Anatomy of science fiction–The corridor

I have always been fascinated with the use of the corridor or futuristic hallway in science fiction TV and movies.  It’s a tool that has been used over and over again to show a utilitarian function that we use today as we might see it in the future.  By showing a simple hallway with different colored walls, attachments or adornments, greater or lesser lengths, cinematographers give you feelings from claustrophobia to cold chills to the repulsion of the dripping, dank space freighter, or the immaculately clean hospital-like environment.   And creators get to show us the future as they envision it, in part by contrasting something we see every day today with something far more elaborate, or far less elaborate, years from now.

The corridor is also a great storytelling device.  Take the obvious:  the dramatic play.  You can’t easily show a hallway conversation when you have three major sets for your playhouse production.  It’s been done, but with TV and film it’s a lot easier to use to carry a story along.  Especially in movies, the typical story consists of one staged set after another, a destination, as opposed to the pathway between.  Practically the director cannot spend time in a hallway as she can on television.  Corridor conversation is obviously not just a science fiction tool.  Hospital themed TV series use hallway space conversations as much as any other location for a scene.  Yet there is something unique with the sci-fi corridor that has been fleshed out in science fiction design to create a different feeling of the future.

Take for instance the barren corridors in George Lucas’s THX 1138:

Or this cold hallway where we find the main character played by Robert Duvall:

Compare the above desolate images with this seemingly highly technical, computer-dominated labyrinth from the same film:

It’s these images, both stark and complicated, that likely helped build Lucas’s style for Star Wars.  My favorite of his uses, and the most overt, was this entry way for the slow path Luke Skywalker had to take to confront Darth Vader for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back:

But that wasn’t Lucas’s most dramatic use.  That has to go to our introduction to Darth Vader for the first time as he bursts into the hall of the Tantive IV freighter from his giant Star Destroyer in the original Star Wars:

What is the most noticeable from  comparing the use of corridors in sci-fi is the scale the corridor typically creates for the viewer.  From the prior scene we know this is a ship smaller than the attacking ship, yet look how big this ship must be from its long hallways.  Yet nothing prepares us for a mechanized facility the size of a planet, and with the Death Star, we have something so unimaginably large, it is one corridor after another, from the escape in the prison block:

…to the corridor where Obi-Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader after turning off the gravity beam:

What are those vertical lighted things on the walls?  What do they do?  It doesn’t matter.  It never matters.  They are all just technobabblish frescoes that only need to look like they do something.

But looking only at Lucas’s films is just skimming the surface.  Check out Ridley Scott’s Alien franchise, where darkness, power conduits, and leaky valves translate to fear aboard the space vessel Nostromo:

And Scott contrasts this with the more antiseptic feeling corridor for other locations:

More than any other idea illustrated by corridors in science fiction is the design concept of form following function.  The long tubes interconnecting parts of the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey follow this theory as we see the interiors reflect the ship’s tubal exterior:

In an ongoing television series, writers and designers are always looking to improve their storytelling.  More than in a two-hour movie, you have plenty of time over one or more seasons to spend time “in between”–moving from place to place, where you don’t have the luxury of so much time in a movie.  The Star Trek franchise allowed conversations to carry on as the crew strode from the bridge to sickbay to engineering, to continue the plot unimpeded, despite the technical capability of just beaming from place to place.  It also served to break up dialogue and setting.  This occurred throughout the various series, from the original Star Trek:

…to the corridors of the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation:

…to Deep Space Nine, which had a space station like that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, again, full of hallways:

And although we’re speaking of the future’s future, somehow this more modern starship from Voyager looks and feels even more futuristic:

This continued with the prequel series Enterprise, which reflects some early inspiration for the future of corridors, that of military vessels:

This brings us to the likely source for all these corridors, the military naval vessel, going back to the submarines from decades ago.  As can be seen in the nuclear submarine in Hunt for Red October, passageways are quick visual for scale:

And why do these endless corridors make us feel the way we do?  Usually… creepy.  A screenshot from the earliest of science fiction movies, Metropolis, may give us a hint:

Definitely something Orwellian about this image.  Was it filmed at a prison?  A subway station?  Wherever it is, it’s not pretty.  It makes us uncomfortable.

The sci-fi corridor continues to be a tool used in modern science fiction.  Here are futuristic cyclindrical walkways from Gattaca:

Dark angular passages from Doctor Who:

A bright and vivid corridor Rise of the Planet of the Apes:

In 2009’s Star Trek:

And even the illustrators of animated futuristic films can’t escape their own corridors, as in The Incredibles:

Mutants know how to make slick causeways in X-Men:

And our own Earth could hardly look more bleak than in Terminator 4:

Yet the movie Moon’s imagery appears more like the future as seen in 1970s films:

The visual imagery and feeling conveyed by the corridor is a staple in science fiction.  No doubt production designers must include some budget for these locations as a minimum ingredient in every new futuristic tale.

C.J. Bunce
Editor
borg

10 comments

  1. Interesting item, although I think you could argue the case just as strongly for the corridor being a genre staple of horror as much as sci-fi – “The Shining” most obviously, but I’m also thinking “The Omen”, and all those endless hallways kids stupidly explore in slashers before someone leaps out…

    • I think you’re right, Lee, and if you consider Aliens as horror there are as many unique corridors there almost as there are scenes in the movie. I don’t think they are as elaborate in horror as a genre though–sci-fi movie makers really go all out on their hallways, whereas horrors tend to be universally dark with less detail shared with the viewer.

  2. Great post 🙂 I still don’t think that star trek ever made amazing sets — the show more than made up for it. For example, the TNG sets were generally cringe worth — I DO not want a future starship to have those colors — haha.

    DS9 was better in that regard at least.

    • Check out the Klingon sets for Rura Penthe in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and Enterprise, like in “Judgment”–some elaborate decoration there. I didn’t even touch on the corridors in Trek movies, but there are some great ones in Star Trek Nemesis, such as on the Reman ship. I agree the mauve halls of Next Generation are looking more and more dated as time marches on.

        • I agree it didn’t seem to follow any logic, but even worse was the Romulan Narada ship from Star Trek 2009. It seemed to follow the same jagged non-linear design. There should be some middle road between the cool Romulan Warbirds of Next Generation and the more recent lionfish inspired design. I also wish the Remans had looked like Romulans in Nemesis, consistent with prior canon. But the costumes and make-up are some of the best aliens in any film, and their rifles and pistols are superb as craftsmanship goes and just plain beautiful.

      • I like the entire bridge concept but in a pure visual sense I find they don’t work — although, the bridge in Star Trek: Enterprise was function, looked cool, and made sense!

        • Did you know that NASA engineers based mission control on Star Trek bridge design? I saw an interview with a ship builder from years ago who also said modern aircraft carrier bridges are based on the Next Generation and TOS bridge design.

          BTW, I think the NX-01 bridge fit the show really well, but they sure looked cramped!

  3. I don’t know if you’re still monitoring this post all this time later, but you made two errors either in picture or in captioning.

    First, your Alien corridor pic, labeled as being a corridor on the Nostromo, is actually a corridor from the Hadley’s Hope colony from Aliens.

    Next your “corridor” from Trek 09 is actually the cockpit/bridge of the “Jellyfish” (Spock Prime’s ship).

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