The chase scene–a staple of every good action film. But when a film is set in the cold reaches of outer space, that tricked-out Ford Mustang with a V6 and a hemi don’t mean diddly-squat! (Unless you’re in Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville, where people drive cars in space, in which case we’re very, very sorry for you.) No, in space, fast three-dimensional thinking and rapid laser fire rule the day, and it takes a unique combination of the two–hell, any combination of the two–to make a chase one of the best. So without further ado, here are ten of the greatest chase scenes involving spaceships ever portrayed in pop culture. So far.
10) Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Starfighter vs. Slave 1 Star Wars: Episode II–Attack of the Clones (2002)
While some might balk at the prospect of having anything from a Star Wars prequel on any top ten list anywhere, this chase was pretty cool. Obi-Wan Kenobi in his starfighter, with Jango Fett’s Slave 1 in hot pursuit (beginning about the 2:50 mark), weaving in and out of an asteroid field and firing round after round with that cool pyew-pyew-pyew sound? It was awesome…mainly because it’s a total rip-off of our #1 chase scene. Still, riding on that chase scene’s coattails earns it the number ten spot, and anyway, it’s not really ripping anybody off if the same person wrote both scenes. Then it’s a “sly self-reference.”
9) Tardis vs. Taxi Cab Doctor Who, ‘The Runaway Bride” (2006)
Spaceship chases: awesome. One-sided spaceship chases: even awesomer. When you’ve got a spaceship that can travel through time and disobey the laws of physics, running down a British taxicab should be no problem, right? Wrong. The good Doctor learns that being a Timelord means nothing when your friend is locked in the back of a lorry speeding down the highway with a robotic Santa Claus at the wheel (it begins at 2:00, more or less). The Tardis blatantly changes lanes without signaling in pursuit of the cab, even bouncing off the roof of another car. and on its second approach the doctor finally convinces the woman to make the leap from cab. Probably the greatest use of a flying police box ever.
8) Firefly vs. the Reavers Serenity (2005)
Nothing gives a chase scene a bit of an edge like the possibility of being raped to death and worn as a coat if you get caught. The Reavers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly TV series were never seen, only described in grotesque detail, so when Mal and his crew get interrupted mid-heist by a Reaver raiding party, they run like the dickens. Flying across the grasslands in a hover car, the Serenity crew trades shots with the smoke-belching Reaver ship on their tail, barely making it back aboard their own ship in time. Rape narrowly avoided!
7) Bruce Willis vs. the Police The Fifth Element (1997)
While none of the ships involved in this chase technically fly in space, they’re all flying cars, whizzing miles above New York City! That’s like space, right? We bet if Bruce Willis wanted to take his futuristic flying taxi into space, he could. In this instance, however, he simply leaves the regulated lanes of flying traffic to drive straight down into the depths of New York, with the police in pursuit. What could make a man act so recklessly? Milla Jovovich. She’s made many a man do things he’ll regret, like paying to see Ultraviolet.
6) Borg Cube vs. Enterprise Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Q Who?” (1989)
The appearance of Q in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is never a good thing, as bad stuff usually happens when he’s around. The best thing he ever did? Introduce us to the Borg. Granted, the crew of the Enterprise didn’t enjoy it, as the Borg attempted to assimilate them and carve the ship up for parts, but the viewers at home got to see the Enterprise try to outrun a massive, more advanced starship (beginning at 2:50). Luckily, Q teleported them all away in time, but if this had been a Joss Whedon TV show, the Borg would have caught them and raped them all to death.
5) Will Smith vs. an Alien Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day doesn’t automatically trigger Top Ten feelings in many people, but you have to admit that this was a pretty damn cool chase scene. Will Smith in an F-16, leading an alien fighter ship on a winding run through a rocky canyon, only to blind it with a parachute and sacrifice his own plane to knock it out of the sky. The scene has even been mimicked over the years: the pod race in Star Wars-Episode I had a similar winding-through-canyons-at-high-speed feel to it, but that was a race, not a chase. And in Stealth, Jaime Foxx fell for the same trick the alien did, getting blinded by an explosion caused by a robot and crashing. Will Smith:1; Jaime Foxx: 0. …Unless you’re counting Oscars, in which case reverse it.
4) Enterprise vs. Reliant Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
The pursuit of the Enterprise by the Reliant under the command of Khan Noonien Singh starts out as a hide-and-go-seek, but soon we see a wounded Enterprise make a run for the Mutara Nebula, where neither ship will be detectable by the other. Khan’s pilot slows down and convinces Khan that they shouldn’t follow, but Kirk’s incessant taunting of Khan spurs the chase ever onward. Thank God for the taunting, because the tension in the Mutara Nebula scene is so thick you could cut it with a phaser on its highest setting, and it ends with the Enterprise becoming the chaser and the Reliant becoming the chasee. (Little-known fact: William Shatner’s real-life taunting of Ricardo Montalban on the set led to numerous shirtless wrestling matches.)
3) Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter vs. Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope (1977)
Before we ever knew Darth Vader was Luke’s father, and way before we knew he was a whiny bitch, he was the scariest dude in the galaxy. So when Luke and his buds were on his way to deliver the killing shot on the Death Star, and Vader showed up behind them with two wingmen, audiences everywhere crapped their pants. The three TIE Fighters pursued the Rebels down the narrow trench, forcing Wedge Antilles to peel off and blowing Biggs Darklighter to smithereens, Luke would have been next, if not for the timely intervention of deus ex machina–er, Han Solo.
2) Spaceball-1 vs. Eagle 5 Spaceballs (1987)
“Ludicrous speed…GO!” With those three words, the second-greatest spaceship chase in history begins, and it’s not even meant to be taken seriously. Lone Starr’s space Winnebago Eagle 5 has just escaped the clutches of Dark Helmet’s massive Spaceball-1 using its hyperdrive, and to compensate, Helmet calls for Ludicrous Speed (one step above Ridiculous Speed). Spaceball-1 immediately goes to plaid, rocketing past the Eagle 5 in a multicolored blur. The chase ends when Col. Sanders throws the brakes, launching Dark Helmet into a console. And that’s the exact moment where Mel Brooks should have stopped making movies. It was all downhill from there.
1) Millennium Falcon vs. Imperial Fleet Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Han Solo and Chewbacca know how to avoid Imperial entanglements–after all, they’re smugglers, and getting boarded is not in their best interests. So when the Falcon’s hyperdrive craps out with Princess Leia aboard, they’ve got to do some pretty goddamned evasive maneuvers. With agile TIE Fighters and even massive Star Destroyers on their tail, they dodge and weave so that the TIEs are unable to get a bearing on them and two Star Destroyers almost collide. They seek refuge in an asteroid field, narrowly avoiding collisions as the TIEs get picked off left and right by giant boulders, and eventually park the Falcon in a massive cave…but it’s actually the belly of a giant fucking worm! The Falcon is launched back into the fray, with TIE Fighters surrounding it at every turn, and it seems as if there’s no way out, until it hurtles towards the nearest Star Destroyer…and vanishes. No one can find it, because it’s attached to the larger ship’s superstructure. Also missing? Darth Vader’s iPod. Dude, was he pissed.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.