It’s a given that any sci-fi protagonist will, at some point in their adventures, descend into a kind of churning whirlpool in space. The experience is probably an entry requirement in the sci-fi hero private smoking room, if such a thing exists. “What? You haven’t been through a vortex of flashing lights? You haven’t stared at the benighted abyss which lies beyond death? Get out. Get out of sci-fi hero club.”
Science fiction is all about poking at the edges of human experience. And sometimes, about what might happen if we head off into the depths of space. What – or who – might we find? Does space loop back on itself, so your ship effectively appears on the other side of the screen like in that old videogame Asteroids? What would happen if we could survive a voyage through a space wormhole, or a star gate? All these questions, of course, tie up with the even greater ones, which are older than the genre itself: where did the universe come from? Where do we go when we die?
These are the things which sit in the back of both filmmakers and audiences alike, I suspect, when sci-fi protagonists make that trippy, often unexpected journey into the void, and this is probably why these sequences are as compelling as they are hypnotising to watch…
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi movie provided modern culture with the most famous and beautiful – if not necessarily the first – space vortex sequence. Having survived an attack from a homicidal computer during his mission, the brave, somewhat beige Dr David Bowman (Keir Dullea) finally makes it to Jupiter. There, his pod is pulled into a twisting, multi-coloured tunnel of light, and experiences what can only be described as a far-out psychedelic freak-out moment.
Bowman gapes with a mixture of fascination and horror as the universe dissolves into a descending kaleidoscope; we see the blurred outlines of what might be stars and galaxies forming; later, there are seas, lakes, continents. Lasting for a full ten minutes, it’s an extraordinary assault on the eyes and ears, and even after almost two decades of computer effects in the movies, it will surely have an impact on all but the most jaded set of eyes.
Those who’ve never seen 2001 in a cinema can only sit close to their televisions and imagine what it must have been like to experience the star gate sequence in a theatre, perhaps after imbibing certain chemicals, as some were wont to do at the time.
At any rate, this scenehad a huge impact on the filmmakers who saw it. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the directors of this list’s other entries, all sitting in a row in a Los Angeles cinema, quietly taking notes.Star Wars (1977)
Ah, Star Wars’ jump to light speed. Like everything in George Lucas’ space fantasy, it cherrypicks elements from Kubrick’s movie, and compresses them down to bite-size nuggets that are easier for a popcorn-munching audience to swallow. In the case of the Millennium Falcon’s unforgettable leap through the gulf of space, 2001’s ten-minute star gate sequence is distilled to little more than two seconds of stars elongating into a tunnel of infinity.
It’s not the vortex of sinister psychedelia that A Space Odyssey’s was, but to the under-tens in the audience, this flash of special effects was enough to set imaginations soaring.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Gene Roddenberry’s kitsch 60s TV series went all serious and hard SF in its first foray onto the big screen, and director Robert Wise’s 1979 Motion Picture was clearly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sequence where Spock heads off to perform a mind meld with V’Ger, a gigantic living machine apparently from another planet.
Spock’s shown heading into a spooky tunnel of blue rings set against the blackness of space, and as the splendour of the galaxy opens up before him, the Vulcan describes what occurs in his own inimitably dry terms. “Curious. I’m seeing images of planets, moons and stars.”
A rather more sedate sequence than 2001’s sinister hurtle through parts unknown, watching Star Trek’s vortex sequence is like being sucked into one of those plasma balls which would become such a fad in the 80s. Whether you enjoyed this more serious version of Star Trek, or you preferred the faster-paced, pulpier sequel, The Wrath Of Khan, there’s no denying that Douglas Trumbull’s effects here are quite remarkable. Trumbull, of course, had worked on 2001’s groundbreaking sequences, so it’s little surprise that Spock’s odyssey should resemble Bowman’s to a certain extent.
The sequence doesn’t have the same hallucinatory impact that 2001’s did, but you can, at the very least, see where the film’s dizzying $10 million effects budget went.
The Black Hole (1979)
As far as bad trips go, the one in the final reel of The Black Hole almost matches 2001’s for sheer barely-explicable weirdness. What’s most mind-boggling about this 1979 sci-fi flick is that it’s supposed to be a Disney adventure aimed at kids. Audiences everywhere were surely bemused, then, to find that The Black Hole is a rather slow-paced film about a mad scientist’s determination to fly a spaceship directly into one of the most dangerous regions in space.
After nearly 90 minutes of the film’s heroes arguing and faffing about, the mad scientist, Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell, sporting a marvellous beard) finally gets his own way, and flies his ship into the black hole. Although his ship is torn to shreds in the process, Reinhardt miraculously survives, and both he and the rest of the film’s remaining cast are treated to a rather more hurried version of Kubrick’s into-the-camera light show.
The black hole, it turns out, is a gateway to hell; in a series of images that would have surely confused the heck out of younger audience members, we see a wild-haired Reinhardt tumble through space, become fused with a robot, and then stand proudly over a vision of hades like a kind of cyborg Lucifer. Beneath him, the figures of the damned trudge among flames and soaring walkways.
Then, just when we think the madness is over, here comes something else: a celestial arcade of crystalline arches, hurtling towards us. The camera’s pursuing what appears to be an angel, flying off to a point of heavenly light. Reinhardt, it seems, is doomed to spend eternity trapped in the kingdom of hades, while The Black Hole’s heroes, thanks to divine providence, get to fly home to the strains of John Barry’s whirling score. Weird. Very weird.
The year of our lord 1982 saw the release of the ZX Spectrum in the UK, the Commodore 64 launch in America and, erm, the first compact discs go on sale in Germany. It was also the year that Tron was thrust into cinemas. A kind of Alice In Wonderland for the electronic age, it chimed perfectly with the world’s dawning love affair with computers.
Cocky young programmer Kevin Flynn (a fresh-faced Jeff Bridges) is digitised and blasted into a computer program, effectively becoming a conscious avatar in a shiny simulated reality. And this being a post-Kubrick movie, it’s to be expected that Flynn’s unexpected journey should be topped with a freaky vortex moment, this one created with then cutting-edge computer graphics.
It’s a literal kaleidoscope of shimmering vector lines and spinning shapes, and although no longer mind-boggling, it’s oddly beautiful in an 80s sort of way – much like the whole movie, in fact, which looks like a kind of arthouse approximation of what a videogame might look like in the distant future.
This trippier moment in Tron’s story certainly had an effect on maverick director Gaspar Noe, whose 2010 movie Enter The Void, a heady brew of sex, violence, metaphysics and more sex, was partly inspired by that earlier film’s distinctive visuals.
Katsuhiro Otomo’s classic mixture of teen motorcycle gangs, future dystopia and psychic powers was one of the greatest animated features to come out of Japan. It’s also one of the few animated films to conclude with its very own freaky vortex moment. As the film’s apocalyptic violence reaches its zenith, and anti-hero Tetsuo threatens to destroy the entire universe with his godlike powers, he’s whisked away at the decisive moment by the revenant Akira.
Sucked into the eye of the psychic tornado, our hero Kaneda is confronted by the crumbling debris of a devastated Tokyo, and the tortured memories of both his friend and the eerie psychic children, Masaru, Takashi and Kiyoko. It’s a strange, quite beautiful sequence, and one of the few such moments to come even vaguely close to equalling the atmosphere in the one Kubrick created all those years ago.
Solar Crisis (1990)
A sprawling, very expensive US-Japanese co-production, Solar Crisis was intended to be popular enough to spawn its own theme park, but proved to be such a badly-acted mess that it was barely seen in America, and ranks as one of the biggest sci-fi turkeys of all time. In it, a group of neurotic, complaining scientists head for the sun to extinguish a deadly solar flare before it can destroy the Earth.
After a full two hours of tedium, one of its characters (Annabel Schofield) selflessly flies the explosive payload into the heart of our nearest star, triggering what is by now a fairly predictable Kubrickian display of swirling colour. Just to ram the connection home, shots of Schofield’s staring, blinking eye are intercut with the roiling seas of gold and black – it’s like 1968 all over again, man.
Yes, even the breeziest popcorn adventures get their freaky vortex moments on occasion. And if the one in Star Wars was so brief as to be almost subliminal, Roland Emmerich’s rip-roaring pulp hit gave us a full-blown throwback to the days of A Space Odyssey. Inevitably, in Emmerich’s hands, it becomes less of a metaphysical journey into the mysteries of the universe, and more of an interstellar roller coaster ride, as the bespectacled hero played by James Spader is sucked into a twisting, screaming wormhole of rapidly approaching stuff. “What a rush” a soldier is heard to remark, having woken up, along with all the other protagonists, on Planet Egypt somewhere on the other side of the galaxy.
A film almost as critically panned and ignored as Solar Crisis ten years earlier, Supernova is an example of a movie which makes a flailing attempt at replicating 2001’s sense of awe, but ends up looking more like a 21st century version of Lost In Space. Having already headed through a wormhole in Stargate, James Spader greedily snaps up not one but two freaky vortex sequences in this movie.
Supernova gets the first one in early, in a druggy, CG-enhanced dimensional jump that leaves poor old Robert Forster (who’d been through all this crap before in The Black Hole) fused with his cryo pod, a bit like Seth Brundle at the end of The Fly. The movie’s then tailed with another such sequence, in which Spader and love interest Angela Bassett perform a dimensional jump in one cryo pod.
After an eye-watering assault of flickering lights, stars and lens flares, the story concludes with a final, shocking revelation: the trip through dimensions of space has somehow resulted in Bassett’s pregnancy. That, ladies and gentleman, is hard science.
The Fountain (2006)
Darren Aronofsky’s millennia-spanning metaphysical drama was like a 90-minute gonzo leap into the unknown – a mad, bewildering collection of earnest performances, incongruous images and melancholy faces. The result is an entire movie that feels like falling into a endlessly deep well of weirdness. Whether you find it all captivating or infuriating is all down to personal taste, of course, but I think everyone can agree that it contains one of the more memorable freaky vortex sequences on this list.
In the film’s third and final story, Tom (a bald Hugh Jackman) voyages into space in what appears to be a tree-powered biosphere – a sort of snow globe designed by Scientologists. As Clint Mansell’s music irresistibly rises, we see Tom’s Buddha-like silhouette hurtling into a supernova in a finale of dazzling light and sprouting branches. It’s a symbolic moment that encompasses all our fears and fascination with life and death, of beginnings and endings, and of the infinity of space.
It’s also really, really weird, and for that reason alone, we solemnly salute it – while backing slowly, unblinking, towards the nearest fire exit.