Editor’s note: This article is being repromoted as a part of Den of Geek’s Sci-Fi Throwback Thursday series, presented by the immersive sci-fi comedy Wild Women of Planet Wongo.
For decades, heroes have crossed the universe in rocket ships and modified light freighters. Aliens have conquered galaxies in disc-shaped craft of varying sizes.
Yes, as long as there’s been science fiction on the silver screen, spaceships have captured our imagination, from the matinee serials of the 30s to the sci-fi blockbusters of the present.
We all have our own idea of what a great spaceship should look like. For some, it’s Han Solo’s fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, the Millennium Falcon. For others, it’s the more graceful USS Enterprise, or maybe the utilitarian craft of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what about cinema’s more unusual, outlandish spaceships? The ramshackle ones, the anachronistic ones, the ones that look a bit rude, or just plain scary? Those are the kind of ships this list is devoted to. Some of them spiky and sinister, while others are just plain cool. Each one is the result of a designer going out on a limb and trying something a little different, from a spherical vessel that looked completely unlike anything else in 50s sci-fi, to a fabulously pointy mining ship in the 2000s.
The Alien Craft – It Came From Outer Space (1953)
At a time when most sci-fi movies were content to have their aliens riding around in flying saucers, Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space went completely against the grain. In the film’s second half, our suspicions are confirmed that what everyone initially thought was a crashed meteor is, in fact, an alien spaceship. In one glorious shot, Arnold reveals his extraordinary vehicle: a gigantic semi-translucent polyhedron. It’s a simple yet effective design, and the shot above is among the most striking in 50s sci-fi cinema.
Cavor’s Ship – The First Men in the Moon (1964)
HG Wells’ 1901 sci-fi fantasy sees the scatterbrained Mr. Cavor cobble together a spaceship in the Kent countryside, which whisks he and the more pragmatic Mr. Bedford off to the Moon for a rip-roaring adventure. The adorably quaint 1964 film adaptation, co-written by Nigel “Quatermass” Kneale and directed by Nathan H Juran, remains surprisingly faithful to the book – right down to Cavor’s craft, which takes its spherical design from the illustrations in the novel’s UK and US first editions. A kind of diving bell studded with railway buffers, Cavor’s ship is positively luxurious inside, with wood panels and button-back, upholstered walls to prevent bruised knees and elbows. If you’re a late Victorian gentleman dabbling in a bit of space travel, why not do it in style?
The Dark Star Scout Ship – Dark Star (1974)
This dart-like ship from John Carpenter’s debut doesn’t look that eccentric from the outside, but inside it looks like the cross between a submarine and a stoner’s bedsit. Plus it’s carrying an artificially intelligent bomb gripped by an existential crisis. Carpenter and co-writer Dan O’Bannon created Dark Star as a joking response to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and imagines a future of ramshackle ships, cynicism, and tedium rather than the hushed majesty of Kubrick’s film.
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The Dark Star scout ship itself – the exterior designed by Ron Cobb and built by O’Bannon and Greg Jein – reflects the idea of a utilitarian future, while its interior gets across the stifling claustrophobia of being trapped in space with a bunch of disenfranchised men. You can almost smell the sweat and stale beards.
Jerkoff’s Rocket Ship – Flesh Gordon (1974)
There isn’t much to say about this particular craft, other than it’s a typical Flash Gordon-style rocket ship designed to resemble a male member, shall we say.
A smutty sex comedy modelled after the classic matinee serials of the 1930s, Flesh Gordon actually contained some quite good stop-motion and model effects between all the jiggling protuberances. This is because many of the effects in Flesh Gordon were produced by some very good artists and technicians, who would go onto greater fame and success in the late 70s and 80s. One of them was Greg Jein, the model maker and artist who created Jerkoff’s phallic ship pictured above – he also modelled the ship for Dark Star, and later made numerous craft for the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises.
The Yamato – Space Battleship Yamato (1978, various)
If we were to expand this list to include eccentric ships in television, it would probably be about 1,000 entries long. We’d have to include that ship from Star Fleet that looks like a catfish. Or the bonkers ship from the anime Space Dandy, which is essentially the Statue of Liberty’s severed head with thrusters on the back and a kinky ball gag in its mouth.
Although it too began as an anime series, Space Battleship Yamato qualifies for the list because it’s also been the subject of several animated and live-action movies – the most recent appearing in 2010.
The ship at the series’ center is, of course, the Yamato – the Japanese warship which sank in 1945. When Earth is attacked by aliens in the year 2199, its inhabitants retrofit the stricken vessel with a warp drive, and thus, Japan’s symbol of heroism and pride rises from the waters to save humanity.
Just how inspiring Japanese audiences found Space Battleship Yamato in the mid-1970s can’t be underestimated. When the first movie came out in the summer of 1978, its box-office success eclipsed that of Star Wars. As a result, the Yamato still sails proudly among the stars (and on Japanese screens) over 40 years later.
For more Japanese-designed spaceship brilliance, see also Space Captain Harlock and its star-faring pirate ship.
The Derelict – Alien (1979)
A list like this wouldn’t be complete without this profoundly weird contribution from the late Swiss artist HR Giger. In Alien, the derelict spacecraft where the crew of the Nostromo find a hidden silo of eggs, its organic, asymmetrical design is brilliantly at odds with the other craft in the movie. Shaped like a gigantic croissant, the Derelict looks like some sort of primal weapon, and the disturbing effect is only compounded when you notice that it’s pocked with hideous, orifice-like portals. Given the nature of the parasites lurking within, it’s only fitting that the Derelict itself should look both sexual and intimidating.
The power of Giger’s design is such that it’s popped up in the Alien movies time and again. The James Cameron’s Aliens: Special Edition pays an ill-advised return visit to the craft, while a redesigned version of it (dubbed the Juggernaut) takes to the skies in 2012’s Prometheus.
The USS Cygnus – The Black Hole (1979)
Disney didn’t exactly set the box-office ablaze with 1979’s The Black Hole, but it did manage to disturb an entire generation of kids with some seriously weird imagery. The screenplay’s suspect and the direction from Gary Nelson (who’d previously made Freaky Friday) is pedestrian in places. But what saves The Black Hole is its swirling John Barry score and the sometimes stunning production design from Peter Ellenshaw.
Earlier in his career, Ellenshaw created some of the stunning matte painting work in Black Narcissus, and together with cinematographer Frank V Phillips, came up with some indelibly strange images in The Black Hole. Take the USS Palomino, where much of the film takes place: silhouetted against a blue curtain of stars, it looks like an old gothic cathedral, all spires and eerily glowing windows. Inside, it’s spookier still – an echoing haunted house where faceless clones toil away at a dizzying number of computer terminals.
For kids who couldn’t get in to see Alien in the summer of 79, The Black Hole provided the next best thing – a family movie that starts with goofy robots and Ernest Borgnine, but ends with death, evisceration, and a descent into the jaws of hell. Steady on, Disney.
V’Ger – Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
A vast living machine created by Syd Mead and Richard Taylor, V’Ger is one of the most exotic craft designs of its day. A spooky, truly alien-looking thing, it’s cleverly shot and lit so you never quite get a feel for what the entirety of it looks like. Instead, you’re given long (some might say too long) shots of its flower-like openings and shimmering, amorphous surfaces. Taylor’s said that he was influenced by things like beetle shells and butterfly wings when he designed V’Ger, and the result is little short of mesmerizing.
Nell – Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
When a designer’s gone to the effort of creating a smooth, curvaceous spaceship with fully loaded pendulous breasts, it would be criminal not to place it high on a list such as this. There’s an organic flow to the design of Nell, with its flowing silhouette and biomechanoid shapes, and producer Roger Corman was clearly quite taken with it. After it appeared in his Star Wars–meets-Seven Samurai space opera, Corman duly recycled it in about three other films. Most readers will know that Nell was an early bit of handiwork from James Cameron, who started as a model maker on Battle Beyond the Stars before moving up to production designer on the delightfully shonky Galaxy of Terror. The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, and Avatar came afterwards, but to date, Cameron has yet to return to his earlier penchant for buxom spaceships.
Slave I – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Here’s proof that the most eccentric ship designs are sometimes also the best. Designed by Nilo Rodis-Jamero – and reportedly inspired by the shape of a radar dish – Boba Fett’s Slave I looks cool enough while it’s in its landing position, but when it takes off? The unexpected way it turns through 90 degrees and flies off in a vertical position made your humble writer’s jaw drop when he first saw The Empire Strikes Back. That brief take-off sequence impressed my youthful brain so much that I became mildly obsessed with it. And thanks to the magic of pester-power, I soon ended up with Kenner’s Slave I toy as a birthday present, which I took to swooping around the kitchen, just like the kids in this advert:
Also, you could pour fruit juice in the frozen Han Solo toy and turn them into Han Solo ice lollies. But I digress. Even in a film series as stuffed full of spacecraft as Star Wars, the Slave I stands out as something truly special. It’s also the perfect conveyance for the coolest bounty hunter in the galaxy. The likes of IG-88 and Bossk could only stand on the sidelines and weep with envy.
E.T.’s Ship – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
E.T.‘s status as one of the most fondly-remembered family films of the 1980s probably makes this one a controversial choice, but hear me out: leaving all the gorgeous lighting and things out of the equation, doesn’t the little alien’s ship basically look like a big metal onion? The late Ralph McQuarrie, who created some of the most distinctive ships of all time for Star Wars, came up with the endearingly bulbous look of E.T.‘s craft after Steven Spielberg’s brief: it had to look “like Dr Seuss designed it.”
“I made about five or six sketches of space ships for it,” McQuarrie explained. “He [Spielberg] looked at them and picked one out and I made a painting of it. They built the model at ILM and looked almost exactly like the painting with all the features and the retractable lights, it was amazing. They did a beautiful job.”
According to io9, the original concept for the craft was shaped like a flying saucer. Thankfully, Spielberg and McQuarrie’s combined imaginations came up with something far more distinctive and memorable.
The Artichoke – Lifeforce (1985)
I don’t know exactly what prompted Cannon Films to throw millions of dollars at a sci-fi flick about naked, energy-sucking vampires from Halley’s Comet, but I’m glad they did. An exploratory mission to said comet’s tail leads to the discovery of a magnificently weird spaceship designed by John Dykstra, which he’s since revealed was modelled after an artichoke. This, and the discovery of giant dead bats and starkers space people inside, might lead you to think that Lifeforce has peaked to early, but fear not: we haven’t even got to the bit where blood erupts from a rubber Patrick Stewart head, or the scenes where London descends into a screaming, plague-ridden meltdown.
Like everything in Lifeforce, the artichoke ship is a true one-off. There’s something oddly pretty and exotic about its umbrella-like shape, and as you’d expect from one of the effects guys behind Star Wars, it’s superbly built and lit.
Spaceball One – Spaceballs (1987)
Given the colossal success of Star Wars, it’s perhaps a bit surprising that it took a decade for a spoof to come along. But Mel Brooks’ likeably daft parody was worth the wait, bringing us such highlights as John Candy’s Mog (“Half man, half dog – I’m my own best friend”), Rick Moranis’ ineffectual Dark Helmet, and, of course, his unfeasibly long, spiky spaceship. Emerging to an ominous, Jaws-style score, the ship’s essentially an endless procession of kit-bashed parts, undulating before us as it slowly floats past the camera. “We brake for nobody,” reads a bumper sticker attached to its rump.
To be fair, Dark Helmet’s ship isn’t the only eccentric vessel in Spaceballs. There’s also Lone Star’s ridiculous craft, which is basically a motor home with wings attached. Dark Helmet’s Spaceball One still earns its place on the list, though, because it has one killer move up its sleeve: it can transform into the terrifying Mega Maid – essentially the Statue of Liberty holding a vacuum cleaner. This unsubtle dig at the Transformers craze has another pay-off later on, of course – a reference to a famous scene in Planet of the Apes:
“Oh shit. There goes the planet.”
The Event Horizon – Event Horizon (1997)
“You can’t leave,” burbles a crazed Sam Neill in Paul Anderson’s 1997 sci-fi horror movie, referring to the nightmarish ship of its title. Taking its cue from The Black Hole, perhaps, the Event Horizon is a sprawling, gothic haunted mansion in space, its crew having mysteriously vanished, Mary Celeste style. Relatively unassuming from the outside (though its cruciform shape might be a bit of a giveaway), the Event Horizon is downright terrifying on the inside: all spiky doors and dangerous-looking passageways. All of it leads to the ship’s dark, pounding heart: a warp drive which also functions as a gateway to Hell.
The Event Horizon was created by Dominic Wheadon, who’s also worked on the likes of 2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Judge Dredd (the Stallone one), and Braveheart.
The Narada – Star Trek (2009)
Just to prove that designers are still capable of coming up with startlingly unusual ship designs even in the biggest modern movies, here’s the Narada from J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot. The Romulan mining vessel commanded by Eric Bana’s villainous Nero, it’s a terrifying-looking conglomeration of unidentifiable pointy objects.
Designed by James Clyne, the Narada is meant to resemble “500 gigantic knife-edge points” – production designer Scott Chambliss’s brief being to make “the scariest thing in space” according to the book, Star Trek – The Art of the Film.
All we can say is, if we ever happened to be going on a jaunt through space and saw the Narada coming for us, we’d immediately turn about and head home at Ludicrous Speed.
This article was originally published in June 2015.