Economics of dystopian landscapes

In the budget of a video game or a movie, writing is a very small wedge of the pie. The money all goes into other wedges. In both games and movies the production of visuals is very expensive, and the people responsible for creating those visuals hold sway in proportion to their share of the budget.

I hope I won’t come off as unduly cynical if I say that such people (or, barring that, their paymasters) are looking for the biggest possible bang for the buck. And it is much easier and cheaper to take the existing visual environment and degrade it than it is to create a new vision of the future from whole cloth. That’s why New York keeps getting destroyed in movies: it’s relatively easy to take an iconic structure like the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty and knock it over than it is to design a future environment from scratch. A few weeks ago I think I actually groaned out loud when I was watching OBLIVION and saw the wrecked Statue of Liberty sticking out of the ground. The same movie makes repeated use of a degraded version of the Empire State Building’s observation deck. If you view that in strictly economic terms–which is how studio executives think–this is an example of leveraging a set of expensive and carefully thought-out design decisions that were made in 1930 by the ESB’s architects and using them to create a compelling visual environment, for minimal budget, of a future world.

From an interview with Neal Stephenson.

That's an interesting theory about why futuristic landscapes in sci-fi movies are so often degraded versions of existing landscapes, but I'm skeptical. It seems just as likely to me that showing the wreckage of a recognizable landmark like the Statue of Liberty gives the audience a faux-realistic through line from the contemporary age to the date the movie is set in. The aging of the shared cultural landmark serves as a form of visual carbon dating, removing the need to rely on showing a specific year in a text preamble or overlay.

Any visual effects folks out there who know if Stephenson's theory is true, feel free to leave a comment.