On the eve of the release of Paul, a movie about two aging geeks who find an alien while on a road trip to Comic-Con, we figured it would be a good time to revisit our favorite sci-fi road trips. We’re not talking about a sci-fi journeys, either. These movies aren’t just about a group of people hiking toward some far off destination, they’re about that great American tradition of hoping in a vehicle (of some sort) and heading off on a mission, be it to accomplish a precise goal or to simply wander. As long as they’re in a vehicle when they do it, it’s up for consideration-- and the great thing about sci-fi is that the vehicles can get pretty crazy.
Also, be wary of spoilers below for any of the films you haven’t seen.
The Vehicle: 1977 Ford Mustang Cobra II
The Travelers: Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the Starman (Jeff Bridges)
The Destination: From Wisconsin to Arizona so the Starman can catch an intergalactic ride away from the stupid people who shot down his peace-bringing spaceship.
Trip Highlight: There’s a lot to pick from in John Carpenter’s Starman - resurrecting a deer, fighting the truckers, fleeing the NSA - but the highlight would have to be Starman driving their car directly into a gas tanker while they’re both inside. It takes balls to intentionally blow up your road-tripping ride, even if you are a space alien.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
The Vehicle: A variety of station wagons and trucks, but it all begins in a yellow Ford-F250.
The Travelers: Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and Jillian (Melinda Dillon)
The Destination: Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming
Trip Highlight: The arrival of the mothership, of course. It technically happens after they’ve reached their destination, but we’re still counting it since it’s the start of a second road trip for Roy. Except where he’s going, they don’t need roads. (Sorry, it had to be said.)
The Vehicle: The spaceship Icarus II
The Travelers: A team of eight scientists
The Destination: The sun
Trip Highlight: Some crazy stuff goes down in Sunshine, but as insane as stuff gets, the trip highlight has to be the spacewalk Kaneda and Capa take to make repairs after Trey forgets to adjust the heat shield for their new trajectory. Not only is it a visually awesome scene, but it’s essentially the most high-stakes tire change ever seen in a road trip movie.
2001: A Space Odyssey
The Vehicle: The spaceship Discovery One
The Travelers: David Bowman (Keir Dullea), Dr. Franke Poole (Gary Lockwood) and Hal 9000
The Destination: Jupiter, though no one knows what to expect when they get there.
Trip Highlight: Dave’s mind-bending trip into the monolith orbiting Jupiter, which in turn sent countless college kids on acid trips of their own while trying to figure out just what in the hell the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey means.
The Vehicle: A pimped-out Winnebago Chieftain
The Travelers: Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and Barf (John Candy)
The Destination: Planet Druidia to stop President Skroob (Mel Brooks) from stealing all of its air.
Trip Highlight: Lone Star and Dark Helmet’s duel inside Mega Maid’s ear, which taught the world over the heartwarming message that you don’t need a special ring to use the Schwartz as long as you’re pure of heart. Or something.
The Vehicle: A 1984 Chevy Van
The Travelers: A group of geeks on a mission to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace early.
The Destination: Skywalker Ranch
Trip Highlight: A surprise encounter with William Shatner in Las Vegas, who then tells them what they need to do to infiltrate Skywalker Ranch. Sure, the movie may not be all that great, but it’s scenes like this that prove its intentions were in the right place.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Vehicle: Treebeard, the oldest Ent of Middle Earth
The Travelers: Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd)
The Destination: Isengard
Trip Highlight: Merry and Pippin going to battle riding atop giant, ancient walking trees of doom. Enough said.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Vehicle: The spaceship Heart of Gold
The Travelers: Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), Ford Prefect (Mos Def) Zaphond Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and Marvin (Alan Rickman/Warwick Davis)
The Destination: The planet Magrathea, which contains the answer to the Question of Life, the Universe and Everything
Trip Highlight: All manner of insane and improbable things happen in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, so it’s hard to pick just a single highlight. However, we’ve got to hand it to Marvin the Paranoid Android for saving the day by turning the Point-of-View gun on the Vogons, causing them to be overcome with crippling despair.
The Vehicle: Virgil, a deep-Earth drilling vessel.
The Travelers: A team of scientists and astronauts trying to restart the Earth’s molten core, which has stopped spinning.
The Destination: The Core, duh.
Trip Highlight: Let’s be clear, The Core is only a movie worth talking about because of how joyously silly it is. To that end, we can’t help but give a bit of a slowclap to its cheesiest moment: getting rescued because a pod of whales singing a song that alerts the surface that Virgil survived the nuclear explosions at the core.
Star Trek: The Voyage Home
The Vehicle: A Bird-of-Prey starship
The Travelers: The exiled officers of the USS Enterprise.
The Destination: Earth, 1986, where the crew plan to abduct a humpback whale and bring it back to the future.
Trip Highlight: Well if it isn’t another whale-related sci-fi plot point (if only we had gone with the falling whale in Hitchhiker’s Guide, we’d have a hat trick going on)... Strange obsession with whales aside, it’s hard not to love the scene where Kirk saves the day (and the future) by decloaking the Bird-of-Prey right in front of a group of angry whalers who most likely all had to change their underwear afterward.
Salt the propulsive new thriller from Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger Patriot Games) has been dubbed “Bourne with boobs ” but that label isn’t entirely accurate. In the role of Evelyn Salt a CIA staffer hunted by her own agency after a Russian defector fingers her in a plot to murder Russia’s president Angelina Jolie keeps her two most potent weapons holstered hidden under pantsuits and trenchcoats and the various other components of a super-spy wardrobe that proudly emphasizes function over flash.
But flash is one thing Salt never lacks for. Its breathless cat-and-mouse game hits full-throttle almost from the outset when a former KGB officer named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) stumbles into a CIA interrogation room and begins spilling details of a vast conspiracy. Back in the ‘70s hardline elements of the Soviet regime launched an ambitious new front in the Cold War flooding the western world with orphans trained to infiltrate the security complexes of their adopted homelands and wait patiently — decades if necessary — for the order to initiate a series of assassinations intended to trigger a devastating nuclear clash between the superpowers from which the treacherous Reds would emerge triumphant.
The Soviet Union may have long ago collapsed (or did it? Hmmm...) but its army of brainwashed killer orphan spies remains in place and if this crazy Orlov fellow is to be believed they stand poised to reignite the Cold War. It’s a preposterous — even idiotic — scheme but no more so than any of our government’s various harebrained proposals to kill Castro back in the ‘60s. As such the CIA treats it with grave seriousness even the part that that pegs Salt who just happens to be a Russian-born orphan herself as a key player in the conspiracy.
Salt bristles at the accusation but suspecting a set-up she opts to flee rather than face interrogation from her bosses Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A former field agent she’s been confined to a desk job since a clandestine operation in North Korea went south leaving her with a nasty shiner and a rather unremarkable German boyfriend (now her unremarkable German husband). She’s clearly kept up her training during while cubicle-bound however and in a blaze of resourceful thinking and devastating Parkour Fu she fends off a dozen or so agents of questionable competence and takes to the streets where she sets about to clear her name and unravel the Commie orphan conspiracy before the authorities can catch up with her. That is if she isn’t a part of the conspiracy.
The premise which aims to resurrect Cold War tensions and graft them onto a modern-day spy thriller is absurdly clever — and cleverly absurd. But Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay isn’t satisfied with the merely clever and absurd — it must be mind-blowing. Salt is one of those thrillers that ladles out its backstory slowly and in tiny portions every once in a while dropping a revelatory bombshell that effectively blows the lid off everything that happened beforehand. No one is who they seem and every action every gesture no matter how seemingly trivial is imbued with some kind of grand significance. The effect of piling on one insane twist after another has the effect of gradually diluting the narrative. When anything is possible nothing really matters.
But spy thrillers by definition trade in the preposterous and the principal function of the summer blockbuster is to entertain. In that regard Salt more than fulfills its charge. Noyce wisely keeps the story moving at pace that allows little time for asking uncomfortable questions or poking holes in the film’s frail plot. And he has an able partner in the infinitely versatile Jolie who having already exhibited formidable action-hero chops in Wanted and the Tomb Raider films proves remarkably adept at the spy game as well.
It’s well-known that Jolie wasn’t the first choice to star in Salt joining the project only after Tom Cruise dropped out citing the story’s growing similarities to the Mission: Impossible films. But she’s more than just a capable replacement; she’s a welcome upgrade over Cruise not least because she’s over a decade younger (and a few inches taller) than her predecessor. Should Brad Bird require a pinch-hitter for Ethan Hunt he knows where to look.