Lists. We love ’em, we make ’em, we argue over ’em, we share ’em. And every now and then, we see a list that just demands that we respond with: “That’s a nice list; but here’s what it should have had…”
A recent list (on The Observation Deck) of the greatest science fiction moments that made you “weep for joy” made me think of SF’s greatest visual moments from my memory, and I realized that my list couldn’t include just F@&# YEAH! moments, but heartbreaking moments as well. After all, SF’s greatest trait is its ability to make you rethink your world, and that doesn’t just come from cool explosions.
So, without further ado, and in no particular order, is my list of the greatest SF (visual) moments of TV and cinema, and how they impacted me.
1. “Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
I had to put this up top, because this may go down in my personal history as the most God-dammed impressive thing I’ve ever seen on a movie screen. Forget the fact that I’d read the book; that I’ve been a fan of special effects and computer effects for years; and that I know very well that there are no living dinosaurs. The fact is, the moment I saw Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler staring up at the brontosaurus, then down the hill at herds of dinosaurs at the lake’s edge, I was done. Dinos, living in Hawaii. Nothing looked more real, and more impressive, than that… and maybe never will.
2. Matt Decker flying into the Doomsday Machine
Ah, Matt. Commodore Matthew Decker (William Windom in a truly inspired performance), tortured soul of the Star Trek (the original series) episode “The Doomsday Machine.” Matt was the classic tragic hero bar none: Found near-catatonic in grief after making a command mistake that killed every member of his crew; recovered to take control of the Enterprise, where his obsession with destroying the alien machine almost resulted in killing a second ship and crew; and finally sacrificing himself, taking a shuttle down the machine’s throat (and thereby showing Captain Kirk how to kill the machine once and for all). This is the hero’s journey that Khan Noonian Singh should have been given… one of the greatest tales of Star Trek history, as indicated by Kirk’s futile plea to stop his sacrifice:
“Matt, don’t do this. You’re a Star Fleet officer, we need you… your experience, your judgement… we’re stronger with you than without you!“
Now that’s how to make an exit.
3. Galactica’s plunge into New Caprica
Sure, tear-jerking and mind-blowing moments are cool and all… but sometimes you just want something awe-inspiring. And the moment, during the battle between Humans and Cylons on New Caprica, when the Battlestar Galactica created a diversion and additional air support by falling like a flaming asteroid out of orbit, then jumping away mere seconds from pancaking the surface and certainly killing everything on the ground—hell, probably on a quarter of the planet—was balls-out amazing.
4. “Soylent Green is people!”
The viewer follows Thorne (Charleton Heston) as he sneaks onto a truck full of assisted suicides, including his old friend, and accompanies it to a factory owned by the Soylent Corporation. Inside, he follows tractors and conveyor belts, tracing the journey of the bodies through the factory, and when he reaches the end, he discovers… the small green wafers known as Soylent Green, the latest food source for the hungry multitudes. Now you know why the priest, after hearing a Soylent executive’s confession, and bound by his order not to repeat it, looked like he just wanted to slit his own throat in devastation… and the first time you see it yourself, you know just how he feels.
5. Lowell goes down with the Valley Forge
In the movie Silent Running, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), staunch environmentalist, has been ordered to destroy all of the last forests of Earth, stored in sustainable modules aboard various space freighters, and return to a totally defoliated Earth… but he just can’t do it. After evading the authorities and killing his own shipmates to preserve the last American forest, he realizes he must make the ultimate sacrifice, destroying his ship Valley Forge to provide cover for the last forest, tended by a maintenance drone, to float away into space and an uncertain future. Before he triggers the ship’s self-destruct, Lowell speaks to a maintenance drone that could not stay with the forest:
“When I was a kid, I put a note into a bottle, and threw it into the ocean. And I never did find out if anyone ever found it.”
6. Apes rounding up humans
Sure, you know the movie is called Planet of the Apes. Sure, you’ve been around, so you know the story. But watching the movie for the first time, you’ve sat through watching three astronauts traveling through the desert, finding water, meeting primitives like themselves, who suddenly start running in terror from unseen attackers… then, the attackers ride up on horses, turn around, and for the first time, you see apes, giving orders, shooting rifles, using strategies to capture humans, and then talking amongst themselves after a successful hunt. Seeing this as a young man was an incredible mind-blowing experience.
7. Imperial star destroyer chases rebel courier over Tatooine
The opening of Star Wars (the first one, before there was even a hint of others, no New Hope, no prequels, none of that crap) is THE experience of the movie, when you get your first hint that this is going to be an incredible ride: The camera pans down to a gorgeous desert planet seen from orbit; then a small ship is suddenly flying past, being pursued by another ship that keeps coming… and coming… and coming… AND COMING… and by the time it’s past, your personal sense of scale has fallen off of a cliff, and will never be the same again.
8. Orion shuttle approaching the space station
Though there are many incredible scenes and moments in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the space ballet of the Orion orbital jet approaching the double-wheel in Earth orbit, accompanied by The Blue Danube, is sublime; the only thing as good as that opening to our future in space is the closing of the sequence with the Moon shuttle leaving the station and landing at Moonbase.
9. The Mothership arrives
After about 2 hours of watching incredible UFOs, flitting around, flashing incredibly bright lights at our heroes, leading everyone to a meeting at Devil’s Tower, and putting on a flying show that blows our minds in Close Encounters of the Third Kind… we are left totally unprepared for the majesty and scope of what follows next. The first time you see it, the little ships fly off, and you think the show’s over. Only then does the city-dwarfing Mothership eclipse the night sky, its massive size and omnipresent hum forcing a hush out of the audience… then it turns itself over and presents itself to us, floating inches away from the ground as if it was no effort at all. It took me a bit to remember to breathe again.
10. The refit Enterprise
Picture 1979: You are in a theatre to see the first new Star Trek material since those God-awful Filmation cartoons… the first feature-length Motion Picture. As you sit in the dark, Scotty (James Doohan) is taking James T. Kirk (William Shatner) in a shuttle to see the newly-refit U.S.S. Enterprise. To music that starts out soft and romantic, you are treated to a close-up of the ship’s every line and curve, closer than you’ve ever been able to see the models on the TV screen, and with incredible detail. Then, in a triumphant finale, you are presented to the entire ship, from the angle you are so familiar with from countless TV viewings, but looking more amazing than ever. I often equate this moment for me as if meeting a favorite but awkward and average cousin that you haven’t seen since you were kids, now grown up and The Most Gorgeous Thing You’ve Ever Seen. Yeah, I cried like a baby… hell, I tear up even thinking about it now.
Honorable Mention #1: The half-buried Statue of Liberty
Hey, you can’t mention Planet of the Apes without mentioning the Rod Serling-penned payoff at the end: Taylor (Charlton Heston) riding off with Nova to find his own place to live on this weird topsy-turvy ape-dominated planet; only to discover that he’s back on an Earth that his people blew up after he left! “God damn you all to Hell” indeed.
Honorable mention #2: Beauty is only skin deep
And speaking of Rod Serling—he certainly gave us many a moment during his run on The Twilight Zone. But for me, none of them stand out more than the poor woman (Donna Douglas—Ellie-May Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies) in the episode “Eye of the Beholder” who wants surgery to fix her hideous face; and when we finally see her, she looks gorgeous to us… but not to herself, or to the freakish-looking people around her, who pity her and will euthanize her to end her trauma of being so repulsive to the rest of the world…
Now that is a list.