Cars Movies

Driving off the deep end: cars in film

We’ve been conned. In the real world, a car is a comfortable place to sit during rush hour. Or, while waiting behind minibus taxis on the main road, a support structure for a hooter.

But in Hollywood, people know what a car’s really for: spinning on its roof; driving (or flying) into trees; demolishing public property; performing barrel-rolls; transporting bodies; time travelling; or making out. Even when it’s stationary, there’s more going on inside than a guy picking his nose waiting for the lights to change.

Grease (1978)

We know their car’s fast. As a macho gang is wont to do, Danny Zuko and the T-Birds have already declared it so in song and dance: ‘Go grease lightning, you’re burning up the quarter mile’. And, to drive their point home, the 1948 Ford Deluxe has lightning bolts on the side.

But, ‘it takes more than a coat of paint to make it at Thunder Road,’ warns Leo, leader of the rival Scorpions and potential body double for the guy from Nickelback, out to settle a score by dicing down one of those huge concrete river basins with the banked sides.  Actually, all it takes is the ability to drive straight, turn around at the bridge, drive back, and negotiate a little trickling stream. So while Leo’s 1949 Mercury spews flames from its exhaust and, with those handy tin can opener attachments on the hubcaps, cuts into his rival’s bodywork, Danny simply puts his foot flat and hopes the Brylcreem keeps his quiff in place.

Unsurprisingly he delivers on his earlier cling-wrapped-pelvis thrusting promise that their car’s ‘supreme’ and ‘the chicks’ll cream’ – even if the clearly testosterone-challenged T-Birds celebrate his win by singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’

Blues Brothers (1980)

Quick – what does every self-respecting musical need, aside from a chapter of Neo-Nazis and a vindictive Mystery Woman with a flamethrower and bazooka? A demolition derby inside a shopping mall, of course.

Jerry Seinfeld agrees: ‘Audiences are never displeased to see massive, wanton destruction of private property. It’s as if the moviemakers are saying: “Look, we are clearly spending the money you gave us”‘.

And spend money they certainly did. At the time of their film’s release, it held the record for most cars destroyed on screen, with the 40 stunt drivers wrecking over 60 police black and whites, keeping the on-set workshop open 24 hours a day. No CGI here, baby. The ridiculous multiple pile-ups, involving up to ten cars at a time, are the real deal, as is the Ford Pinto dropped from a helicopter at an altitude of some 2km.

Yet the highlight of this paean to excess is the brothers Blue hitting the shops – quite literally – in their modified cop car, the Bluesmobile. With Elwood at the wheel, casually driving through display windows (‘Lots of space in this mall’), Jake admires the stores (‘Baby clothes – this place has got everything’). Their deadpan dialogue keeps the laughs coming while the pursuing police wreak havoc on every millimetre of the real, albeit abandoned, 18-acre Dixie Square shopping centre. Now that’s real retail therapy.

Back To The Future (1985)

‘If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?’ crazy-haired inventor Dr Emmett Brown explains to his 17-year-old friend Marty McFly.

He makes a valid point. With its characteristic gull-wing doors and brushed stainless steel bodywork, the Giorgetto Giugiaro-designed DeLorean DMC-12 – complete with ‘OUTATIME’ licence plates – certainly has more sci-fi cred than, say, a Citroen 2CV.

How it actually breaks the space-time continuum is more of a mystery, though – something about a nuclear-powered ‘flux capacitor’, 1.21 gigawatts of power, hitting 88 miles per hour, and flaming tyre tracks. So when Marty tries to outrun some pissed-off Middle Eastern terrorists wanting Doc’s plutonium, he’s more than a little surprised to suddenly find himself crashing into a barn. In 1955.

But not as surprised as the farmer’s family who see him emerging from the car in a radiation suit, convinced that this kid from the future is actually a space zombie from Pluto.

In fact this ’80s classic was almost called Spaceman from Pluto, with Eric Stoltz in Michael J Fox’s signature role. It was almost a disaster. But that fate was reserved for the car. With only 9600 ever made, the DMC-12 was already out of production – and the parent company bankrupt amid drug trafficking allegations – by the time Marty introduced the hollow-fill bodywarmer to the ’50s.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Gunning down a wannabe rapist; conned out of their life savings; holding up a convenience store; sending a tanker truck up in a giant ball of flames; bundling a traffic cop into his boot; outrunning the FBI; – for a quiet two-day fishing expedition, things weren’t quite turning out as planned.

So, even if cornered by the Feds, Thelma and Louise should’ve known better than attempt flight in a Yank tank. Despite its potentially misleading brand name, their two-ton 1966 T-bird was never really going to soar across the Grand Canyon without some serious help from NASA. None was forthcoming. So why did they even try? ‘It’s two bitches in a car, I don’t get it,’ one studio executive complained. Idiot. Director Ridley Scott’s message couldn’t be more obvious. Long before the convertible plummets, the scene fades to white as a gospel choir sings, and the women reappear, in flashbacks, laughing. Clearly they’ve completed their journey to freedom. And totalled a perfectly good car in the process.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Vincent Vega may dance like a former ’70s disco star, but he’s not much of a gangster. The boss’ wife ODs on heroin during his watch. Later he’s shot dead coming out of the bathroom. His greatest hit, though, is accidentally killing an informant. In the back of their getaway car. In broad daylight.

There they are, Vincent in the passenger seat rambling on about the TV show Cops. Jules is driving, getting all Biblical on his ass. And in the back is Marvin, probably wishing they’d shut up. Vincent wants his opinion and casually turns around to ask it. But midsentence his gun goes off – and so does Marvin’s head, all over the back window.

Even in a rampaging, explosive film like this, it’s a bang – and splatter – that always jolts. And, even as Vincent tries to blame his stupidity on a bump in the road and Jules seeks a hideout at his friend Jimmy’s, the single gunshot sets off Pulp Fiction’s funniest sequence. Amid much bitching and talk of coffee, Mr Wolf – who fixes problems – tells the hitmen exactly what to do: clean the car, throw a rug on the backseat. It’s hardly brain surgery – more like brain picking – but these boys need all the help they can get.

Titanic (1997)

Already having declared himself King of the World, drifter and part-time lothario Jack Dawson must now prove his mastery of its most important domain: the back seat.

‘Where to my lady?’ he asks playfully from the driver’s seat of a red 1912 Renault Towncar minding its own business in the ship’s hold. ‘To the stars,’ laughs occasional nude model Rose DeWitt Bukater from the passenger compartment, pulling him towards her.

We don’t actually see Jack showing her his titanic. Director James Cameron prefers to linger longingly on the painstakingly detailed replica of the actual 35 horsepower vehicle owned by one William Carter – right to the flower vases in the back. But, judging from the hand slapped against the inside of a steamy window, the entanglement can’t have been too dissimilar from what happens later on the ill-fated liner: much screaming and thrashing about, handcuffing, Rose murmuring “Oh god”, Jack ordering “Get on top” and some big time going down.

By the time it’s all over and the skinny lady (Celine Dion) has sung, Jack’s brought new meaning to the word ‘stiff’. And the passion wagon never made it to the stars, just the bottom of the Atlantic.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Boys will be boys. Even if they’re being trained to save the world from an evil sorcerer, 12 year olds are prone to taking dad’s car out for a joyride. But Mr Weasley’s turquoise 105E is no ordinary Ford Anglia. There’s an invisibility booster on the dashboard. Oh, and it flies.

Which means that Ron and Harry’s trip is anything but a joyride. Virtually run down by the Hogwarts Express, the redheaded driver almost loses his bespectacled friend dangling from the open door. Damn kids… Landing the car (inspired by the vehicle that carted a teenaged JK Rowling about) is even worse. Ron parks in the Whomping Willow – a giant tree with the personality of Julius Malema – which proceeds to wreck the little 1960s runabout in its branches. Rookie mistake.

But Potter star Daniel Radcliffe had the time of his life: ‘Filming in the flying car was like being on a fun fair ride, especially when one of the tree branches shot straight through the window between [co-star] Rupert [Grint] and I! I don’t think we ever stopped laughing!’

Not much laughter though when one of the 14 Anglias used in the film was nicked – despite actually lacking an engine, the ability to fly and an invisibility cloak. Six months later it turned up, ‘found’ by a group of New Age travellers. They insist no magic – mushroom induced, or otherwise – was involved…

Sideways (2004)

In hindsight, driving the car into the tree was perhaps a little misguided. Then again, so was most of the previous week.

Depressed, divorced and not a fan of Merlot, Miles wants to give his old college friend a refined entrée to the world of matrimony –  a genteel stag week of wining, dining and golfing in the Californian vineyards. Jack, whose carnal come-ons mask his fading good looks, would prefer something a little more traditional: strippers, beer, an inflatable sheep. Wine? Not so much. ‘Tastes good to me!’ is all the smooth talker can muster.

So it’s not long before he’s shacked up with a hottie single mom. But the truth – and a resulting motorbike helmet assault – gets in the way, leaving Jack with a broken nose and no explanation for his bride.

Enter the tree. Driving Miles’ Saab 900 convertible, he swerves off the road and headlong into it. But unimpressed with his handiwork (‘It doesn’t look like anyone was hurt in this accident’) and ignoring his seething friend’s protests, he props a concrete block on the accelerator to send the unmanned car back towards the tree.

Of course it veers, and (actually manoeuvred by a stuntman in a car-seat suit) ends up in a ditch. Again their responses reveal the buddies’ differences: Jack’s delighted. Miles, some of his wine bottles smashed, not so much.

I Am Legend (2007)

What would you do if you were the last man on earth? Move into the White House? Tap into Robert Mugabe’s bank account? ‘Test drive’ the Ferraris at the local dealership? Dr Robert Neville is far too practical for all that. His greatest indulgence is practising his golf swing off a fighter jet’s tailwing. He even returns DVDs.

So taking a spin in his Ford Shelby Mustang GT500 – red with signature white stripes, dog peering out of the passenger window – is obviously less about joyriding than it is about hunting. Clearly an American who can walk and chew gum, he has little trouble handling the 450-horsepower muscle car while shooting buck with the high-powered rifle in his lap.

But ‘Grand Theft Auto’ powerslides, burning rubber and big guns aren’t what make this chase legendary. A view as tired as Will Smith’s music career, that aerial helicopter shot of New York, hits hard as you realise that the streets below are deserted. No yellow cabs. No falafel carts. No muggers. Just the Shelby. At street level, the desolation is even more dramatic. Achieved by actually emptying out NY streets, the abandoned vehicles, weeds in cracked pavements, and wide open tarmac reveal that too few cars on the road can be just as depressing as too many.

Perhaps that’s something to think about when you’re stuck in the gridlock again tomorrow morning.

  • This article originally appeared in MPH, the official magazine of the Top Gear Festival SA.

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