Friday, February 20, 2009

Stonekettle Station’s Top Ten Perfect Scenes in SciFi

You know, it’s Friday.

Let’s talk Science Fiction Movies, shall we?

I tend to think science fiction, more than any other genre, produces some of the very best, and some of the very worst, movies ever made. No other genre produces such a wide spectrum. From watershed movies like Forbidden Planet that no amount of GCI and Will Smith magic could ever improve on, to unintended humor like Moon Zero Two to utter dreck like Space Truckers to stomach churning abominations such as Battlefield Earth. Not westerns, not war movies, not love stories, not mysteries, not thrillers, or even horror movies – though the later comes closer than the rest.

Some movies, while maybe less than stellar overall, have some truly great moments, scenes where everything just lines up exactly right. The acting, the lighting, the mood, the score – all reach a state of gravitational equilibrium to produce the perfect scene.

These are the scenes that stick with you.

The following list is comprised of ten scenes I think are perfect, they are all from reasonably decent, or maybe even great, movies.

10) Star Wars: Episode 23b(1) Revision 5 (or whatever the hell Lucas renamed it to). I’m talking about Star Wars, the Star Wars. The first one. You know, Episode IV, A New Hope: The scene on Tatooine where Luke is standing on that little rise above the homestead, watching the twin suns set over the desert, and that lonely and poignant John Williams Skywalker theme is playing in the background.

You can damned near feel the sand and wind and the wanderlust and the fading light of those alien stars. Man I loved that scene, the rest of the movie is pure swashbuckling Saturday morning adventure – but that scene strikes right at your emotional core. That scene tells you more than words who Luke is and what drives him. This is the last peaceful night he will know. All around him, under that huge sky and just beyond the horizon, war and revolution flame. The universe is vast, unknown and filled with strangeness. Duty binds him to the farm, but it won’t for much longer, far worlds are tugging at him with strange gravity and some day very soon he’ll follow the pull of that tide and find his place in the universe and damn the consequences. That scene speaks to every person who has ever stood on the edge of the ocean and wished for adventure on distant shores.

9) 2010, Odyssey II: Curnow and Max repelling down the spine of tumbling Discovery.

Overall, 2010 is a meticulously crafted movie, it’s a decent sequel - without the shear gob smacking awe of its predecessor. There are a lot of terrific scenes, Leonov aerobraking through Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, the camera panning across the alien swamp on Europa and coming to rest on the monolith as Thus Spake Zarathustra begins to play, any scene with Helen Mirren. But it’s the scene of Curnow and Max, repelling in space suits down the backbone of the ghostly, abandoned Discovery while wheeling among the stars that brings it all home for me. The details are perfect, the puffs of yellow sulfur dust ballooning around their boots, apparent gravity increasing as they drop further and further from the center of revolution and tension increasing on the lines step by step. The immense globe of Jupiter and the stormy volcanic moon Io swirling around the sky - the sickening vertigo is unbelievable. Curnow’s panicked breathing as the soundtrack. If they lose their grip, if the line breaks, if they slip, they’ll be flung outward toward to stars, beyond rescue, lost forever. Two tiny humans, climbing down the largest spacecraft ever built, beneath the light of old Jove himself and not knowing what they’ll find when they get to the airlock.

8) Alien: Nostromo crew approaching the wrecked Alien spacecraft.

Yeah, yeah. The chest burster. That goddamned cat. Dallas in the air ducts. Sigorney Weaver fighting the alien while wearing the universe’s most idiotic and unflattering underwear. All great scenes. But remember that scene where Dallas, Kane, and Lambert first sight the alien spacecraft? Bundled in spacesuits like something created by Carhartt, with the howl of frozen poisonous wind echoing over the scene, lousy communications and fogged visors and that huge crescent shaped ship from H.R. Giger’s nightmares rises out of the murk. You know it’s big – but then the camera pulls back, and pulls back, and pulls back until the astronauts’ helmet lights are only specks against that weird utterly alien hulk. And suddenly you realize just how tiny men are against the vast and terrible universe.

7) The Abyss: The SEALs jumping from the helicopters on to the deck of the Benthic Explorer.

Classic Cameron. The military snare drums. The SEALs exiting the H3 as if they had done it a thousand times, big, deadly, professional men utterly in control. Cameron lingers on their boots hitting the nonskid deck, just slightly overcranked so the scene plays out with ominous gravity. It’s an invasion, a harbinger of terrible things to come…and then a perfect shapely ankle and stylish high-heel enters the frame. The camera pans up and across the severe beauty of Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio. There’s this jarring disconnect. And the scene jumps to the bridge and you hear, in Chris Elliot’s disgusted tones, “Oh noooo. It’s the queen bitch of the universe.”

6) The Matrix: Morpheus’ Rescue

The entire scene from the moment in the lobby when the metal detector goes off, to when Neo rescues Trinity and the abandoned helicopter slams into the side of the building and the shock waves ripple outward. That six minutes is one of the best action scenes ever filmed.

5) Blade Runner: Roy Batty in the elevator.

I don’t give a shit what anybody says, Blade Runner is hands down the best damned scifi flick ever made, and one of the best movies ever made in any genre. You will not convince me otherwise, so don’t try.

Specifically though, if I have to choose one perfect scene it is Roy Batty in the elevator after murdering Tyrell and Sebastian. It’s over. He’s done everything. He’s explored every possibility. There are no more options. His destiny cannot be changed, he will die and soon. And in that moment you truly understand the horror of his life, how bleak his existence is, the chains that bind him and the sword that hangs over his head. He has stormed heaven and killed his maker and exacted his revenge and it changed nothing. He stares out over the city and that weird electronic score plays and then, suddenly, he scowls as only Rutger Hauer can do – and that very dangerous, very menacing expression says clearly that Batty is not done yet – there is still one thing left to do. And then the camera pulls back and the elevator drops away.

4) The Thing: The final scene

MacReady and Childs sitting in the ruins of the burning Antarctic station. Night is coming. Cold that no man can survive. No hope of rescue. If they are men, they’ll die. If one of them is the Thing, humanity will die. Then that eerie heartbeat music starts. Dump, dump dump. Dump, dump dump…

3) Dark City: The battle of wills

Everything lines up perfectly in the climatic scene between Murdock and the Others. The lighting, the music, the unleashed primal forces of raw creation, Murdock and Mr. Hand rising up as the structure of the world comes crashing down around them and the very fabric of reality is torn asunder and it just keeps getting more and more and more intense until you think your head is going to explode.

2) The Thirteenth Warrior: The scene on the stairs

Don’t try to tell me that The Thirteenth Warrior isn’t scifi. It was penned by Michael Crichton. It had Vikings meeting Arabs during the dark ages. It had Neanderthals. Scifi, Q.E.D. It’s also one of my very, very favorite movies of all time. If you don’t get this movie, or you see it as nothing but a bloodbath, well nothing I can say will change your mind. But it is far more than a bloodbath and not nearly as bloody as either Alien or The Thing. It’s a quest movie and a coming of age story and a hero’s tale.

The heroes have killed the Wendoh’s evil mother and are trapped by her terrible children far below ground. Buliwyf the hero king is mortally wounded. Herger the Joyous leads them down a stairway deeper underground pursued by the wendoh. The Vikings know they are trapped, soon they will die - and they make jokes (How deep in the earth are we? Deep enough to fall out the bottom). They are men without fear. Warriors who believe firmly and completely in destiny. They laugh in the face of their own death, literally. They live only for the quest, for battle, for adventure.

Or so they would have you believe.

One of the warriors, Skeld, can run no further. He sits down on a rock and waits for the enemy. Ibn Fahdlan must leave him behind. Fahdlan hesitates, and then turns to descend the stairs. Moments later, he meets Herger The Joyous. Herger sees that Fahdlan is alone and says one word, “Skeld?” The Arab shakes his head. And just for a moment, for a bare brief moment, there is a look of utter sorrow on Herger’s face. Then he turns away and dashes down the stairs. It’s like a door opening and then closing, giving you only a glimpse inside the room beyond. It’s an incredibly subtle moment and perfectly executed.

1) And finally, The Fifth Element: LeeLoo’s swan dive from the top of the sky scraper.

It’s about 6 minutes and thirty seconds in.

Perfect, just perfect.


  1. The double sun sunset in Star Wars is possibly my favorite scene in the entire series and one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.

    On top of everything else you mention on that gorgeous shot, or maybe underneath it: just the simplicity of really and truly not being in Kansas anymore. That single scene, even more than all the spaceships or the riffraff of the Mos Eisley cantina or anything else somehow manages to drive home the idea that you're not on Earth, you really are somewhere far away.

    It really epitomizes the fact that, as much as he ultimately lost his way and devolved into something awful, Lucas really was a brilliant director when he was young, a long, long time ago, and somewhere far, far away.

  2. 2010: The brown. It's important.

    Love the scene in 13th Warrior where the language of the Vikings slowly becomes intelligible.

    I'll have to think of some fave scenes of my own. Hmmmm.

  3. Fifth Element, yes.

    But my favorite scene is when the luxury ship is about to be blown up and they steal Zorg's ship and Dallas blows a hole in the side of the luxury cruiser so they can escape and the fire boils itself out as the oxygen disappears.

    I love that scene.

    And the Diva's singing interspersed with Leeloo's battle is also fabulous.

  4. The true impact of the double sunset is felt just a little while later when Luke rushes "home" only to find burnt skeletons. I mean -- burnt skeletons. It was jarring. It's only a glimpse, a momentary flash, but it still gets me. If this is a "children's movie", then everyone just goddamned grew up in that second. Luke, still wet behind the ears, turns to steel. He is ready to fight the Empire.

    'nough said.

    Your whole list is one fine film after another.

    I knew Alien was going to be great in the opening scene -- there's a fluorescent light that doesn't want to come on. This is a working ship -- you can feel it.

    Dr. Phil

  5. Funny you should mention The Fifth Element -- it was just on some cable channel. I came in just as they were seated before the Diva's concert.

    "Anyone else want to negotiate?"

    Dr. Phil

  6. I think a scene deserves honorable mention: scene in Star Trek The Motion Picture, where they are getting ready to take her out of space dock, Jerry Goldsmith' music is anthem like (he also did 13th warrior), the running light are coming on and the dock light go out, always was a powerful moment for me.

  7. Jim, I think I love you. OMG. I haven't even had my coffee yet this morning and your list brought tears to my eyes. Like you read my mind. Starting with Star Wars, when it was just Star Wars, which is my all time favorite movie in the universe. To say nothing of owning most of the movies listed in some form.

    See, you're talking to someone who wrote a massive term paper a while back on the original Star Wars trilogy as a modern version of the classic-form epic.

    We were supposed to use just one movie or story, but it just so happened that the weekend I planned to work on it was the same place in time the trilogy was released as a box set for the very first time, so of course I was forced to show how the epic-arc worked over the three. I'd just gotten a VCR, and my research consisted of watching all three movies until my head was ready to explode (had to have quotes and sources). And wrote a fine paper that garnered an A++.

    Thordr, for me the reason that Star Trek scene was so powerful was the anticipation. It had been a long stretch between the series and the movie. Those of us that used to sneak halfway down the stairs to watch the series that came on after our bedtime, missed these characters. This was the visual confirmation that the Enterprise and crew were BACK, and it blew us all away with that massive visual.

    OK, time for breakfast, coffee and the usual Saturday housecleaning rituals.

    And I may just have to watch Star Wars tonight. Unless I come across the Fifth Element first...


  8. The sad thing about Star Trek: The Motion Picture was that after space dock, the movie was something of a letdown. Of course that didn't stop us from flocking to see Star Trek 2, and being rewarded with a PLOT. And a maniac with a vocabulary. And "things put in our bodies." Ew-www!

    Dr. Phil

  9. What do you mean o' brother o' mine...you didn't LIKE V'Ger?


  10. This might be a crazy theory, but I think Lucas was better when he was still trying for spit and bailing wire success. I mean, that binary sunset effect...simple to accomplish, even with the technology of the time. And the Falcon's engine noise coming from a broken down hotel fridge. Success spoiled him and I think he lost his way. I mean, the last/first three films made me feel robbed of a generational experience. The whole reason he supposedly went and did the Wookie homeworld in Episode Three was to make up for the Ewok punt of RotJ, and it was still kiddified....

    Yes, I got my geek hat on.

    One I'd have added in somewhere, though, was the Galactica jumping into the atmo at New Caprica. The Galacti-flop was seriously something that made me just sit back with my jaw hanging open.

  11. Yeah, the planetary drop on New Caprica was definitely a jaw-dropping moment. So much for that nice Colonial paint job!

    Dr. Phil

  12. That was one of the best insertions ever. It would be cool if we could dive-bomb the Nimitz in over someplace, pop out its air wing, and zap out again. Give whole new meaning to “force projection”.

    P.S. everyone on the ground in the kill box would be sitting there with their mouth open too.

  13. I can remember talking with a friend about that scene when it first aired. He was like "Is that the BSG equivalent of the 'Picard Maneuver'?"

    I don't recall specifically what I said, but it wasn't complimentary to the level of testosterone in Jean-Luc's method of warfare.


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