Will L.A. Have A Future Like 'Her' Or 'Elysium'?

Two recent movies sketch out two very different visions of the future of Los Angeles, the epitome of the sprawling, western city. There’s the L.A. in the Oscar-winning movie “Her.” And then there’s the L.A. in the movie “Elysium.”

Parts of “Her” were filmed in Shanghai; nobody seems to drive and people live and work in high-rise buildings. In “Elysium,” run-down parts of Mexico City stand in for L.A.

Could L.A.’s future look like either one of these movies, if current trends continue?

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson asks Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, and Jon Christensen, editor of the quarterly journal Boom: A Journal of California and journalist-in-residence at UCLA.

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It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Jeremy Hobson here in Culver City, California, which is so seamlessly intertwined with Los Angeles you could easily call it L.A. but it is, in fact, its own city. And we want to take a look now what this area might look like 50 or 100 years from now. Will it look it does in the Oscar-winning film "Her" in which modern-day Shanghai stands in for L.A.?


HOBSON: Or will it look like it does in the movie "Elysium" in which Mexico City stands in for L.A.?


HOBSON: Well, joining us to discuss are two thinkers about the future of Los Angeles. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the L.A. Times and Jon Christensen, editor of the journal Boom. Welcome to both of you. And, Christopher, do you think the portrayal of L.A. in the movie "Her" is realistic?

CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: You know, it's a pretty rosy picture. I won't say it's utopian because there are elements of the movie that have a kind of critique about what could come with this dependence on technology that the movie is interested in portraying and thinking about. But in terms of the subjects that I write about, it's pretty rosy - architecture urbanism. It sort of takes all of the trend lines that we can see happening in L.A. now.

You know, we're in the midst of really expanding our transit system in a significant way, and it extends and extrapolates them in a pretty positive way and assumes that there won't be too many obstacles and that the funding will continue to be there for this really ambitious expansion of the transit network.

HOBSON: Jon, what about you? Was it a realistic portrayal?

JON CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think it's really - you know, Christopher has called it a portrait of where we might go from here. And we're at a turning point in Los Angeles. We're not going to be the city - the massively car-dependent city of the past in an era of climate change. And I think that it is a very, kind of utopian picture of that. What's really interesting about it for me, though, is that nature plays no role in this city. There's nature outside of the city. We see Joaquin Phoenix in a train going into the mountains and going up the Sierra Nevada in a snowstorm.

But aside from that visit to the beach and the ocean, which is a kind of, you know, abstracted space, there's no sense of how - where nature is in this city or what role nature played in making this city. And I think that that's a kind of missing term from this vision of the future in "Her."

HOBSON: Well, and for people who don't know and haven't spent much time in Los Angeles, nature still plays a huge part in that city. We see the images of the big boulevards and a lot of sprawl and a lot of density in some places. But, of course, you can go right up into the hills very close to L.A. and feel like you're far, far away. So you don't think that that aspect of L.A. will go away, Jon?

CHRISTENSEN: No. I don't - you know, I don't think so. In fact, I mean, it's coming back. I mean, there's a wonderful effort here that's, you know, decades old to restore the Los Angeles River, which have, you know, people familiar with car chases in movies which they'd say, you know, what river? But, you know, it is a river, and it's coming back between the concrete where there are soft bottoms and plants growing up. And nature is throughout the city, from, you know, little scrub palms growing up in the cracks in the sidewalks to, you know, to the mountains outside the city, to the Los Angeles River running through it.

And, you know, and in that sense, I mean, I think it's - there is this other kind of dystopian edge, if you will, you know, to "Her" in that, you know, this is a city that is even more devoid of nature than the city that we live in. But it's a way that people actually unfortunately think about cities and have thought about L.A., that it's not really a place that is, you know, shot through with nature that is indeed made of nature itself.

HOBSON: Christopher, what about the public transit side of the movie? And what we see is a very sophisticated train system in L.A. As we heard, Joaquin Phoenix never gets in a car.

HAWTHORNE: In fact, it's such a sophisticated system that people have tried to break down the movie and look at very carefully at the map and see how realistic it is, the transit map that just shows up very quickly in the film. So I think it does capture a sense that there's a - as Jon said, a profound shift going on in the city, and the city that has been so privatized and so deeply organized around the single-family house and the private car is beginning to re-embrace its public side. And that's something I spend a lot of time writing and thinking about.

And it's a kind of fitful re-embrace. It's - there are a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of L.A. really building a truly comprehensive transit system and really paying the kind of attention to the design of its public spaces that it needs to. But certainly, all of the changes that we're beginning to see point in that direction, and I think the movie picks up on a kind of optimism about those changes and, again, imagines what they might look like several decades in the future.

But Jon's right that, you know, the critique of the film as missing nature is not the only critique that we've heard. There's also, I think, a really valid critique that the movie is pretty white and you don't see a lot of Latino culture in a city that is already a majority Latino and will only become more so in the decades to come. You see a lot of Asian faces in the film, particularly those shot in Shanghai, of course, because you see...

HOBSON: Yeah. It's probably easier to get the extras when you're doing the filming in Shanghai.

HAWTHORNE: Exactly. You saw Chinese folks in the background. But that's another criticism of the film, that it's imagining a pretty white future of L.A. despite all of the ways that L.A. is changing.

Well, what about the film "Elysium," which paints a very different picture of L.A., a, first of all, much more Latino picture of L.A., but also one with a lot of smog, a very overcrowded place.

CHRISTENSEN: Well, I think, you know, if we put these two films next to each other as visions of the future of L.A., it's really interesting. And the choice here is what has been called the planet of slums, which you see in the vision of the future of Los Angeles in "Elysium," or a kind of high-modernist Le Corbusier vision of Los Angeles that you see in "Her." And those are definitely possibilities not just for Los Angeles, but for cities and - around the world over the course of the next century, which will be the century of where half of the population that is going to be added to the planet will end up in cities and the urban-built environment will double.

How that happens is going to be fundamentally shape how we live with each other and with nature. I think between those two visions, there is a missing - this missing term of what happens with nature in the city, a kind of ecological urbanism, what some people have called a kind of provisional or improvisational urbanism.

And in that way, I kind of find the vision of "Elysium," you know, and if we're just thinking about the city, not about the whole plot line of the future but the city, probably a more realistic one, it's going to be improvised. It's going to be messy. It's not all going to look pretty. It's - and modern. And there's going to be a lot of things that, you know, come up through the cracks, including nature in the city.

HAWTHORNE: I think Jon is right, and I think another way to think of it is that there are two features that we're thinking about here. One is local or regional, what will happen in Los Angeles particularly in terms of its transit network and its governance and what will happen globally and to what extent we can grapple with these huge problems that we face in terms of global warming, sea level rise, climate change. And those are the two features that are being played out in these two films.

"Her" is looking much more at a kind of local, you know, optimistic spin on what's happening in Los Angeles, and "Elysium," like so many other dystopian movies we've seen about Los Angeles, is imagining kind of worst-case scenario for environmental problems on a global scale.

HOBSON: Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the L.A. Times. And we've also been speaking with Jon Christensen, editor of "Boom: A Journal of California." He's also professor and journalist-in-residence at UCL.A. Guys, thanks to both of you.

CHRISTENSEN: Oh, thank you.

HAWTHORNE: Thanks so much.

HOBSON: And, Robin, it sure would be nice to have a public transit system like they have in Shanghai here in L.A. I don't know how much time I've spent in traffic since I got here.


You're like in that "SNL" skit, "The Californians"?


YOUNG: But, you know...

HOBSON: Take the 405 and the 101...


YOUNG: But I'm, you know, there are apps. So pick up an app. I'm looking at one right now that says do not get on the 210. Terrible. Do not go there.

HOBSON: All right. I'll stay off the 210. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson out in Culver City, California.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.