The Evolution of Cinematic Spaceships

Over the spontaneous winter break that occurred this past week, during which I had to exile myself to another room to sleep because the rest of my family was sick, I found myself watching, of all things, submarine movies. I don’t quite remember now where I started, but by the time I was done I had watched _The Enemy Below_ (1957) and, at long last, _Das Boot_ (1981).

There’s a lot to be said for submarine fiction, as a sub-genre of maritime fiction, where you often have an interdependent group that is, at the same time, varied enough in personality, experience, and power that it produces dramatic moments where either those differences are either highlighted, think _Crimson Tide_ (1995, and another submarine movie) or overcome, usually in a transcendent fashion. _Das Boot_ is, of course, long enough to provide both.

To some degree present in most submarine movies is the claustrophobic envelope within which all the action takes place, and, as such, I couldn’t help but be drawn to think about how much the passages and chambers of U-96, with sausages swinging from valves in the control room, would look more like the interior of space ships than most of the interiors we have glimpsed in science fictions films. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but I was particularly drawn to think about fictions contemporary with the first raft, if you’ll forgive the pun, of submarine movies in the fifties. Think only of _Forbidden Planet_, released in 1956, the year before _The Enemy Below_, with its spacious interior. I know there must be more examples…

… and that got me thinking about the nature and shape of space ships, especially in film. If my memory serves, the earliest craft were more rocket like in nature — e.g., Flash Gordon’s rocket ship — but at some point the flying saucer became more prevalent. And then we got the saucer + rocket ship combo of _Star Trek_ in the sixties. And then _Star Wars_ in the late seventies, which had both small ships and large (as well as dirty or worn ships versus hermetically clean — evil, in the case getting the big and clean ships).

Two years later, Ridley Scott, if memory serves, quite purposefully offered up a claustrophobic ship in _Alien_, but the overall shape of the ship was definitely more of a piece with _Star Wars_ than _Star Trek_ or any of the flying saucers or rockets from the previous eras.

Which got me thinking, because I was also reading an essay on “Phylogenetics and Material Culture Evolution” [PDF][], about the evolution of the space ship in film. To be clear, I would also be interested in the literary side, both in books and in the various periodicals, but I imagine that it would be hard to infer shape from many of the texts. (Which is as it should be, no?)

This is something it might be fun to do *à la Goodwin*, who hauls off and does this kind of thing for fun over a weekend. I have no idea what a cladistic exploration of space ships shapes will turn up, but it’s what happens when you combine submarines, science fiction — I just finished reading James Corey’s _Leviathan Wakes_, and phylogenetics. When do the changes occur? What are the nature of the changes? What causes the change?

_Den of Geek_ has a list of [75 spaceships in movies and television][]. It isn’t in chronological order, but it might be a good place to start.

As soon as the boat book is done and these talks for Indiana University (March) and the Library of Congress (maybe in April) are done, of course…

[75 spaceships in movies and television]:

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