A Certain Lack of Focus

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bumper to Sunroof

cityI'm always thrilled when fantasy and sci-fi stories bring in elements that aren't normally a part of our consideration of the future. There are things we love to imagine futuristic versions of: weapons, costumes, computers and entertainment, but many things are off our radar entirely. You don't often see futuristic toilets or children's toys. We're all familiar with space ships and funky flying cars, but rarely does a story spend the time to consider the changes these vehicles would create in traffic.

In the original Star Wars trilogy for example we saw hover crafts and flying scooters, but it wasn't until the prequels that we saw an example of 3-D byways. Star Wars was revolutionary in some ways, but in spite of gravity defying technology the designers obviously had their feet firmly planted. Even in Phantom Menace, the mind blowing pod race (which some consider the only saving grace of the film) was relatively two dimensional. The race was not so different from a car race or a dirt bike race, only a hundred feet in the air. Space battles were fought in all directions but planet side, the designers seemed to have put little consideration into how to use a space less effected by gravity.

starwarsThe first time we saw a third dimension added to traffic in the Star Wars universe was in Attack of the Clones, when Anikan and Obi Wan get into a speeder chase scene. Here we had a deep city full of traffic with layers upon layers of invisible highways.

I have great respect for the designers of the Prequel movies (if not for the writers) but I find it difficult to give them credit for the clever vision of futuristic traffic presented in Star Wars II. The visual effect of the Star Wars traffic was so similar to the traffic created in another chase scene, out of 5th element, that I have to believe the Star Wars design was at best heavily influenced.

5th Element came out in 1997, Star Wars II came out five years later. More persuasive, while the traffic in Star Wars reads as background, it actually played a role in 5th Element. One of my favorite details in any science fiction movie is the Portable Chinese Restaurant, modeled to look like a boat (and why shouldn't it be?) that stops at Dallas's window. The traffic in 5th element isn't just filler, it's almost a separate character. This is fitting as Dallas is a cab driver.
5thSome other examples of good traffic scenes can be found in Firefly, the most recent Dr. Who series and probably lots of Anime. In Dr. Who you get to see a never ending traffic jam, where people are living (and dying) while stuck in traffic, and nobody knows that all the exits are closed. Another movie that brought an interesting take on 3-D traffic was Minority Report, in 2002. This vision of the future seems a bit nearer than Star Wars (yeah I know that's technically supposed to be "a long time ago" but it's futuristic, deal with it) or 5th element. The cars don't fly, but the movie utilizes 3-D space with the roadways, which twist around each other in all directions. The traffic itself is far more organized than movement in either 5th element or Star Wars, which could be read as a reflection on the society it represents: highly ordered and over-regulated. Cool looking though.

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