Many fantasy and science fiction films revolve around fantastic modes of transportation: From airships to starships, the genre is about the transcendence of escape. The metaphor is so obvious as to be almost invisible. The wonder machines of fantastic cinema take the viewer on fabulous journeys in the air and beneath the sea, into the center of the earth and to distant planets. No wonder kids of all ages -- who yearn to light out and spread their wings -- are attracted to the genre. Following is an alphabetical checklist of fantastic cinema's Top 10 "ships of wonder." Many of these films are not particularly distinguished even by the relative standards of SF-fantasy films (so don't expect me to argue that At the Earth's Core is good film). Yet, each and every one of the movies listed below is about a voyage in a truly marvelous mode of transportation. So ... buckle up and enjoy the ride.

At the Earth's Core (1976)
This is a dreadful movie with an absolutely fabulous ship of wonder. Earth's Core opens with sweeping, panoramic views of the construction of the Iron Mole; a ship designed to bore into the very center of the Earth. These opening moments are terrific, and capture the spirit of fantastic Victorian exploration. The Iron Mole is a gleaming, nickel-plated beauty. Sadly, the film falls apart right after the opening credits. Based on a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Earth's Core descends right into silliness as soon as Mole Captain Doug McClure and ship-designer Peter Cushing land in the dinosaur-infested Pellucidar (the land in the middle of our Earth). Cushing -- perhaps the finest actor in genre films -- was never worse. McClure -- well, he was Doug McClure. The Mahars (as the evolved dinosaurs are called in Pellucidar) are men in ill-fitting suits. The sets look leftover from Saturday morning's Land of the Lost. But the Iron Mole -- now, there's a machine! Rent the film, look at the opening, then turn it off and imagine a better picture.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
An unusual animated feature from Disney -- a dismal failure upon release that may yet be better appreciated on video and DVD. Atlantis, better than most pictures, captures a real Jules Verne/H. Rider Haggard feel, despite the fact that it is not directly based on work by either author. It concerns a young visionary who believes he has located the lost city of Atlantis. He is aided by a mysterious millionaire who has bankrolled a futuristic (both by pre-World War I and 2001 standards!) submarine, the Ulysses. Like the much inferior At the Earth's Core, Atlantis is at its best when aboard the Ulysses. The supersub is a masterpiece of design: a huge glass sphere at the ship's nose, with a long, crenellated body. Design-wise, it ranks with Disney's earlier Nautilus -- in fact, perhaps Atlantis' mysterious millionaire was somehow involved with Nemo. Who knows? Sadly, the Ulysses is destroyed just moments after its launch, and the film suffers for it. The remaining adventure -- the conversion of mercenaries into good guys and the rescue of Atlantis -- is all good stuff, but I kept missing the sub.

Atragon (1964)
This Japanese curiosity features an invasion of the upper world by the underwater city of Mu. Seems the Mu-vians have had it in for us ever since the days of Atlantis, and now it's time for them to come topside and take control. Fortunately, an exiled Japanese naval commander has lived on a deserted island with a group of followers since the close of World War II. There, they have built Atragon -- a super, flying submarine with a giant screwhead nose. Atragon spins itself into Mu's undersea stronghold and the fight is on. I can't say I like this movie; I can't even say that I understand it completely. (My copy is a video of Japanese original with subtitles and ... well ... it's downright strange at times.) But Atragon itself is a masterpiece of design; the ship repels sea monsters, flies (!) and can bore through underwater cities. It has got to be my favorite piece of Japanese science-fiction machinery, right after Mecha-Kong. (Gimme a break. Wouldn't you want a 60-foot robot gorilla?)

Destination Moon (1950)
We leave the ocean depths for the depths of space with George Pal's Destination Moon, which heralded the science fiction film craze of the 1950s, and also had the distinction of being one of the last serious SF films of the decade! The film is art-as-propaganda in favor of space exploration with a screenplay co-written by novelist Robert Heinlein and based, slightly, on his Rocketship Galileo. The film's expansive spirit is reflective of much of the era's SF, but with a militant, right-wing slant. If you want to get a taste of the era's thirst to build a rocketship and conquer space, you would be better off reading Arthur C. Clarke's wonderful Prelude to Space instead of seeing Moon. Design is what sells Moon today; first and foremost, there is the stunningly conceived lunar landscape created by artist Chesley Bonestell. Bonestell's moon is infinitely preferably to the drab pile of rock mankind found in 1969. Equally stunning is the ship that gets us there, the Luna. The Luna is all sleek lines and sharp fins -- and one can trace the influence of its design in cars for years to come. The ship is a metallic wonder -- a true vehicle of the imagination.

Master of the World (1961)
Once again, the ship steals the film when Vincent Price uses the Albatross to become Master of the World. This entry in the Jules Verne sweepstakes, which started with Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), was a rather cut-rate affair. The special effects were never quite up to Richard Matheson's screenplay (a combination of Verne's Clipper of the Clouds and Master of the World), and Price, as Robur the Conqueror, never really takes off. Charles Bronson is on hand in one of his early heroic roles. (Previously, he had been Price's mute goon in House of Wax.) Henry Hull delivers an embarrassing performance as a munitions manufacturer, and Vito Scotti provides some ill-conceived comic relief. The ship, however, is magnificent. Master's Albatross is exactly as Verne described it -- in fact, it exactly corresponds to the model currently on display in Verne's home-turned-museum at Amiens. A massive airship equipped with propellers, the Albatross is a worthy airborne kin to Nemo's Nautilus. As a film, Master of the World is strictly earthbound, but it's wonderful airship soars.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Perhaps the best-known space-faring vessel in fantastic cinema is the starship Enterprise. It has appeared, in different incarnations, in nine films of varying quality, but no film displays the craft's tri-column design better than 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Long excoriated by critics, ST: TMP is actually the best, most intelligent film of the series. Filmmaker Robert Wise obviously studied Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, for this first film adventure for the television cast quakes with echoes of the Kubrick film. ST:TMP tries to break new ground, moving the television concept further, which, more than anything, helped make the film a failure. The later, more television-inspired films were more in tune with audience tastes, and that's a shame. Rarely have we had a better chance to view the Enterprise. In the first third of the film, Scotty (James Doohan) takes Kirk (William Shatner) on a tour of the Enterprise exterior. For the true believers in fantastic travel, it is the highlight of the film.

The Time Machine
Not all ships of wonder travel through physical space -- some travel through time. George Pal's The Time Machine is one of the few undisputed SF champs. Pal's film faithfully captures Wells' story in broad strokes, but fudges on some of the details. Where Wells had the Morlocks and Eloi evolve as a natural progression of a class-conscious Victorian society, Pal postulates that the world of the future is the result of atomic warfare. The source material is vague enough to accommodate either notion; where Pal deviates more markedly is in the depiction of the Time Traveler himself. At the end of the novel, the hero lights out for parts unknown -- it could be the future or the past. In Pal's more positive view, our hero returns to the future to help build a new world. One of the major charms of this film is the Time Machine itself. Seldom has simplicity been so evocative or so elegant. The machine is essentially a plush Victorian chair, a simple control panel, and a huge spinning wheel at the back. The whole thing is mounted on a platform fitted with riders -- a sleigh to sail through time. The actual prop -- completely restored -- is in the collection of Mr. SF, collector Bob Burns. Much thanks, big guy.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this is one of cinema's great science-fiction movies. What -- Tucker not SF? Think about it for a minute. Inventor-engineer-maverick Tucker creates a new type of automobile, threatening current design and the automotive industry -- a storyline with all the elements of a classic Edisonade. Dirty dealing and insiders crush his dream; though he did, in the end, create a new type of car with innovations now standard in today's automobiles. The effect of innovation and new technology on individuals and society is the very heart of science fiction ... in fact, it could be a definition of the genre. The fact that (most of) Tucker is true does not alter its SF roots; it just makes it more interesting. (Tucker, with its maverick's push to build a science-fictional craft, can be seen, in its own way, as an earth-bound Destination Moon.) The sleek, futuristic design of Tucker's car -- the Tucker Torpedo -- is just one component of this, one of the best-designed films of the past 20 years. Coppola originally conceived of Tucker as a musical, and the finished film has all the stylization of that exacting form of entertainment. Tucker made 50 cars before Detroit closed him down -- and all are on the road today. A true ship of wonder.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Well's turn-of-the-century competitor was Jules Verne; both men vie for the title of Father of Science Fiction. With 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Verne created two of the most celebrated characters in SF literature -- Capt. Nemo and the Nautilus. Walt Disney (beating George Pal to the punch) spared no expense with the movie version in 1954, casting top-tier stars Kirk Douglas and James Mason as the film's antagonists. (Mason would return to Jules Verne territory with the superior Journey to the Center of the Earth.) The overall care to production values is best demonstrated with the Nautilus, which may take the honor of the movies' best-realized ship of wonder. The ship is a marvel, an atomic submarine fitted with gaslight; Nemo's command center sports lush carpets and an organ to put Radio City Music Hall to shame. There are many versions of this classic story, but none have beaten this in the conception of Nemo's fantastic vessel. (When special effects king Ray Harryhausen created his own Nautilus for 1961's Mysterious Island, he slavishly copied the exterior of the Disney submarine.) Disney's film version departs significantly at times from Verne's text, but it is unbeatable entertainment. There are plans to release the film to DVD in the near future; wait for that rather than the current pan and scan version available on tape.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
Somewhat waterlogged, we move to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the Seaview. Like most of Irwin Allen's canon, Voyage doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but remains fun, anyway. Walter Pidgeon is Harriman Nelson (better played by Richard Basehart in the resulting television series), designer and builder of the Seaview, a futuristic atomic submarine. During its maiden voyage, the Van Allen radiation belt sets afire (!); Nelson and aide-de-camp Peter Lorre believe that it can be reversed by shooting an atomic missile at it. (Um, yeah.) Joan Fontaine explains that the badges they wear change color when they are exposed to lethal levels of radiation; if you ask me, I think I would like to know before lethal exposure. The novelization of the film was written by one of science fiction's most esteemed authors, Theodore Sturgeon, and Raymond Jones later adapted the "Voyage" television series for print. In any incarnation -- film, novel or teleseries -- the Seaview is a honey. It's much like a sleeker, '60s version of Atlantis' Ulysses, and the furnishings remind me of my grandmother's moderne furniture. And how many SF films feature Frankie Avalon? Voyage is currently available on a DVD double feature with Fantastic Voyage (1966). It's an ideal way to spend a Saturday night.

Bob Madison is the founder and CEO of Dinoship, Inc., an entertainment company specializing in science fiction, fantasy and wonder products.

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