The Real-World Locations of 14 Sci-Fi Dystopias
In some science fiction cinema, the future looks pretty bleak, with dystopic visions of a world struggling with overcrowding, high crime, pestilence, and the aftermath of war. And it can also look uncomfortably familiar thanks to filmmaker’s use of real-world buildings in their sets — sometimes to anchor the story in real life, and sometimes just because it already looks “futuristic.” We’ve assembled a list of 14 real-world filming locations of sci-fi dystopias.
Blade Runner (1982)
Los Angeles, California
This 1982 sci-fi classic was set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and features several landmarks from the genuine article. One of the most notable is the Bradbury Building, where police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) fights with a mob of the film’s cyborg “replicants,” and has a final standoff with the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer). Much of the action takes place in the Bradbury Building’s courtyard, which is open to the public today.
Stairways of the Bradbury Building (photograph by Luke Jones)
Skylight in the Bradbury Building (photograph by Andrew Shiah)
Across the street from the Bradbury Building is the Pan Am Building, which stood in for the “Yukon Hotel,” where Deckard catches a replicant early in the film. The police station in which Deckard receives his orders to assassinate all these replicants in the first place was a film set built inside Los Angeles’ cavernous Union Station, a major railway hub.
Ennis House (photograph by Jean-Pierre Louis)
Deckard’s apartment is in the Ennis House, a complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and meant to emulate Mayan temples. The building, which has been turning up in films since the 1930s, is a national landmark and guided tours are available.
Ennis House (photograph by Sarah Le Clerc)
Total Recall (1990)
Mexico City, Mexico
Originally, Paul Verhoeven wanted to film 1990’s Total Recall in Houston, but the accountants said no. So Verhoeven moved production south to Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. A handful of other sites in the city were also used, like the penthouse of the Hotel Nikko (now the Hyatt Regency). The crew even stayed at the hotel while filming, and the art directors were so impressed by its streamlined design that they borrowed elements for other scenes.
Hotel Nikko Mexico (photograph by Felipe Alfonso Castillo Vázquez)
An especially gory scene of Total Recall sees construction worker/secret agent Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) fleeing from gunmen via an escalator, and using the body of an unfortunate innocent bystander as a human shield. That escalator is in the Metro Chabacano subway station in Mexico City; some visitors claim they can still see leftover blood splatters from filming.
Metro Chabacano (photograph by César Rincón)
A different metro station — Metro Insurgentes — is also used earlier in the scene for the external shots.
Outside entrance of Metro Insurgentes in Mexico City (photograph by Thelmadatter/Wikimedia)
Paul Verhoeven did get to film in Texas for an earlier film — set in Detroit. Most of 1987’s Robocop, in which Peter Weller plays Alex Murphy, a recently-deceased Detroit policeman-turned-cyborg-supercop, was actually filmed in Dallas.
Atrium of Plaza of the Americas in downtown Dallas (photograph by Dfwcre8tive/Wikimedia)
The monolithic “Omni Consumer Products” is the sci-fi team responsible for Murphy’s transformation, and three separate locations in Dallas stand in for different spots in the sprawling OCP headquarters. Dallas’ City Hall serves as the building’s exterior — special effects extended the hall to a towering 95 stories. Some interior scenes were shot in the atrium of the Plaza of the Americas — a shopping center which also incorporates Dallas’ Marriott Hotel. A different hotel, the Rosewood Crescent, offered its parking garage as OCP’s garage in the film.
Dallas City Hall (photograph by Daquella Manera)
Dallas High School on North Pearl Street stands in for the shabby Detroit Police Headquarters, while the interior Detriot PD scenes were filmed in the Sons of Herman Hall. The Sons of Herman Hall was a former German-American social club, which today serves as a music venue.
Dallas High School (photograph by Jeffrey Beall)
Logan’s Run (1976)
Fort Worth, Texas
Dallas and Fort Worth hosted the 1976 dystopian film Logan’s Run. Several scenes were filmed in the Dallas Market Center, a shopping mall standing in for “The City,” an underground complex whose residents believe is the only safe place left on Earth. Another mall, the Hulen Mall in Fort Worth, was just completing construction during filming and was also used for some scenes.
The Water Gardens (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
The Fort Worth Water Gardens stand in for The City’s hydro-electric power generator. The Philip Johnson-designed Water Gardens are an unusual architectural attraction, featuring three different concrete pools with fountains and water features. In the “Active Pool,” featured most prominently in the film, visitors can walk down a series of 38 steps to the small reflecting pool at the bottom, while water cascades down the steps and terraces all around them.
The Water Gardens (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
The Hunger Games (2012/2013)
Henry River Mill Village, North Carolina
The Hunger Games trilogy implies that “District 12,” the impoverished coal-mining region which is home to heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), corresponds with Appalachia. Much of the first film was shot in North Carolina, with the abandoned Henry River Mill Village standing in for District 12’s center.
Abandoned Henry River Mill Village House (via hungergamestrilogy.net)
Abandoned Henry River Mill Village (via hungergamestrilogy.net)
Built in 1904, the whole town was constructed to provide housing for the employees of a major textile mill on the Henry River. The mill ultimately closed in the 1980s, and the town was abandoned.
Swan House (photograph by Jim Bowen)
In Catching Fire, the latest entry in the film series, Katniss is one of the guests of honor at a party thrown by the scheming President Snow (Donald Sutherland). President Snow’s estate is actually the Swan House, a mansion built for a 1920s cotton magnate in Buckhead, just north of Atlanta, Georgia. Elsewhere in Atlanta, scenes featuring the Cornucopia — a bunker of supplies which contestants must collect — were filmed at the Beach, a portion of Atlanta’s Clayton County International Park originally constructed for the 1996 Olympics.
Marriott Marquis elevators (photograph by Brian Pennington)
Atlanta’s Marriott Marquis Hotel stands in for the victors’ quarters in the Capitol — Panem — and several scenes feature the hotel’s striking interior courtyard and elevator. The hotel was still receiving guests during filming, which lead to an embarrassing moment for actress Jena Malone. A scene required her to walk out of the elevator topless, and during one take the elevator stopped at the wrong floor, giving some guests quite a surprise.
UK & France
Filming locations for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 “dystopian satire” Brazil jump between the United Kingdom and Paris.
Millennium Mills (photograph by Ed Webster)
Scenes set at the “Department of Records,” where everyman Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) works, were filmed at the spooky Millennium Mills in East London, an abandoned flour mill from the early 20th Century.
Leighton House (photograph by Europa Nostra)
In one scene, Lowry’s mother (Katherine Helmond) undergoes a bizarre facelift in a lavish office. Gilliam filmed in the Arab Hall at the Leighton House Museum, the former residence of Victorian-era painter Frederic, Lord Leighton. The Arab Hall is tiled with the ceramics and woodwork Leighton collected on trips to the Middle East. Mrs. Lowry later returns “home” to what once was the Billiard Room of the National Liberal Club, a former clubhouse for members of England’s Liberal Party. The clubhouse has since been taken over by London’s Royal Horseguards Hotel, and the Billiard Room is used for special events.
Espaces d’Abraxas (photograph by Marcus/Flickr user)
Scenes in Lowry’s own home were actually filmed in Paris, chiefly in the Noisy-le-Grand commune. His apartment complex is the Espaces d’Abraxas designed by architect Ricardo Bofill and meant to evoke an ancient Greek amphitheater. Portions of the complex also stand in for “Chapel of Our Lady of the Checkout Counter,” which hosts a funeral scene. At film’s end, Lowry finally escapes his restrictive society — sort of — in the lush fields of Cumbria, in England’s Lake District. The exact scene lies somewhere near the village of Askham.
Marin County, California
Several scenes from Gattaca set at the “Gattaca Corporation,” the DNA testing and eugenics center controlling every person’s destiny, were filmed at the Marin County Civic Center just north of San Francisco.
Marin County Civic Center (photograph by Daniel Hartwig)
The Civic Center was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and also appears in another dystopic film — the 1971 THX-1138, George Lucas’ very first work.
Los Angeles City Hall (photograph by Ryan Quick)
In another scene, the exterior of the Los Angeles City Hall stands in for a concert hall where Vincent (Ethan Hawke) and Irene (Uma Thurman) have their first date, watching a 12-fingered pianist. Afterward, Vincent takes Irene to watch the sunrise at a “solar farm,” filmed at an actual solar power plant in the Mojave desert.
Great Western Forum (photograph by Horge/Wikimedia)
Later in the film, Irene starts to suspect (correctly) that Vincent is lying about who he is, and secretly takes one of his hairs in for DNA testing. The exterior and box office windows of the Great Western Forum are used for the testing facility.
Escape from New York (1981)
East St. Louis, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; NYC
Despite its name, much of the filming for this 1981 cult classic took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, as director John Carpenter feared it would be too expensive to make the real New York look sufficiently rundown. East St. Louis had plenty of townhouses which resembled New York, and had also recently suffered a major fire, on top of having an abandoned train station and a bridge, two locations the movie required.
East St. Louis (photograph by Tyson Blanquart)
Liberty Island (photograph by Glen Scarborough)
One scene was filmed on location in New York. In the film, Manhattan Island has been turned into a maximum-security prison colony, with the guards stationed on Liberty Island, at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Carpenter was able to persuade federal officials to let the film use the real Liberty Island for the scene — the first film crew ever given access to the site at night. In the scene, guards receive word that Air Force One has crashed into Manhattan, and the President (Donald Pleasance) is now the hostage of the “The Duke Of New York” (Isaac Hayes).
Fox Theatre (photograph by Matthew Black)
The exterior of St. Louis’ Fox Theater turns up in an early scene where Snake (Kurt Russell), the anti-hero inmate charged with rescuing the President, first goes looking for him.
Union Station’s Grand Hall (photograph by Paul Sableman)
St. Louis’ Union Station stands in for Grand Central Station, where the President is being held captive. The place where Snake fights gladiator-style for his release is also in Union Station, in the Grand Hall.
Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (photograph by Thomas Duesing)
The Chain of Rocks Bridge stands in for New York’s 59th Street Bridge, over which Snake leads the President to ultimate safety. Formerly a bridge on the iconic Route 66, the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge is now closed to vehicular traffic, but hosts biking and pedestrian paths.
Soylent Green (1973)
Los Angeles, California
Most of the 1973 Soylent Green was filmed in Hollywood sound stages, but two scenes use locations elsewhere in Los Angeles. The exterior of the “euthanasia shop,” where Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) goes to subject himself to an assisted suicide, is actually the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena (photograph by Pelladon/Wikimedia)
Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant was used for the factory in which Robert Thorn (Charlton Heston) discovers what the film’s “Soylent Green” nutritional wafers are really made of. (Spoiler alert: it’s people.)
Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant (photograph by Doc Searls)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland
This 1995 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam features John Cole (Bruce Willis) in a time-travel paradox, with several filming locations in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Set in the future after a global plague, the first scenes depict Cole collecting air samples outside Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Philadelphia’s City Hall (photograph by Ted Drake)
Cole is later sent back in time to discover the plague’s origins, where his behavior lands him in an insane asylum, alongside a gloriously demented Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). For the asylum, Gilliam chose Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)
Eastern State (photograph by Sandi Hemmerlein)
The penitentiary is itself worth a visit. Built in the 1820s, this spoke wheel-shaped prison represents a major reform in the early American penal system. Closed in 1969, the prison is now open for historic tours, where guests can see the former cells of real-life inmates (such as Al Capone) as well as the 12 Monkeys film sites.
Philadelphia Convention Center (photograph by Tracie Hall)
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, scenes from Cole’s recurring dream set at an airport were filmed at Philadelphia’s Convention Center. A scene towards the end of the film, where Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) buys disguises for herself and for Cole, were shot at Wanamaker’s Department Store.
Senator Theater (photograph by Sean Naber)
In Baltimore, the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion stood in for the home of Dr. Goines (Christopher Plummer), the virologist whose lab inadvertently developed the plague from Willis’ time. Late in the film, Cole and Railly seek some private time in Baltimore’s Senator Theater, an art deco gem.
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
The virtual-reality city inside “the Matrix” is supposed to be a generic any-place. But much of the trilogy was filmed in and around Sydney, Australia.
Metacrotex (photograph by Kenneth Pinto)
The Metacortex building, where Neo (Keanu Reeves) works as a programmer and first suspects something’s not right with the world, is actually the Metcentre, a shopping mall in Sydney’s Central Business District. The bridge where Neo waits for Trinity (Carrie Ann Moss) to collect him in a car and bring him to meet Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) is the Adam Street Bridge near Sydney’s Chinatown.
Adams Street Bridge (photograph by Brett Taylor)
Sydney shows up in some of Morpheus’ training programs as well. For example, where Neo is distracted by a woman in a red dress at a fountain and then sees her transformed into one of the film’s “agents” is in a plaza near the corners of Martin Place and Pitt Street.
Martin Place (photograph by SG_Harrison)
Nearby is the Westin Hotel on the site of the former General Post Office. This is where Neo sees a black cat and has a moment of “déjà vu,” tipping his companions off to an impending attack.
General Post Office (photograph by Bob Mead)
The Colonial State Bank Center is also close by. This is the building where Morpheus is held captive and tortured by agents. The Colonial State may not admit visitors, but you can get into Forty One Restaurant at 2 Chifley Square, where one of Neo’s teammates betrays him to Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) over a steak.
White Bay Power Station (photograph by Jes/Flickr user)
Both sequels also feature Sydney; The Matrix Reloaded uses Sydney’s historic White Bay Power Station for the scenes where the rebels attempt to blow up a power station to kill the electricity to a building, and Matrix Revolutions concludes with a meeting between the Oracle and the Architect at the Royal Botanic Gardens on Sydney Harbor.
Royal Botanic Gardens (via Wikimedia)
Minority Report (2002)
Los Angeles, California
Like Blade Runner, this is based on a Philip K. Dick story and was shot mainly in Los Angeles, despite the story’s Washington, DC setting. A few DC landmarks do make an appearance, however — the exterior of the Ronald Reagan Trade Center is used for the “Department of PreCrime” building where John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is the star detective. The Willard Washington DC Hotel is the site of a splashy party thrown by Anderton’s superiors just before the film’s “PreCrime” system goes national.
Ronald Reagan Trade Center (photograph by David Gaines)
Back in Los Angeles, the Descanso Botanic Gardens stand in for the home of Dr. Iris Hineman (Lois Smith), whom Anderton visits when he suspects the PreCrime system has some flaws. Descanso is home to a wide collection of roses, camellias, lilacs, and native California flora on its 160 acres (but none of the sentient poisonous plants which attack Anderton).
Descanso Botanic Gardens (photograph by dailymatador/Flickr user)
The film’s PreCrime system is driven by the visions of three clairvoyant men and women, known as “Precogs.” Anderton kidnaps one, Agatha (Samantha Morton), and brings her to an abandoned shopping mall. The mall is only half abandoned in real life. It’s actually the Hawthorne Plaza Mall, just south of Los Angeles. The entire shopping complex once consisted of an indoor mall with three big-box stores close by, but the mall portion was closed in 1999 after a spate of finance trouble. The three big-box stores are still open, while the mall is now used for a police training center.
Hawthorne Plaza Mall (photograph by Amin Eshaker)
Visitors can even also see one of the film sets on a studio backlot. The Warner Brothers VIP Studio Tour includes the street set where Anderton uses a jetpack to escape arrest after being falsely accused of a future murder.
V for Vendetta (2005)
England & Berlin
Alan Moore set his fascist dystopia in London, so the 2005 adaptation of V for Vendetta features some obvious landmarks like the Old Bailey courthouse and Big Ben. Much of the film was actually shot on sound stages in Berlin, although a handful of scenes were captured at lesser-known English sites. The film’s prologue, which depicts the story of English antihero Guy Fawkes, sets Fawkes’ execution at Hatfield House, a country house in Hertfordshire.
Old Palace at Hatfield House (photograph by Jason Ballard)
Hatfield House was the childhood home of Queen Elizabeth I. Her successor King James I disliked it and gave it to the Earl of Salisbury, who remodeled it extensively into the house that exists today.
Cloth Fair Street (photograph by Simon Wicks)
The street where the masked hero V (Hugo Weaving) rescues Evey (Natalie Portman) from a group of corrupt policemen is Cloth Fair, a thoroughfare where medieval textile merchants would set up stalls during summer market fairs.
Chalk Farm Footbridge (photograph by Danny Robinson)
In a catalytic scene, a girl is shot for daring to deface a political poster, and the surrounding crowd revolts. That scene takes place on the Chalk Farm Footbridge on Regent’s Park Road, near the trendy Camden Town district. And at the film’s finale, a mob of rebels, all in Guy Fawkes masks like V, gather at London’s Trafalgar Square before marching on Parliament.
Trafalgar Square (photo by the author)
Discover more real-world film locations on Atlas Obscura >
Update 3/15/16: An earlier version of this story referred to the 69th Street bridge in New York City, instead of the 59th Street bridge. We regret the error.
Follow us on Twitter to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders.
Like us on Facebook to get the latest on the world's hidden wonders.Follow us on Twitter Like us on Facebook