and being alive.


8. Andrew Ng : parking. Comment on the role of cars as transporation means in Fifth Element, Brazil and Bladerunner. How does this change our idea of these "future" cities"?



In the present-day metropolis, the vehicular culture varies in terms of its significance in respect to the economic, urban, and cultural development of that city. Generally, slower developing like cities like Toronto fall victim to the amassing suburban lifestyle and become large commuter cities, whereas faster, booming cities like Hong Kong generally see much less private vehicular transportation. However, the early privatization of the public transportation in cities like Hong Kong has swayed the balance between vehicular and other modes of transportation. In commuter cities like Toronto, much more infrastructure around the city revolves around the vehicle; wider roads, bigger parking lots, etc. Parking, therefore, is completely relevant to the particular vehicular culture in specific cities.

Today, there are very many typical responses to the abundance of cars and the lack of space to store them; underground parking and built-up lots are general go-to solutions for this problem, but some places have developed much more unconventional results. Automated parking, for example, is one such resolution of how to maximize efficiency related to the duration of parking and the space’s value itself.

In the Fifth Element, much of the parking exists suspended locally to apartment units, like a driveway to a house but unrestricted by any roadways. While at first this might seem to be crazy, unconventional and newly envisioned (mostly due to the flying car), this is inherently a very old idea furthering the exploration of the American Dream in the future. However, while this may not be visionary or innovative, it does seem realistic to what would actually occur. If, by some chance that the car does have the capacity of hovering and flight, it is actually very likely that the parking of these vehicles would be linked to the owners’ apartment as the need for road infrastructure becomes obsolete. In the metropolis of Fifth Element, the role of the vehicle is nearly identical to the one is has today in the American city; while the technology of the future has progressed, the use of the vehicle and how we conceive of it in the urban context is the same.

In Brazil, the only small “personal” vehicle used is used by the protagonist to visit Mrs. Buttle. All of the other vehicles seen are large; even the police cars are like small tanks or bunkers on wheels. Parking is not necessarily addressed in the film, but they travel on very narrow roads leading one to believe that the culture of the vehicle is dying out. While the roads still exist, they seem to be the remnants of a dying infrastructure used by only a small portion of society.


9. Connor O'Grady : Travel through space -- the passage of time? The time travel through great distances in space in Fifth Element is a little bit unbelievable... Compare the impact of this on the film in contrast with the perhaps too strict notion of the representation of time in the early films we looked at. When does fact (in this case, for travel time) matter and when does it not matter?


Time travel in the Fifth Element seems to be short, smooth and easy. The ship has compartments for the different passengers and is similar to that of a hotel that flies. Another interesting travel difference is the security in the terminal before they take flight. There is an over reliance on the scanners and therefore it becomes easier to override the security. In travel, there is a lot of similarities between current airplane travel. There are stewardesses and sectioned off areas for different flights. There is an emphasis on the

In the Fifth Element, travel through space is paralleled with that of vacation travel on Earth. The amount of time that the travel takes is fairly irrelevant to the story however the sets that help establish the travel becomes key in envisioning the fact that the characters are traveling from one place to another. As the plot of the story needs to move to the other planet, there is no real need to develop accurate use of space travel, particularly when the movie is set in the future and the travel through space is already extrapolated. The impact that this has on the film is minimal and if anything the intentional avoidance of a more scientifically accurate approach may have deterred the movement of the plot.

In other movies where the distance traveled is more pertinent it needs to become more believable in order to understand the incredible space that exists in between planets. Fifth Element intends to diminish that space in order to relate to the accessibility of inter-planetary travel. Facts are important when telling factual stories or when they strengthen a stories plot as a means to relate to the viewer.

If the travel time becomes over emphasized as a realistic component of the movie then it can make the movie seem dry or cause it to drag on and lose the focus of the viewer. If, like in Just Imagine where it states the approximate time it took, it could kill the plot of an action movie. If it took them 3 months to reach the other planet it becomes unbelievable that they are trying to meet the Diva on the other planet. Inevitably the faster it seems to take them to get to the other planet, the better.

  10. James Strong : the architectural manifestation of Zorg and its evil genius (notice how the view outside the window changes...). Compare the realm of Zorg to Freder's office in Metropolis. How is architecture used to give power to the characters as well as hint at their evil role in the narrative.  


11. Eric Tai : circular rooms and corridors and otherwise unusual room geometries in films. How does the geometry of the interior spaces support the director's intended portrayal of the state of the Metropolis being depicted. Think of some of the larger "powerful" rooms in Bladerunner (company ower) and Brazil (main entrance hall of the Department).




12. Bei Wang : fashion. Fifth Element's use of fashion is perhaps the most extreme of any of the films we have seen. Compare it to the use of fashion in Bladerunner and Brazil. How does this influence our perception of the Metropolis? as well as the placement of the Metropolis in some time period other than our own?





13. Stephen Wenzel: the city of New York in 300 years time. Compare the believability of the state of New York as presented in its future condition with the state of LA in Bladerunner (2019) versus Brazil (somewhere in the 20th century).


The city of New York 300 years in the future as presented in “The Fifth Element” is quite fantastical, yet at the same time believable. This believability is achieved through the reinterpretation of common elements seen throughout the city today.  The city can be seen as a transformation of today’s architectural and social ideas rather than a completely new and foreign environment. The ground plane has become over crowded and polluted so people have just copied their way of life and moved vertically into the sky. There are still roads, apartments, taxis, street-side food vendors and even McDonalds Drive thru. These common ideas are easy to connect with even if they take new, fantastical forms.  There are also hints towards New York’s existing infrastructure, such as its bridges and historic buildings. The city has maintained access to light by spacing out buildings and is thus seen as livable space.

“Bladerunner” on the other hand depicts the future city of LA in a darker, more sinister way. On a micro scale, the city is believable appearing quite similar to Tokyo at night with its neon signs, crowded streets, small buildings, street side restaurants and shops. However, the skyline of the city becomes very difficult to believe and does not reconcile well with the activities witnessed on the ground.  From an aerial view, one sees prismatic forms, sparkling lights, and chimneys of flame. The city, only 10 years beyond present-day appears like an inhospitable and uninhabitable alien landscape.

The city of “Brazil” is the least innovating of the three future city projections, relating more to America’s past than to a technologically advanced future. The buildings are mostly old and run down. Like in “Blade Runner”, the city is shown as a frightening place, which leaves the individual helpless. The city is in a way unbelievable, as years of advancement have only served to complicate life, such as in the case of the tangled mechanical systems and the overcomplicated telephone devices. Although “Brazil”, like “The Fifth Element” incorporates common, recognizable elements of city life, it differs by distorting them in an unbelievable way.


14. Lisa Wong : common persons and intermediary spaces. Compare the environments of Korban Dallas, Sam Lowry and J.F. Sebastian. What do we understand from the architecture of their spaces about the state of the Metropolis being portrayed in each film?


In Blade Runner, J.F. Sebastian’s apartment has very little light penetrating the space, whether natural or artificial. The overall environment is therefore rather dark. The darkness obscures the original state of the architecture, although it can be understood that the building is similar to the typical present-day loft-type apartment, left unchanged and unkempt except for J.F. Sebastian’s clutter of technological toys and creations. The overall atmosphere is haunting – it is one of darkness and neglect. The state of the metropolis is reflected by J.F. Sebastian’s apartment because it too is unkempt, cluttered with technology, and shrouded in darkness and neglect.

In contrast,  Sam Lowry’s apartment from Brazil does let daylight through, highlighting the white scheme that alludes to a very clinical and sterile environment. In addition to the use of standard windows, the space also incorporates glass blocks, particularly around the entrance. This translucent barrier between the inside and outside of the unit means that while the dweller can see strangers passing by from the inside of his or her unity, strangers from the outside can also see whether anybody is occupying the inside. Thus, there is an invasion of privacy occurring against the dweller, and ultimately against the entire metropolis. Furthermore, technology also plays arole in establishing the clumsiness of Sam Lowry’s environment. Meant to help the user with ordinary tasks, technology proves to be a hindrance. An example of this is the malfunctioning of the Lowry’s heating system.  This dysfunctional quality of technology, invasion of privacy, and impersonality of the environment present in Sam Lowry’s apartment greatly reflects the similar state of the metropolis in which he lives.

Unlike J.F. Sebastian and Sam Lowry’s environments, in The Fifth Element, Korban Dallas’ apartment has a more futuristic design in terms of its architecture. The unit itself feels like a spaceship due to its untraditional, manufactured details, the plastic, white materiality of the walls and furnishings, and due its small and compartmentalized nature. Furthermore, Korban is more at ease with the technology in his environment than Sam Lowry. Unlike in Brazil, the technology in The Fifth Element is portrayed less as a hindrance to humankind. Also, in Blade Runner, many of J.F. Sebastian’s toy-like technological creations are left unused in his building. This is unlike in The Fifth Eleemnt, where Korban and all of his metropolis makes good use of their technology, whether it be for good (flying kitchen and vehicles), for decadence (a cruise spaceship), or for violence (the manufacture of weapons).


15. Sophia Wu : the architecture of the paradise destination. Compare the use of opulent spaces in Fifth Element, Brazil and Metropolis. How do these feed into the characterization of the nature of the Metropolis being described by the director?


Metroplis is a society that has clear social and class distinctions. The luxurious hotels and resorts in the film form big contrast with the poor and chaotic underground spaces where the working class live. The architecture seems to have a distinct hierarchy with set rules. Decorations and other design elements are deliberately put together to form an absolute place as if  it is belonged to the old king's palace. Architecture once again becomes the showcase of power and desire. Nothing seems modern in the setting of Fifth element, which indicates the society's set back and degeneration in the course of history. People's freedom become more limited and equality disappears as the distinctions between social classes rises again. All the rights, people have been strived for, bubbled.  In this aspect, Fifth Element echoes with Brazil and Metropolis where new technology has become a hindrance to our private life. They actually stripe our human rights and make us primitives in this new culture.

Also the settings are all very kitsch-like and fake. Its lavishness and shininess makes everything seem insincere. The feeling of the whole luxurious metropolis life becomes almost like a game that is separated from real life. I think there a hidden message embedded here in reference to the game culture modern society employed everyday. While the boundary between virtual reality and physical life becomes blurry, the meaning of living changed as well. Technology has created a new living condition that contained our imaginations and minds. As our body and mind become more separated because of the virtual reality,  the film tries to capture this aspect with its game-like setting. Maybe our future metropolis will be designed according to the game scenes today since it is so embedded into the life of future generations. However, I feel the lavish setting seems also like a critic to the game culture. Things in this setting exists at the superficial level with no historical content nor culture behind them. They are newly printed wall paper that serves as decorations with no genuine intentions or feelings embedded. They are empty traps that contains nothing genuine but to trap our imaginations. To sum up, I think the settings in Fifth Element, Brazil, and Metropolis all serve as negative comments on the advanced technological life where the quality of genuine life has not been improved but degenerated and endangered.


16.Ying Xu : state of the environment. Bladerunner, Fifth Element and Brazil all seem to make statements about garbage in the cities of the future. How do their respective presentations of this issue impact our reading of these cities?


Brazil never displayed garbage in the city quite like the way Fifth Element and Bladerunner had done. The edges of its streets were almost always near spotless, and even the scene shot in the slums of Mr. Buttle’s home had no more than a few shopping carts randomly misplaced and a few dirty bags almost camouflaged in the dusty walls. Later on in the movie, in the scene when Sam and Jill unite to escape from the government building, Sam let a folder of documents loose and paper flew all over the pristine street. A woman walking her dog was terrified at the scene as if the pure was being tainted. Her dog’s behind was also taped with an X as if to prevent excreta not to blemish the streets. This shows that the city power has oppressed and tamed its people well like a mother and a disciplined daughter, however, maybe a little too well.

On the contrary, garbage in Fifth Element were overwhelming. It consisted of scrap metal and other industrial materials all piled in hills and mountains, leaving the city looking half abandoned. True, however, where garbage existed were places people no longer needed. People lived in the air and traveled in floating vessels and no longer had contact with the ground, which left these obsolete areas available for useless garbage to store themselves. Garbage, in the sense, was prominent in Fifth Element because of all the scenes of public domain – such as the chase scenes of the police and the space station, which gave us the frames to acknowledge the existence of the trash much more than Bladerunner and Brazil.

Garbage in Bladerunner, with the underlying story of having an external universe and this planet having been abandoned, there is no sense of it being maintained nor it having any environmental standard. Streets are chaotic with undistinguishable bits of garbage lying around. Although not collected or piled up like it is in Fifth Element, it is clearly unintentionally made and sloppily cleaned.

The three movies here have illustrated a “teeter totter” comparison here where in Brazil, all intentions go to keeping the city spotless; in Bladerunner; no intentionality is giving to the state of environment at all; and in Fifth Element, garbage engulfs the city and intentions commit to placing it carefully out of people’s activities to the point it is almost incorporated in to city infrastructure.

  17. Yifei Yuan : advances in technology. In Fifth Element they can reconstruct beings, in Bladerunner, create replicants and animals. How does this technology of animate beings reflect on the general reading of the technological advances in the Metropolis' presented?  

In both of the film, technological advances is surpassed that it almost dominate over human, that is the life of humans is  maintained and dependent on technilogy. The technology becomes an image of god power that can “repair” anything even human life. Technology can reconstruct being and it can also eliminate being, such as replicants trying to kill people. And technology becomes more and more important than human themselves to a level that it almost substitute for human. Replicants looks no difference compare to human, and they are used as slaves for dangerous tasks and threatened by being “retired” after they are used.  The technology dominates the humanity, and that the depth of humanity is second to the depth of technology. The whole society takes advantages of technology without concerning the outcomes of technology when it gone wrong. It indicates a pursuit of ignoble ends, technology for its own sake, devoid of any personal, ethical or moral consideration.

It seems that people who holds more technology means more chances of keeping alive. And people in higher ranges in the society usually have better technological supplement than those who lives in the “ground level”. It reflects a general idea of technology as the measurement of values and social status. All problems, all needs, and all reality will eventually be controlled using technological means, methods, and devices. Humanity seems lost through the process of technological improvement. People appear more distant than ever before. And the whole city, even though it is crowed and exiting, does not have much social interaction. Everyone is living within a boundary, if you step outside; there is police who tries to “keep safe”. People in the society, with advanced technology, are afraid of social interaction.

It also raises the conflicts between death and immortality. Technology, especially genetic engineering, helps reconstruct being and even creation of new being, gives the power of “god”. It can restore youth, like the main character’s mom in Brazil, but she lost her characteristics of being a mother that is lose of part of the humanity. The society in general reduces in its humanity, as it uses technology to surpass the limit of physical and biological reality. It tries to become “god” by embracing the power of creation, but the outcome and moral conflicts are not solved and become a hidden bomb in the society.



18. Jay Zhao : Brazil makes use of real architecture to create its city. Compare this to the use of real architecture in Bladerunner, versus the use of models in Fifth Element (see big image at the top of the page).



For me, the biggest difference between the use of real architecture versus a model is for the desired visual experience of scale. For a model, you can recreate entire cities, construct abstract environments, control lighting and even weather. This way whenever a model is used, the desired mood of the scene can be controlled and maintained, giving the director much more flexibility. This effect however is much harder to recreate by using real architecture as you can no longer play the role of god. It requires the set designer to seek existing conditions that would be suitable for the film. However, real architecture has its benefits as well. First and foremost,  in architecture, set conditions are already pre-existing.

Having many people (extras) move through a scene is also very important when considering the use of a model or real architecture. The interaction of crowds are definitely hard to recreate within a model. In Bladerunner, the film was often shot at street level with many close ups to emphasize facial qualities. The grimy street condition for their set was definitely something they could find. As well, they desired a set that the audience could connect to, thus voiding any practical reason on constructing a physical set. In Fifth Element, I found it to be much more action oriented. With its many gravity defying car chases, space debris and explosions, the scale of the set had to be large. With the movies fast pace, as many action films are, mirror details could be neglected for the overall feel of the shot. As well, futuristic and complex sets are also very important to attaining that ‘awe’ factor that many action film desire. Bladerunner was at a much slower pace to match its drama and thriller genre. Scenes had to more suspenseful, which if wished to do effectively, requires the set to be more specific with its amount of detail. In successful films, the viewer becomes more aware of the film’s environment and explores the set as if she/he is also moving through the scene. This is why thrillers/dramas tend to often use real architecture for their sets.


19. Carlo Pasini : architectural precedent. The cities of the future seem to make consistent use of art deco motifs as well as other very recognizable historic styles. Why do you think directors choose to do this? How does it impact the presentation of their Metropolis'?


Fritz Lang's Metropolis was the first film to speculate the state of the future Metropolis in response to the ArtDeco movement current in that time period of the 1920s-30s. Directors of films like Blade-Runner, Brazil, Fifth-Element, etc. can be seen as homage to this original criticism, and other recognizable styles like Neo-Classicism, Constructivism, Streamline-Modernism, Futurism and Monumentalism. Setting their sets in the future, is a means of accelerating the architectural style from just a movement to a fully rendered vision that has conquered and defined the Metropolis. In doing so, this gives us a heightened presentation of how this style impacts our definitions for perfection and imperfection latent in the idea of Metropolis.

Art Deco emerged as a product of Art Pompier and Art Nouveau. Art Pompier is a form of academic rigour to reproduce epitomes of the bourgeoisie and upper class values, not to reflect real socio-economic situations. It manufactures false emotions through hard-lined objects that are smooth, slick and idealized, with no real texture. It aims to appeal to the intellect and leave only room for exploration of polar sentiments such as vices and virtues using the contrivance of dominating paintings through chiaroscuro oil sketches, not through colour for greater emotional discourse. Art Pompier finds its way from Neo-classicism and influenced the creation of Streamline-Modernism as well as open the possibility for Constructivism, Monumentalism and Futurism (all line-based arts) to occur – which form the bases for Art Deco's architectural style. Art Nouveau is an approach to designing according to which everything from architecture to furniture, to objects of everyday life are treated with the same language and degree of development – stretching to cover every surface from building interiors to its exteriors, from commodities to the civil ornaments that surround them. In this way, Art Deco is capable of producing an omnipresence of its values in its expression that is constantly scaling up and down, for demands of larger forms of itself like bigger and bigger skycrapers, as well as demands for smaller versions of itself such pens and pendents. This sort of notion is exactly what is explored in the depiction of the Metropolis by Fritz Lang and by the other directors in their respected works regardless of the different recognizable aesthetic style.

In the original heightened presentation of the Metropolis, Fritz Lang uses allusions found in Pieter Bruegel's Tower of Babel painting. He embodies the morality of his city in a central building. All subsequent directors bear some canning architectural expression that embodies the same purpose. Furthermore, is the consistent depiction between all the directors of a “high in the air,” 'meteoros' city as subservient reflections to this central 'Tower of Babel.' Furthermore does, the entire city becomes the monument of the achievements of humanity to the surrounding metropolitan belt whose people then service the infrastructure that supplies the city core's people, and develop the surrounding land to prepare for the expansion of this perfection in progression radiating outward. Much like in Bruegel's painting, where a Bourgeois is standing tall and proud, talking with people around him who are praising and offering their services – without those individuals around him, he is just a man standing in a landscape, no different than what nature made him. Perfection than becomes a notion described as metering past what nature made us (such as Fritz Lang's “Machine-Man”, Luc Besson's “Supreme-Being”, etc.) and imperfection becomes all that is lesser to the latter. The purpose of the Metropolis is these films is like in its Greek translation as both the “Mother-City” and the “Norm-City”; it is the environment where perfection is born and one also where perfection is presented to others for comparing themselves to. Ultimately, “one man's hymns of praise become other men's curses” because even if  “people spoke the same language” that doesn't mean they “[...] could [...] understand each other” – allowing for stories of virtues and vices to be prominent in the lives of the different people living in the city.

The first snapshot of Luc Besson's film shows “Zorg's” character reflected in the backdrop of his companies' city district, that holds very clear Industrial-Futurist aesthetics. In the second snapshot, “Leeloo” is held by Korben who is standing in a room that is filled with details that reflects her historical importance.  In the first clip we get a sense of this 'meteoros' city that is scaled up to derive importance, by contrast to the second snapshot where the 'elements' are contained within skyscraper-shaped objects with a mystery to opening their powers. Zorg, who only has the company of his paid bodyguard and alien pet, wants to destroy the earth, while Leeloo, who finds love in Korben, wants to save it – indicating the sort of scale at which human sensibility should focus on to improve people's value for life.  As such, the deliberate use of these Art Deco Motifs and other recognizable historic styles pays dividends to the Metropolis being synchronous with the problem of juxtaposing perfect and imperfect.


20. Nicholas Savage : communication? Speak to the presentation of communication methods of the future in Fifth Element, Brazil and Metropolis and speak to the way that it impacts our understanding of the city of the future.




21. Nicole Bruun-Meyer : the height/cross section of the city. The exaggerated height/density of the city seems to be a common theme in Metropolis, Bladerunner and Fifth Element. Brazil also uses density but not to the level seen in Fifth Element. Speak to the impact of this new city cross section on the reading of the state of the metropolis of the future.


It is slowly becoming clear that our image of an urban future that includes huge population density and high-rise living may not be too far off.  Many of the films seen so far have portrayed this type of dystopic image, where land values are at a premium and so the only alternative is to move up, into the sky.  While in many cases, this can be seen as a separation of classes and a reinforcing of the social order, it is also an economical and seemingly necessary urban form.  In Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, things have particularly moved up.  With the use of hover crafts as transportation, we get a much greater sense of the height and density of these cities as the characters move between the high-rise towers, hundreds of meters above the ground.  As Ben Schachter points out, “As in Blade Runner, the world of The Fifth Element is crowded. The cities are a mass of impossibly tall skyscrapers with several layers of flying traffic that criss-cross the city.” (Schachter, pp. 62.)

A common theme in all the sets of these films is how the architecture and form of the city implies a social and political structure for its inhabitants.  As mentioned previously, the use of overly tall highrise buildings helps to illustrate the disconnect between the various groups in the cities.  In his essay, “The Ghost in the Machine”, John Erickson notes that, “In Brazil, […] the visuals constantly urge our gaze upwards, towards the upper stories of the Ministry of Information building that towers over the city, towards the skies through which Sam flies in his dreams. From one perspective, this verticality analogizes the verticality of the pyramidal system of totalitarianism, the hierarchy whereby a few at the top control the masses at the bottom. Promotion in the system means moving to an upper floor. On the very top floor is the penthouse inhabited by Mr. Helpmann, the Deputy Minister, whose name and paralysis suggest the dysfunctionality of the system itself.” (Erickson, pp.  28)

Despite this use of verticality in their portrayal of the cities of the future, Brazil stands apart in its particular use of density.  While the city if crowded with buildings, tight streets and alleys, what is lacking in many of the scenes are the people.  In Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, the streets are bustling with people, in a sort of overly globalised urban explosion.  Contrary to this, Sam Lowry, Brazil’s protagonist is often alone or surrounded by only a few people as he navigates his way around the city.  The density of people in this film was always in the normal ranges of what we are used to as a society at the moment, so the idea of a over-densified future is not as threatening in this film.  Really our only sense of real claustrophobic density is Lowry’s dream scenes, when he is flying and the city’s towers start to shot up around him.

If we use the form and density of the city as an indicator of our reading of the state in each film, it is important to note that both Blade Runner and The Fifth Element seem more ominous in their building density and social structure, as there is always that hint that the city’s inhabitants are being watched and monitored.  The verticality of the city is shown in this way, as the police navigate the city in their hovercrafts in Blade Runner and The Fifth Element, but in contrast, the chase scenes in Brazil all take place on the ground, on ‘equal’ footing.  In a way, the political and societal reading for Brazil is formed more by the absurdly chaotic and inefficient way the government is run, then by a conscious decision to create this type of police run state. 



Erickson, John. “The Ghost in the Machine: Gilliam's Postmodern Response in Brazil to the Orwellian Dystopia of Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Utopian Studies, vol. 4, no. 2.  1993, pp. 26-34.

Schachter, Ben. “The Globalised World in Science Fiction Film.”
In the Global World: American Art and Art Education Conference. Oct. 19-21, 2005, pp. 61-67.

Webb, Michael.  “The City in Film”. Design Quarterly, no. 136.  1987, pp. 1+3-32.

Weiss, Sean. “Specters of Industry: Adaptive Reuse in Paris as
Industrial Patrimony”.  Journal of Architectural Education, ACSA.  2009, pp. 136-140.


22. Andrea Nagy : lighting. In Fifth Element, Bladerunner and Brazil directors use a wide range of lighting, from the subtle to that which can highlight the scene in a striking way. This is quite different from lighting that is used in films (or scenes in these films) to evoke a more natural feeling. How does this type of theatrical lighting impact the reading of the cities portrayed?


brazil brazilbladerunner fifth

In Blade Runner, Fifth Element, and Brazil, lighting is used theatrically in order to enhance certain key themes of the films. Blade Runner, for instance, revolves around the theme of societal dehumanization as resulting from a dependency on high technology, as well as the notion of what it means to exist as a human being. In the film, Ridley Scott juxtaposes light and dark so as to represent the conflict between humanity and artificial life. Through low-key and high contrast lighting as employed both at the micro scale of the individual and the macro scale of the cityscape, there is a sense that lightness and darkness are constantly duelling elements. The characters operate within a dark urban environment that never sees sunlight. This dystopic, futuristic depiction of Los Angeles as existing in a perpetual state of darkness is common to the film-noir style of filmmaking, which was also influential in the making of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The blinking neon lights that pervade Los Angeles denote the presence of unknown machines or technologies that exist within the depths of the city. In a sense, it is almost impossible for the human figure to resist the increasingly dominant mechanized forces of this complex urban landscape. The dark and foggy visuals create an atmosphere of despair and confusion, and directly contribute to the embodiment of this theme of a world overrun by technology. In a microcosm of the world outside, Sebastian lives in a dilapidated abandoned building, in a surreal atmosphere that is enhanced by low-key lighting. The set and the visuals, as well as particular lighting techniques, serve to portray a scene of melancholy, loneliness, and despair that results from the dehumanized nature of the outside world.

In stark visual contrast to Blade Runner, Fifth Element uses bright colours and lighting to highlight different elements in every scene. Prominent colours, including dark yellows and neon blues for the backgrounds, as well as saturated blues and oranges for costuming, deeply contradict the film-noir style used by many Expressionist-era films of the past. However, this does not apply to the extreme and chaotic portrayal of the cityscape, which in fact borrows heavily from films like Lang’s Metropolis. The lighting decisions made throughout the film reflect the satirical commentary of the plot. For instance, the lighting is generally bright and exaggerated to match the over-exuberant nature of the scenes and their characters. Unlike in Blade Runner and Brazil, darkness, as depicting through visuals and lighting, is only used as a motif in portraying Zorg and the ‘Great Evil’. And even then, rather than producing a surreal or misty quality, the motif of darkness applies itself to the scenes in a very literal and straightforward manner. Although the themes of the Fifth Element mirror those of the other two films (ie. dystopic future societies overrun by mechanization), it lacks a certain realism in its depiction of the future. It represents everyday life and events in a completely fantastical way – and the bright, uniform lighting serves to reinforce this. That is not to say that the other two films succeed in presenting a perfectly accurate vision of the future, but rather that the Fifth Element’s whimsical portrayal of the future city and its inhabitants, as enhanced by its over-the-top visuals, quite clearly provides for a more light-hearted and less morose narrative.

In Brazil, a strong dichotomy exists between the sterile, corporate environment of Sam’s workplace and his fantastical dreamscapes. As a theatrical technique, the lighting serves to enhance the characteristics of both domains separately. The dark and gloomy motif, as exacted by impersonal fluorescent lighting and frequent use of grey tones, not only adds to the ascetic qualities of the corporate setting, but also forwards the notion of the individual’s lack of identity. Oppositely, Sam’s dreams, particularly the earlier ones, are infused with colour and light since it is only there that he can escape the suffocating darkness and mundaneness of his everyday world. In Brazil, the corporate architecture of the city is depicted as rigid and sterile and having perfectly prescribed functions, whereas areas outside of the city are portrayed as destitute, chaotic landscapes. In a departure from the almost clinical atmosphere of the offices of the Ministry of Information, there is a realism in the portrayal of these decrepit areas that is created by the use of more ‘natural’ (ie. uniform, low contrast) lighting techniques, as well as less elaborate set designs. Lastly, the most striking use of lighting occurs in the scenes in which Sam is strapped to a chair in a large cylindrical room after being apprehended by the authorities. Here, in addition to the unorthodox architectural backdrop, dramatic overhead lighting is used to create sharp shadows across Sam and the surgical chair, infusing the scene with an unnatural and terror-filled atmosphere. All of these elements, heavily aided by the extremely vivid lighting techniques employed, combine to create a powerful climax to the film.


Blade Runner

Fifth Element



23. Sophia Zhu: The Role of Religion. Metropolis 1927, Fifth Element and Brazil each use religion as part of the narrative of the cities they depict. Bladerunner avoids the subject. How does the use or not of religion (as well as the way in which it is portrayed) change the image of the respective cities?


brazil fifth

Metropolis 1927, The Fifth Element, and Brazil each use religion as part of the narrative of the cities they depict.  Because of it, the city presented in each film inherits the concept of paradise and hell—a hierarchical stratification of the city, as well as its social classes.  On the other hand, the film Blade Runner avoids the subject, in which is shown clearly from a different image of the city portrayed.

In the 1927 film Metropolis by Fritz Lang, the role of religion is played throughout with the depiction of worker’s city as hell, the aboveground city as paradise and the symbolic savior Maria who unites the two extremes.  The film presents two distinct urban environments, each a symbolic model of the lifestyle that exists.  In the City of Workers, depicted as hell, all the graceless buildings look alike—as the uniformed workers themselves do—line up under the fluorescent lights, smaller and shorter than the towers above.  The brutalist buildings have no detail at all, no decoration, built of pure necessity.  The mechanic way of life of the working class is illustrated in physical form by the hard banality of their environment.  The portrayal of the M-Machine as Moloch, the monstrous deity to which the helpless workers are sacrificed, further enhances the image of the city as hell.  Shifting to the city of the sons, a life of luxury and comfort is presented as Freder mindlessly plays with the girls in the Eternal Garden, or the Garden of Eden, symbol of paradise.  The city above ground stands in marked contrast to the workers’ city underground.  Based on medieval cosmology—sacred above and profane below—this hierarchy is a common technique used to construct a social dystopia.  The image of the above ground city shows the polished modern towers glitter between smoothly flowing transit routes.  The buildings are gracefully tall, with diverse forms and suggest a richness of details and materials.  The architecture in the film becomes the symbol of domination, an idea image which clearly marks the achievements but cleverly disguises the helplessness and weakness of its inhabitants.  As architecture intends to exude the power, wealth and the pride of metropolis, the bigger the more powerful, the office of the city’s sole owner Joh Fredersen, the Tower of Babel, is the city’s tallest building with the most iconic form.

70 years after Metropolis, the 1997 film The Fifth Element by Luc Besson, draws the image of the city in a similar fashion with the stratification of the metropolis based on the religious cosmology—sacred above and profane below, though the set techniques used are completely different.  The film shows a multi-leveled city with several layers of traffic operating within the super tall buildings.  Our understanding of “street level” is thrown out the window as there are pedestrian-accessible storefronts and entrances at multiple levels of incredible building heights of which cannot be easily determined from the movie as we never clearly see the physical ground plane far below.  The architecture in this case is also used as a symbol of domination, to represent power, wealth and social status.  Similar to Joh Frederson’s Tower of Babel, the tower of Zorg, the immoral industrialist, represents the seat of power within the city.  His building rises up in the skyline as one of the tallest structures around, as building height represents social class.  In the zoomed out shot of New York, the industrial areas spew pollution into the air.  The affects of this environmental pollution can be seen at the ground level, where a layer of fog known as “The Mist” blankets the lower levels.  The building levels within “The Mist” are regarded as the lowliest of places in New York, where the police are even reluctant to go.  It is also suggested as a place of refuge for criminal elements running from the law.  From all the bustling and chaotic depiction of the city’s architecture and its traffic patterns, a dystopic metropolis is created.  Aside from all the chaos, paradise still exists in many religious cosmologies.  The paradise in The Fifth Element exists no longer on Earth but on another galaxy, Fhloston Paradise; the fly away implies an escape from the reality / hell.  The portrayal of the paradise, however, remains a luxury for the rich, a place for celebrities, actors, daughters of politicians, superstar DJ’s, and occasionally contest winners, where it is a house for all the deadly sins—eat, play, gamble, spend, etc.  In addition, the role of religion played in this film is synonymous with the traditional ornamentations on certain architecture, such as the interior of the priest’s home, and the temple in Egypt; while the unornamented designs synonymous with technology, evil, destruction and general mayhem as shown in the chaotic arrangements of the city itself.

Brazil by Terry Gilliam, on the other hand, embraces the idea of religion in another way, where the understanding of paradise and hell is depicted differently from the previous two movies.  The film depicts a dystopic society that is dehumanized by technology and bureaucracy.  Within this society the citizens are secondary to the machines and act as pawns, easily controlled by the government.  There is a distinct difference between the aristocratic society and the working class society.  Modern economical building types are used to depict the living conditions of the society that are poor; while the extravagant and decorative interiors depict the conditions of the society that are of higher social status, power and wealth.  In addition, the enormous space emphasizes the scale to which society has succumbed to total dominance over the individual.  The space is empowering and extremely intimidating.  The significance of Sam’s work place shows that the worker’s humanity is mediocre within the realm of Brazil’s bureaucracy.  Because of all the terrorism and suppression of the bureaucracy, fantasy becomes the only escape in the world of Brazil; or the paradise where one is free.  The ‘so to speak’ happy ending of Brazil is that of a man going insane.  In the dreams Sam is flying freely over a serene landscape searching for love.  Suddenly from nowhere large dark monolithic buildings rise high into the sky.  These buildings provide a dark image of the city that contrasts the serene natural landscape seen in Sam’s dream, which is his paradise.

The film Blade Runner avoids the subject on religion, in which is shown clearly from a different image of the city portrayed.  In this case, the city is depicted as drabbed and dilapidated.  The smoggy atmosphere plagues the entire city.  The metropolis is always dark, smoky and rainy, where no one sees daylight.  Hell is dominating the entire cityscape, where there is no escape.  Paradise is nowhere to be found.

Fifth Element
Blade Runner


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