One of the pleasures that often gets overlooked in movies (and television) is world-building. It’s the kind of term that gets thrown around a lot, usually to justify adding a bunch of special guests soap-opera style, but it’s the idea of visiting a fully realised fantasy world that often makes a show a success – when it’s done well.
Strangely, the best recent example of this was a super-hero movie, which isn’t exactly a genre known for spending much time at all looking at what’s going on behind the costumed leads: Black Panther (which is out now on DVD and blu-ray) spent a large chunk of time set in the fictional super-advanced African nation of Wakanda, and once there it spent a surprisingly large chunk of that time exploring and explaining just how things worked.
The country was more the star of the show than the lead, and it paid off: while recent superhero movies have moved away from the idea that the audience can put themselves in the hero’s place, with Wakanda we’re given a country that actually looks like a fun place for regular people (that is, us) to visit. It’s not an easy thing to do either – compare the Wakanda in Black Panther with the one shown in the most recent Avengers movie and while they’re meant to be the same place, there’s a world of difference there. Which probably explains why it’s so rarely done even though it’s such a sure-fire crowd-pleaser – the six Lord of the Rings movies were at times little more than tourism videos for Middle-Earth, and Game of Thrones has worked hard to make Westeros a living, breathing collection of kingdoms.
But there’s plenty of dud fantasy movies that worked hard to bring their setting to life too (remember the World of Warcraft movie?); it’s clear that while an exciting location is something audiences respond to, if nothing interesting is happening there they’re not going to stick around. There’s got to be a human element in there as well: in Wakanda it’s a tale of a king facing a challenger who, despite being a murderous criminal, also makes some good points about how the kingdom’s being run (which also provides a great excuse to wander around that kingdom).
Of course, one of the most famous locations in television history was entirely based on a personal journey: The Village in 60s spy series The Prisoner (also now out on DVD) was a creepy yet cheery setting where the “retired” spy known only as Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) finds himself dealing with various bizarre and surreal situations seemingly linked to why his abruptly quit his job. A mix of prison and holiday resort where no-one is to be trusted, it’s probably not the kind of place audiences would like to spend time in for real – but it’s definitely a major part of this classic series’ lingering appeal. It’s a rare example of a television series where the setting isn’t just part of the story, it’s a reflection of the characters state of mind; while in recent years series have expanded on that idea (Mr Robot and Legion come to mind), in many ways the original is still the best.
Written by Anthony Morris