Sunday, November 08, 2009

There's Always an (Over-Sized) Vent Shaft When Our Hero Needs One

Back in September, the great Den of Geek's Martin Anderson posted a compelling essay (and terrific photo collection..) concerning the visualization of corridors in science fiction cinema history.

In Praise of the Sci-Fi Corridor included this commentary: "Corridors make science-fiction believable, because they're so utilitarian by nature - really they're just a conduit to get from one (often overblown) set to another. So if any thought or love is put into one, if the production designer is smart enough to realise that corridors are the foundation on which larger sets are 'sold' to viewers, movie magic is close at hand."

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.

This colony is set up in the dialogue as a high-security, impenetrable installation. It takes a long elevator (turbo-lift) ride underground to enter the hermetically-sealed installation in the first place.

Additionally, the entire asylum is shielded from the rest of the civilized galaxy by a protective force field which prevents beaming. Finally, the prisoners inside the colony are controlled by a fiendish brainwashing device called a "neural neutralizer."

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?

Yep, an over-sized vent-shaft with decorative wall-grate. And naturally, this vent leads to the control room for the installation's security force field, so Kirk's associate, Dr. Helen Noel, can de-activate it. Again, why go to the trouble of building a facility deep underground, of surrounding it with an impenetrable force field, and controlling your wards by mind-control devices if you're just going to leave high-security areas accessible from ward room vent shafts?

In Space:1999's final second season episode, "The Dorcons," the over-sized vent shaft comes in handy yet again. Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) has become trapped aboard the flagship of the Dorcons, the most terrifying military force in the universe.

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.

Again, you might think the most fearsome military force in the galaxy would have better security, and do away with those gigantic and oh-so-convenient vent shafts.

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.

A group of off-duty humans, including Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), Athena (Maren Jensen) and young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) are trapped inside a rec center as the fire grows hotter, and smoke inhalation becomes a deadly risk.

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.

Just look at that photograph of the battlestar vent shaft for a second. If Muffit can fit through it comfortably and his robotic fur coat is no badly burned (just a little singed...) in the process, why don't the trapped Galacticans just travel to safety through the vent shaft too, using ripped clothing as protection over their hands and knees?

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.

Note to intrepid science fiction film and TV writers: the over-sized vent shaft -- always there when our hero needs it -- is a convention due for retirement.


  1. There's always a hatch in the ceiling of an elevator in films also, I've been in numerous elevators over the years in a big assortment of buildings, and have yet to see any sort of hatch that I could climb through if the need arose !!

  2. Fun post. Also those flimsy overhead tin vent passages always seem to be able to support Bruce Willis' weight.

    BTW, in the novel of Dr. No, the vent is actually a death-trap designed to lure Bond through a grueling series of tortures until he ultimately ends up facing a giant octopus(!). It's one of the best sequences in all the novels and quite a disappointment in the movie.

  3. Another convention/cliche that should be abolished: outrunning a fireball. How many times have we seen that in a film?

  4. Great comments!

    Andrew: next time I'm in an elevator, I am definitely checking the overhead for a hatch, after your comment...

    And DRL, you're right: those vents not only support Bruce's weight, but manage to survive seemingly infinite bullet perforations.

    JD: If I live a hundred years, I'd be happy to never again see that shot of a character outrunning a fireball. When I think of 1990s action flicks -- rightly or wrongly -- I just see Nic Cage outrunning fireballs...

    best to all,