Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
Last week, we celebrated science fiction's greatest planets. But for this installment of Debate Club, we thought it was important to show some love to other imaginary realms.
Maybe it's one awe-inspiring moon. Perhaps it's a frightening alien environment that suddenly starts developing on Earth. Or maybe it's a bleak look at one of America's biggest cities in the not-too-distant future. Sometimes, they're as much in the characters' mind as they are a real location on a map.
Whatever the case, these worlds illustrate the creativity and resourcefulness of storytellers, production designers and VFX teams who dream up such vivid lands. We wouldn't want to live in all these places, but they've all left a mark on moviegoers.
What awaits Lena and her crew once they enter the Shimmer, the unsettling no man's land of Alex Garland's vastly underrated sci-fi thriller? Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel, Annihilation is a character study that doubles as an existential/psychological horror story — the Shimmer's mysterious, beguiling alien realm alters the characters' DNA, but it also seems able to feast on their insecurities and fears, somehow making manifest the darkest aspects of their psyche. (If all that wasn't trippy enough, sometimes horrifying mutant bears show up unannounced, too.)
Annihilation tips its cap to one of sci-fi's great cult classics — Stalker, which was also about explorers investigating a strange land — but the beauty and terror of the Shimmer are uniquely haunting. You might make it out alive, but as Natalie Portman's hero finds out, you don't quite come back in one piece.
Everybody in The Lord of the Rings loves the Shire. Gandalf has spent his entire life out fighting for justice and protecting the innocent, but there's nowhere else he wants to be more than the Shire. It's where he spends his free time, it’s where he smokes his pipe, it’s where he can, at last, unwind. It's the safest, chillest, most comfortable place in the whole Tolkien universe. Who wouldn't want to go there? Who would ever want to leave?
Sure, Pandora might be a moon, but the life thriving there makes it clear this is a world like no other. James Cameron has called Pandora "a Garden of Eden with teeth and claws," and well, of course he'd describe it better than anyone else, he invented it! The place is lush and teeming with life and power, but it's at night when it is at its most beautiful, with everything glowing luminescent in blue, green and purple. Only the people of Earth could make this place anything other than perfect. We have a tendency to do that.
Los Angeles 2019
Sci-fi cinema has no shortage of dystopian future worlds, but perhaps none of them has been as influential as Blade Runner's portrait of Los Angeles in the year… oh shoot, 2019. As Vox's Peter Suderman recently wrote, "[I]t's an urban design statement as much a movie. And its vision is relentlessly bleak. It's a movie about a future set in a city in which there is no future."
Thankfully, the real L.A. looks nothing like the one in Ridley Scott's movie, based on the Philip K. Dick book, but the 1982 film's prediction of where humanity was going — toward overpopulation, perpetual rain, and endless despair — is more important as a thematic concept than an actual physical location. Our cities don't look like the one in Blade Runner, per se, but they can sometimes sure feel like them
What Oz lacks in geographic wonder — it's rectangular, like Kansas, as it turns out — it makes up for in fascinating local color. Oz is officially 'fairy country,' which allows it to have the sorts of amazing characters that live there. It also has the considerable advantage of being entirely surrounded by desert, which protects it from invaders — unless they, of course, come from the sky via tornado. Also, another great thing about Oz: You can't get sick there.
As L. Frank Baum put it, "No disease of any sort was ever known among the Ozites, and so no one ever died unless he met with an accident that prevented him from living." So as long as you watch out for falling houses, you're fine.