Top 10 Sci-Fi Prisons

It's lights out early and mind the soap even for the old lags and lifers of the future, as we examine incredible incarcerations yet to come...

Stiffer than usual: Stallone in the excellent Demolition Man (1991)

Long-time Jean Pierre Jeunet collaborator Marc Caro releases his space-prison movie Dante 01 in mid-September, where a mentally scarred survivor of an alien encounter is destined to cause psychological and practical torment amongst the prisoners and gaolers. Sounds like Alien Resurrection via Oz? We’ll have to wait and see. Looking further ahead, there’s Sascha Penn’s Ditch (2010), where one of Jupiter’s moons serves as a ‘prison-planet’. In the meantime here are some other fantastical lock-ups from the deranged brain of science-fiction…

10: Minority Report (2002) Framed Precrime operative Tom Cruise finally ends up in the organ-like prison presided over by Tim Blake Nelson in Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick extension. The prison is an ethereal and undulating chamber of coffin-like structures within which the inmates dream out their lives, a typically PKD scenario that is nonetheless not in the original story (though has shades of his novel Ubik). Whilst absurdly aesthetic for a correctional facility, the sight of Nelson apparently playing Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” on a row of frozen convicts is one of Minority Report’s most memorable visuals.

9: X-Men (2000)/X2 (2003) Bryan Singer almost has us believing that you could construct a really solid penitentiary entirely from plastic at the end of the first X-Men film, and it’s a touching gesture from Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to his life-long friend and recent nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen) that he has a plastic wheelchair especially built so that he can keep up his prison visits and chess-games with the old rotter. Ultimately the prison’s designers and security consultants didn’t count on Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) doping a dopey security guard with enough iron for Eric Lensherr to extract and reconstitute into a weapon of escape.

8: Alien3 (1992)Fiorina-161, known euphemistically – and rather biblically – as ‘Fury’ – is the much evolved prison setting for David Fincher’s ill-starred entry to the Alien canon. The confusion over the film’s transmogrification from Vincent Ward’s ‘wooden monastery in space’ to a cheaper ‘penitentiary planet’ set shows both in the design and mixed messages as to what Fiorina-161 was and has become. Notionally it was originally a maximum-security prison for psychopaths, rapists and general galactic scum, who…errr. have all decided to become Ward-like monks and errr…happen to have an iron foundry and smelting vats round the back. For a sci-fi prison, it’s pretty low-tech; hardly anything works, there are no weapons and, as inmate Danny Webb declares “all we’ve got here…is shit!”.

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7: Superman/II – (1978/80)The effects for the ‘Phantom Zone’, the bizarre floating quadrangle/mirror that sucks up supervillains Zod, Nod and Ursa at the start of Richard Donner’s trail-blazing superhero epic, were inspired by an optical that Donner had seen on a breakfast cereal commercial; ultimately the company behind it were called in as consultants for the sequence. In Superman II, the Phantom Zone was destroyed by a Richard Lester-added nuclear bomb being inadvertently thrown in its direction by Superman. Really the effect is nothing more than a celluloid version of the Quantel Paintbox screen-flips that were so much in vogue on better-budgeted British TV such as The Kenny Everett Video Show, but somehow it still works.

6: Fortress (1993) Stuart Gordon’s sci-fi prison flick shares the same explosive motif of Wedlock, wherein ward Christopher Lambert is implanted with an abdominal inhibitor which causes incredible pain to dissenters and misbehavers, and can even explode if necessary. Whereas dreaming is mandatory for the prisoners of Minority Report, it is prohibited for inmates at the prison run by the MenTel Corporation (building on the fine work of Robocop’s OCP, no doubt, since Kurtwood Smith is present here as well as a sadistic prison director).

5: Wedlock (1991) In the future, convicted diamond thief Rutger Hauer is sent to a prison where the method of restraint is based on trust…and doubt. All prisoners must wear an explosive collar that will detonate if they get more than 100 yards from their ‘wedlock partner’. Trouble is, no-one knows who their wedlock partner is, making escapes problematic. Our Rutger naturally figures it out and takes his opposite-number Mimi Rogers away from it all, under hot pursuit. Battle Royale (2000) copied-and-pasted the ingenious security device in Lewis Teague’s enjoyably low-budget actioner.

4: Demolition Man (1992)Wherein future-cop Sylvester Stallone is frozen like a popsicle for crimes that malefactor and arch-nemesis Wesley Snipes actually committed. When a totally peaceful but totally whipped future society finds that nasty Snipes has been thawed from his own sentence and is wreaking all kinds of havoc on its placid population, the authorities decide to ‘set a maniac to catch a maniac’ and turn the heaters on the Stallone-lolly. Our hero finds to his annoyance that, whilst Snipes’ long-running rehabilitation program has spent decades teaching him how to kill, he himself has been taught how to knit…

3: Judge Dredd (2000 AD comic, 1978)Armand Assante fared better in his incarceration in Danny Cannon’s much derided Judge Dredd (1995) movie than the comic incarnation of Dredd’s brother did in 2000AD’s Dredd strip in the late 70s. Assante had a nice little pad with all the creature comforts and a big automated bazooka to talk to, whereas Judge Rico of the comics was sentenced to twenty years on the prison moon of Titan after being arrested by his sibling for corruption. There drastic and hideous surgery had to be performed on the inmates in order to make the atmosphere of Titan breathable, and Mike McMahon’s Rico is a hard sight to behold indeed. This was the ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’ story that was always an obvious contender for the long-awaited film.

2: The Prisoner (UK TV 1967/2009) Original No.6 Patrick McGoohan discovered William Clough-Ellis’s Italianate Welsh show-town whilst shooting Danger Man, the (arguable) prequel series to The Prisoner, in the early 1960s. Impressed by the singularity and clarity of the concept of Portmeiron, McGoohan filed it away for later use. In his cult show The Prisoner, Portmeiron became a hybrid holiday/concentration camp where disgruntled ex-government employees were psychologically tortured to discover their motives for leaving The Service. Cameras abounded, the surveillance coverage made even London look liberal and a trip beyond the boundaries would find potential escapees being chased down the beach by an angry white weather balloon with a lion’s roar. We’ll have to wait till 2009 to see how the AMC/ITV remake envisions this centre of captivity.

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1: Escape From New York (1980) John Carpenter’s ultra-right wing version of the nineties (undershot a bit there, John) finds hardened ex-soldier and bank-robber Snake Plissken searching for the president of the United States in a Manhattan that has been isolated and transformed into an incarceration centre, a social free-for-all where it’s kill-or-be-killed. If he finds the Prez, he doesn’t have to stay there forever, and if he doesn’t, two capsules in his neck will explode (lots of explodey things in future prisons, it seems).

Honourable mention: Prison Planet (1992); No Escape (1993, clunky UK title: No Escape From The Penal Colony, aka Escape from Absolom); Prison Ship (1987, AKA Star Slammer);New Eden (US TV, 1994).