Friday, May 21, 2010

How Not To Build A Spaceship

One of the most important aspects of story telling is establishing something called “suspension of disbelief.” This is the point where the storyteller overcomes the viewer/reader/listener’s natural inclination to disregard or dismiss stories that don’t ring true. This is particularly important in science fiction, where the story already contains many fantastic aspects. Unfortunately, in horror-based science fiction, one of the biggest flaws is often the spaceship itself.

When it comes to spaceship design in films, the sky is literally the limit. You can choose to follow the rules of science and the laws of physics, or you can ignore them. You can come up with any kind of shapes, capabilities, sizes, or even purposes. But one rule you can’t break is that you can’t ignore human nature. Sadly, all too often, this is the one rule that horror science fiction films do break.

We know many things about human nature (unless you’re a liberal economist, then you really don’t know jack about humans). We have a good sense of what makes us happy, what makes us sad, and what scares the heck out of us. We know how people will react to certain circumstances and conditions. And in this regard, it is inconceivable that someone would build a spaceship that ignores human nature and which puts people into a place that we would consider dark and creepy. . . a labyrinth of terror. No one would design such a ship because no one would voluntarily board it.

Yet, filmmakers all too often make the mistake of creating ships that are horrific even before anything has gone wrong. I’m particularly thinking of two ships (though this applies to a great many more): (1) the Elysium from Pandorum and (2) the Event Horizon from Event Horizon.

The Elysium is built like your average video game horror house. It is dark, with near-black walls, trap doors, hiding places strewn liberally about, pointless catwalks and swinging things, an abundance of human-sized vents to crawl through (wiping out the point to the airtight hatches), and large rooms that look like food processors meant to kill characters. Its hallways meet at strange angles, which allow the bad guys to head off the good guys at the pass, and encourage surprise attacks. Its hatches open and shut randomly, and the speed with which they open or shut depends on how badly the fleeing characters need to get through them. This is not a ship anyone would ever design, and it’s not a ship anyone would ever agree to board. So while the imagery created does generate the spooky feel the director needed, you spend the whole time thinking that the ship was specifically designed to satisfy the needs of the film rather than the needs of the crew.

The Event Horizon took a similar, though slightly different approach. Whereas the Elysium is a maze, the Event Horizon is a dungeon. Unlike the Elysium, the layout of the Event Horizon at least makes some sense, but the overall dungeon effect makes the design ridiculous, e.g. its walls are black and they are decorated with large spikes that only have the purpose of impaling characters, there are torture devices strewn about, and lots of coffin-like objects abound. Flying the Event Horizon would be like taking Dracula’s basement for a spin.

An infinitely better ship is the Nostromo from Alien. The Nostromo was brilliant because Ridley Scott grasped the human condition. Above, where the crew lives, you have accommodations that are really quite pleasant, if workman-like. Indeed, the crew quarters and command deck are very typical of what you find on modern ocean-going freighters today. Below decks, where the Nostromo is darker and more sinister, you have bulk containers, equipment storage rooms, and narrow service passageways. These areas are more creepy, but they still make sense. Indeed, these things are again consistent with a freighter, and it is easy to see a normal human crew sign on to work on this ship.

Moreover, just because a ship has to start as not-terrifying, doesn’t mean it can’t change; even if it take a few minutes to explain what happened, this is time well spent. Consider the movie Ghost Ship, where a salvage team finds an Italian ocean liner adrift after 40 years on the ocean. They don’t cheat and design the ship like an incomprehensible maze or dungeon, they really do stay true to the layout and design of a cruise ship. But with the ship adrift for 40 years, everything has rusted and rotted, creating a very creepy yet entirely believable setting.

And let’s not forget that a ship doesn’t have to be dark and twisted to be terrifying. The Odyssey in 2001 was pretty creepy and it was well-lit and entirely ergonomic. The space station in Solaris was creepy (until you figured out what was going on) and it was brightly lit. Even the Picard Enterprise could be made kind of creepy when the mood struck.

The key to creating a worthwhile spaceship for any movie (horror or otherwise) is to remember that the ship must be designed to account for human nature. If no normal human would board the ship in the first place, then the film will have a hard time overcoming the viewer’s disbelief. And frankly, if the film needs to cheat in this way to make itself scary, then maybe there are bigger problems that need to be fixed with the story first.

The Labyrinth of Terror class starship should be decommissioned.


Joel Farnham said...


What I didn't like about Pandorum is that they didn't show the ship how it was when it was in great shape. I spent most of the movie trying to understand just what reason the crew was doing there.

A similar problem is with Aliens. I had never seen what the colonists lived in until the special edition. It was just a short segment, but it helped in seeing what the change was.

I agree. The Labrynth Terror class starship has outlived it's usefulness.

Anonymous said...

This site never ceases to amaze me. :-)

One problem that the Star Trek designers sometimes fell for was the idea of: "Our villain is evil so his ship should look reeeeally evil." Shinzon's ship in Star Trek: Nemesis was designed to look imposing, even though it makes no sense in real life for a ship to look like a giant insect, complete with a Bond-style superweapon (read: a very slow weapon).

Designer Andrew Probert once said that, in the early years of TNG, people complained about Picard's Enterprise, saying the bridge looked like the lobby of a Hyatt. But it could look moody when it needed to be. Ditto for DS9 and Voyager.

Event Horizon... wow. I've seen it before and I even remember the HBO making-of where the director and his technicians are marveling at the design of the ship and how they wanted to make it look like a cathedral, contrary to all common sense.

Some of the Trek designers have blogs where they talk about their influences, design methodologies, and other nerdery: John Eaves and Doug Drexler.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I had the same feeling with Aliens. The first time through was ok, but it didn't make a lot of sense. But when I saw the special edition, that was a dramatic improvement because suddenly the whole settlement worked -- it was stark but very livable.

I think it would have helped Pandorum a lot if they had spent a few minutes at the beginning showing people walking through the ship, preparing it, etc. But I think ultimately, they couldn't do that because I don't think they ever really considered "the ship." I think they had a series of rooms in mind where they planned various fights and chases and they built the rooms to fit the film without thinking about how they those rooms would fit into the ship itself.

I think that taking that little extra time to get everything straight would have vastly improved the movie.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, We strive to amaze! :-)

The bridge of Picard's Enterprise does look like a hotel lobby, but, honestly, it makes sense -- except that they probably waste a lot of space, which is where the original Enterprise made more sense.

But that issue aside, if you are going to send people into space, you're going to design a space that people can relate to. And people can't relate to creepy, especially in places like space or at sea where you can't walk outside to get away from the place.

I agree about the tendency to say "our villain is evil, his ship should look evil." That just doesn't make sense. But then, I've talked about how Hollywood doesn't "get" bad guys anyways. Just because someone is evil doesn't mean they see themselves as evil or that they want to live in a dungeon.

Compare Shinzon to the Borg. The Borg were much more terriying because their ship spoke to their singular purpose. It was cold, efficient, and relentless. Shinzon's ship reminded me a mid-life crisis. . . "hey babe, look at my ship, I'm really evil. I'm cool right?" His other spaceship was probably a red Corvette.

Writer X said...

The Borg ship on Star Trek still makes me shiver. Ditto for the Wraith ships on Stargate Atlantis. That was like a flying coffin. I think the sounds that a ship makes are almost as equally important as to how they look. The Borg ship, as an example, always sounded like it was wheezing. Totally creepy.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, I thought the Wraith ships were great. And that's an example where the ship can be creepier in design because it really fits the speicies that made it, and its organic struture gave an excuse for the way it turned out. Still, they didn't try too much. It fit the purposes of the crew without containing lots of pointless spooky stuff, i.e. they didn't cheat.

Excellent point on the sounds as well. I've always felt that the Enterprise noises were very comforting, kind of a gentle hum and an engine that worked without a single misfire. Whereas, as you note, the Borg ship hissed. The Nostromo in Alien shook and clanked, like an old car, which also made it very believable as a well-used freighter.

It's all one big package and when you do it right, it's very easy to fall into the world they've created. When you do it wrong, you just spend your time going, who the heck built this?

Unknown said...

Andrew: Galaxy Quest picked up on one of your thoughts by creating that corridor to the room the crew needed to get to to save the ship. It was some sort of bizarre "chop and pummel" area. One of the crew asked "why would anybody design a ship with one of these things?"

Firefly also got it right in most aspects in my mind. It looked like a tramp freighter of the future might look. The Serenity looked like you might expect, and when there was large, empty space with "things hanging," it was usually because the cargo hold would accommodate considerably more cargo than they were usually able to collect, given the times and their situation.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Good point -- that was an hilarious moment in Galaxy Quest and very consistent with my point here! LOL!

I agree totally about the Serenity. Every inch of that ship was livable and fit the purpose for which the ship was supposedly designed. You never doubted that anything you saw fit in well inside the ship and would have actually exists.

BevfromNYC said...

But remember the scene in GWTW when they burned the...oh, wait. There just isn't anyway to interject a GWTW reference in a sci-fi post...unless it's "Gone With The Wind - The Next Generation"!

Scene: Bridge near the USS Tara - Scarlett slaps Rhett as he prepares to beam up to join the fight against the alien invaders from the North Star....

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, A valiant effort!

Actually, you may be onto something. They've made Casablanca into a science fiction film a couple of times, e.g. Barb Wire. Why not convert GWTW into a science fiction film? Hmmm.

CrispyRice said...

For the record, I would totally retire on the Enterprise from TNG. Talk about cozy. I'd be amazed if anyone got any work done there.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, That could be a problem. That's probably why they try not to make the work environment too comfortable, by for example, putting a bed in your office! ;-)

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