I couldn't agree more about corridors; and yet this interesting blog post got me thinking about the opposite. About bad production design; about bad writing; about a cheap device/design that can stall the conjuration of movie magic.
It was then that I recalled perhaps the great sci-fi convention in the history of the genre on film and TV: The Over-Sized Vent Shaft.
I don't know about your experience, but in my house, vents are actually pretty small. This is not true, however, of virtually all of the science fiction movies and TV programs featuring vent shafts. These movies and TV shows are often set in the future too; an epoch when (we hope...) technology would prove more efficient. And if history is any judge, "more efficient" means smaller.
Yet in genre productions. The vent shaft or "air shaft" is actually so roomy, so large, it can comfortably accommodate not just a single person, but hordes of people. Not to mention drooling xenomorphs...
A short survey of the genre vent shaft -- an easy escape route for an imprisoned hero -- reveals the myriad narrative purposes of this over-used cliche.
In Dr. No (1962), the first film of the long-lived James Bond series, an imprisoned 007 (Sean Connery) discovers a large rectangular vent shaft leading out of his jail cell in the Crab Key HQ of the villainous Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman). The vent's convenient placement in a prison cell strains believability, of course, but at least Dr. No provides some precautions against tampering: the vent cover/grate is electrified.
Good for keeping prisoners trapped; not so good for routine maintenance.
In fact, this example remains one of the oddest vent shafts in film history. Once Bond actually crawls through the vent shaft, it fills with sea water...which nearly drowns him. Yet logically, if you consider the path of the vent shaft...that water would have led right out to the electrified grate...and into the prison cell. First what is sea water doing in a vent shaft anyway? And second, why is sea water being routed into a prison cell at all? Third, wouldn't the designer of such a vent system at least consider the idea that sea water and electrified grates don't , uh, mix?
The great Star Trek often made use of the over-sized vent shaft to get Enterprise crew out of trouble. The first season episode "Dagger of the Mind," set in the subterranean Tantalus Penal Colony (a rehabilitation center for criminals) is a notable example.
Sounds like quite the trap, right? Well, after Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is captured and brain-washed by the neural neutralizer, he is taken and held inside a locked ward room. Guess what should be conveniently located on the wall of his prison?
Aboard the Dorcon ship, Koenig breaks free, climbs into a comfortable, over-sized vent shaft, and then uses it -- undetected -- to travel throughout the warship. He bypasses security, rescues his friend, Maya (Catherine Schell) and then manages to escape back to Moonbase Alpha with Maya in tow.
At least in this case, Koenig pays a physical price for the welcome convenience of the easily accessible, roomy vent shaft: the vent grate cuts open and bloodies his fingers when he shimmies it loose.
And here's an odd quirk of Space:1999. The Dorcons represent a super-advanced society and yet are equipped with man-sized vent shafts, right? Well, the much-less technologically-advanced Alphans (denizens of our 20th century...) have normal-sized vent shafts. In an earlier second season episode, "The Beta Cloud," we saw that Maya (a metamorphing Psychon) must transform into a cockroach to pass through the small vents of the man-made moon base...
Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) boasts an episode called "Fire in Space" -- an ode to Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno -- in which a Cylon kamikaze attack starts a raging conflagration aboard the imperiled colonial battlestar.
Fortunately, there's -- you guessed it -- a convenient vent shaft in the back of the rec center, and the robot daggit Muffit is sent inside it (he fits easily, of course...) to travel the length of the rather large battlestar and retrieve a bag of oxygen masks for the threatened Galactica crew. Along the way, Muffit also spots (and later rescues...) an injured fire crew worker.
The brilliant Alien movie series has also employed the convention of the vent shaft to resolve narrative issues or further the plot.
In Ridley Scott's original Alien (1979), Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) travels inside an over-sized air-shaft because the film's titular xenomorph is using it to move back and forth through the vast Nostromo.
The vent shaft in this film is actually a gigantic vent complex, consisting of multiple horizontal and vertical levels. The vent system features many spiral-shaped doors that open and close on command...yet has no internal lighting system, which means that overloaded Dallas (weighted down with a flame-thrower in one hand and a flash-light in the other...), can bump into the monster in the dark and not have a fighting chance. Oopsy...
In the sequel, Aliens (1986), the alien monsters are everywhere: inside the ceiling, in subterranean pipes...but not, at least initially, inside the over-sized vent shafts that connect buildings. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn) escape a battle with the aliens by fleeing inside a vent shaft that Newt is already familiar with.
In fact, Newt has survived the alien threat by living inside these vent shafts for weeks. So, just to contextualize: in Alien (1979) the monster utilized the vent shafts of the Nostromo to get around. In the sequel, the aliens totally ignore vent shafts, and a little girl survives for weeks inside them.
Another question: if the vents connect buildings and areas of the terraforming complex, why does poor Bishop (Lance Henriksen) have to scoot on his belly through a claustrophobic, subterranean pipe to reach the communications center?
Make no mistake: I'm a huge admirer of all the productions discussed in this post. But the use of the over-sized vent shaft in each production is sure...convenient, and hackneyed.