The U.S.S. Enterprise, the Millennium Falcon, the Nostromo — in the best science-fiction movies, the spaceship is an iconic character unto itself.
So when “Tron: Legacy” director Joseph Kosinski set about designing a spacecraft for Tom Cruise to pilot in his next film, the sci-fi thriller “Oblivion,” due in theaters April 19, he knew the stakes were high.
Based on a 2010 graphic novel Kosinski penned with comic book writer Arvid Nelson, “Oblivion” takes place in a not-so-distant future when Earth has been decimated by an alien invasion, and former Marine Jack Harper (Cruise) is one of a few people left on the planet to mop up after the war.
The movie, written by William Monahan, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, also stars Morgan Freeman as a 102-year-old insurgency leader, Melissa Leo as Jack’s authoritarian boss and Olga Kurylenko as a mysterious woman who stirs Jack’s memories.
Kosinski found inspiration for Jack’s craft — the so-called Bubble Ship — in an unlikely place, the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. That’s where the Bell 47 helicopter, a utilitarian 1947 helicopter with a transparent round canopy, hangs from the ceiling. The Bell 47 already holds a prominent place in the annals of vehicle design — it has served as a Korean War ambulance and a Batcopter in the 1966 “Batman” movie, among other jobs.
“It looks like a dragonfly,” said Kosinski, who was trained as an architect. “I love that. But it’s very functional, a helicopter stripped down to its essential parts.”
Working with Daniel Simon, the lead vehicle designer on “Tron: Legacy,” Kosinski took the inspiration of the Bell 47 and merged it with an advanced fighter jet to create the Bubble Ship. The aim was to build a vehicle as practical as it was pretty, a lesson he took from the utilitarian design of the ships in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“When Kubrick made ‘2001,’ rather than going to the hotshot concept designers of the day, he hired NASA engineers,” Kosinski said. “I believe form follows function. I’m not a fan of excessive decoration, of putting fins on something because it looks cool.”
The Bubble Ship concept design, by Daniel Simon, for “Oblivion,” which is set in an apocalyptic vision of the year 2073. (Daniel Simon / Universal Pictures)
The Bubble Ship is a physical prop, not a digital one. A Camarillo concept car company called Wild Factory built the mostly aluminum vehicle, which is 25 feet long and weighs 4,000 to 5,000 pounds.
“We knew the Bubble Ship was gonna be in a lot of shots,” Kosinski said. “So economically it made sense to actually build this thing. But it’s not some flimsy movie prop. It was built solid so it feels like Tom could really fly it.”
Tom Cruise stars as Jack Harper in “Oblivion.” (David James / Universal Pictures)
The Bubble Ship’s designers customized the craft for Cruise’s body, including where the joystick sits and the placement of the pedals. Since the actor is a pilot in real life, he had certain input into the design as well, Kosinski said.
The ship needed to be easy to assemble and disassemble, so the crew could transport it from California to the movie’s Iceland set, and mount it on a gimbal for flying scenes.
Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles left over from Earth’s war — play a key role in the film, too, and Kosinski sought to keep them in the same design family as the Bubble Ship, with its light and functional aesthetic.
By shooting “Oblivion” in Iceland in June, when there is near-continuous daylight and the warm, waning light known as magic hour lasts from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m., Kosinski sought to take his vehicle designs out into a bold and revolutionary place for sci-fi: the sunshine.
“My idea with this movie was bringing sci-fi out into the daylight,” Kosinski said, drawing a contrast to Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi film, “Alien.” “’Alien’ put sci-fi into the darkness — in the hulls of ships, dark planets, always seeming to be night. I was interested in inverting that, shooting a daylight film. I wanted there to be a beauty in this kind of desolation, in clean technology set against the primordial world of Iceland.”
– Rebecca Keegan