Everyone has a favourite spaceship. Let’s face it, one of the reasons we like a good sci-fi movie is to ogle the hardware, right?
But beauty’s more than skin deep. As every visual effects afficionado knows, it’s not enough for an interstellar hot-rod just to look pretty. Motion pictures are all about – you guessed it – motion.
Here’s a Top 3 list not of my favourite spaceships, but my favourite moves.
It’s a no-brainer that Han Solo’s pirate ship should be on this list. But she’s such a smooth mover that picking just one shot from an entire saga is a real challenge.
The shot I propose comes right at the start of the asteroid field chase sequence, just after Han’s opined that the Empire would be “crazy to follow us.” The shot’s square-on from the side, with the Falcon flying right to left, gaining a little in the frame. Deploying one of her trademark drunken rolls, she veers hard to port to avoid a spinning rock, swoops right up to the camera until she fills the screen, and shocks approximately half the audience into jumping violently enough to hurl their popcorn in the air.
On paper, it’s just a throwaway editorial beat. In practice, ILM’s effortless wielding of the motion control camera combines with John Williams’s triumphant score to create the cinematic equivalent of a sharp intake of breath before the exhilarating rollercoaster plunge.
Some spaceships mean business. Ships like the dropship from Aliens. It looks its absolute best in the audacious shot that comes at the climax of the “prep for drop” sequence, during which the Colonial Marines get psyched for planetfall. You know, the one where that futuristic Apache doesn’t just exit the Sulaco‘s hold … it plummets.
This dynamic shot was produced by Brian Johnson’s company, Arkadon, using a 100-foot motion control track. Conceptually, it’s a stunner. The camera starts off looking straight up at the Sulaco while the dropship plunges towards it. A rapid track and pan enables the streamlined craft to perform a close fly-past before powering away from camera and diving into the planetary atmosphere.
Technically, the last few frames are creaky, with visible matte lines and shaky tracking of the background plate marring the comp. I can forgive that. At its heart, this is a dizzying, celebratory shot, perfectly timed to ram the narrative unashamedly into a higher gear.
Sometimes (often in fact) less is more. Of all the gorgeous space shots produced by Digital Domain for Apollo 13, my favourite is the one that heralds the final re-entry sequence. It follows the moment Tom Hanks tells his fellow astronauts it’s been a privilege flying with them.
The shot begins with the Earth’s limb occupying most of the frame,with just a sliver of starfield visible top right. As the camera performs a gentle roll, the command module enters from camera right and drops away in a smooth, straight line towards the centre of the screen. Barely three seconds long, you could say the shot performs the same “take a deep breath” trick as the Empire shot. You could also argue that it resembles the Aliens shot in that it features a ship falling towards a planet.
But the Apollo 13 shot is chalk to their cheese. No high-octane thrills here, just the simple message that here is a shining silver capsule with three living souls trapped inside. The tiny craft looks impossibly vulnerable before the immense face of its parent world. And it’s falling …
Every shot tells a story. The ones on my list tell theirs supremely well. Now it’s over to you. Can you come up with moves that are smoother than mine?