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In praise of the sci-fi corridor

Yes, this could comfortably be the very nerdiest piece ever put up at Den Of Geek...

Roger Christian and Ron Cobb giving good corridor in Alien (1979)

There's a moment in every geek's life when one goes for the 'communal hug' on a pet-subject and finds oneself unexpectedly out in the cold.

The piano player stops playing. The landlord shakes his head as his eyes head heavenward, and he slinks away to rearrange the crisps. The lonely sound of a misdirected dart is all that haunts the otherwise silent pub. And it's definitely time to get your anorak.

"You like what...?"

Corridors in science-fiction movies. I love them.

I wasted too much of my childhood and youth imitating and developing the superb production sketches of Ron Cobb, Syd Mead, Ralph McQuarrie and many others. I walked round Elstree studios collecting precious vacuum-formed sections of cloud-city corridor from The Empire Strikes Back, some months after principal photography stopped. I had reams of sci-fi corridors worked out.

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.

Here's what started me off...

The designs that Roger Christian synthesised from Ron Cobb's prolific and extraordinary conceptual sketches for Alien (1979) are lingered over lovingly at the start of the movie. Ridley Scott knows that corridors matter in a horror (or 'haunted house') movie, but these marvellous sets are also being showcased to sell the gritty and grimy, commercial and industrial reality of the Nostromo as well. The upper sections related to the command deck were dirtied down with gold and black paint after a reshuffle of sections in order to convey the grittier world inhabited and Parker and Brett on the engineering level.

There's a distinctly different look and feel to the different sections of the ship. The corridor leading to the hypersleep section remains horribly creepy, despite being padded literally from wall to wall in cushion-like material, presumably to minimise the risk of accidents during turbulence, or from sleepy space-people tripping up on the way to the canteen.

These sections are re-used for the corridor outside med-lab, and since the lab itself is another antiseptically white set, a truly spectacular and faithfully-rendered Ron Cobb design, the clean lines of the corridor make sense here as well. The medical context, as with the hypersleep chamber, disarmingly suggests the comfort and soft edges of the corridor.

What a contrast is to come, as we enter the bone-ridden and gruesome imagination of H.R. Giger, and the skeletal corridor leading to the space-jockey inside the alien derelict. Dank, dark and positively dripping, there's something quite Victorian about this section of set; with the cantilevered arches finishing off in boney protrusions, it's like being inside some dank and rotten musical instrument...

Anyway, returning to the human tech of Alien's production design, it certainly had an influence on many of its imitators...

What's mostly wrong with the corridors in Stanley Donen's Saturn 3 (1980) is that the floor-surfaces resemble the base floor of a movie studio, something which had plagued the corridors in the medium-budget Star Wars three years earlier (more on Star Wars corridors in a moment).

The garish colours of the pipes actually makes a great deal of sense, as exactly the kind of over-insured coding that occurs in order to make sure you don't tap into a pipe for a blast of air only to get zapped with Freon.

The other thing impressive about Stuart Craig's Saturn 3 corridors is the full curvature. Curves cost money in corridor-land - lots of money. Anyone familiar with the angular corridor sets of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century or classic Doctor Who (in both of which there was always a great deal of 'corridor business') can almost spot the chippies knocking out those hard edges with a jigsaw. But curves like these are class...