Over at Gizmodo, Joseph Shoer, Ph.D candidate in aerospace engineering (fun fact: I had two separate college roommates who were both in A.E., at the same time!, until they weren’t) wrote this incredibly interesting and lengthy article on the physics of space battles, focusing on what a real battle might look like, what weapons, both offensive and defensive, might be deployed and what types of ships might be used. There’s not much on tactics, but you wouldn’t expect and aerospace engineer to be too up on that sort of thing; however, given the awesomeness of the rest of the article I’ll let that slide.
This article got me to thinking about how space battles are portrayed in science fiction on TV and film. Most of what we see is the Star Trek style battle with what would be capital ships apparently within visual range slugging it out toe-to-toe, waiting for someone’s shields to die first. There is also an amazing amount of huge spaceships zooming around and banking (in space? WTF? Banking against what?) all over the place. Unrealistic and, really, unimaginatively shot.
I then tried to think of cool space battles I had seen and I couldn’t really think of many. What I did come up with was a list of shows/films that did something a bit different:
Babylon 5 – One of my favorite SF shows of all time (#1) really changed the way space battles were shown on TV. First, the Starfurys actually used all three dimensions intelligently to maneuver around in and the big capital ships didn’t have shields and used centrifugal force to generate gravity (but turned off in battle) and things looked really different from the Trek styles. Lots of fighters zipping around and harassing the bigger ships. Toss in the Vorlons and Shadows with their ‘rip your @$$ in two’ beam weapons and things could get really interesting. The visual style was there, even if I wanted more! bigger! battles. Here’s a taste:
Battlestar Galactica – The one the the BG creators did right for the whole series was the space battles. I always looked forward to seeing them and I really like the shaky-cam/documentary style of camera and CGI used, it lends an air of chaos and unpredictability to what was really just a giant cluster frak. The Vipers also owe a debt of design to the Starfurys as they, too, had maneuvering thrusters to help them spin and move in 3D. Almost any scene where the Cylons and Humans threw everything they had out there was terrific, though the episode where Starbuck hunts the Cylon ace had some nice one on one stuff as well. Most of the videos on YouTube about the battles on BG have embedding disabled, but I found this tribute to the Pegasus which has some fighting in it so you can get a taste. These battles were always the highlight of any episode for me. Check out the final flight of the Pegasus, amazing. Kudos to the SFX crew.
Revenge of the Sith – This one gets a spot on sheer size and scope and, in fact, may be the best thing about Episode III. The opening scene where the two fighters swoop over and dive past the big ship and we see an all out slug fest in action below is awe inspiring. Those kids at ILM sure know their SFX. This whole section, with the big ships throwing as much crap as they can at each other with the fighters buzzing around certainly fits what I would expect a space battle to be. I want more of this. If you think I like my battles big, loud and obnoxiously explode-y, you’re right! Otherwise, what’s the point? Check out this cool video of the opening sequence below. It’s just the visuals set to the isolate soundtrack, no audio SFX, but it’s still cool:
Return of the Jedi – Good grief, how could I forget this one? Sure, Star Wars did it first, but the original movie needed a lot of help from Lucas’ fiddling to make it really epic and even then, it’s not as great as the battle over Endor. From “It’s a trap!” to the final explosion, this scene is awesome, and John Williams’ score counterpoints the action perfectly. This almost, almost!, makes up for the Ewoks.
But that’s really all I could think of off the top of my head, though I do see that someone in the comments over there did mention the ginormous (as in 110 or episodes) anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes as having some epic space battles. I have these available to me to watch so it looks like I have something to look forward to. It also occurs to me that these battles in space are perfect for the big screen, or as big as you can get. I now have the urge to buy a big screen TV and a Blu-ray player so I can watch this stuff in all its high def, explosive, shooty bits glory.
But that brings us to you. What are the space battles you’ve seen on TV or in film? And note to SF Signal’s Tim: The battle over Zion’s docks in the last Matrix movies is not a cool space battle since, technically, they aren’t in space.
I’m really curious to see what you all have to say so let us know!