The idea of actually making a movie set on a moving vehicle is a daunting task, but then making that movie exciting and compelling takes things to another level. One of the latest attempts at that juggling act is Non-Stop, starring Liam Neeson. The film’s decision to stage almost all of its action on a cross-Atlantic flight has us considering some of the best films to use the moving vehicle setting. And lo, the below list was formed.
But before we dive into our list of the best movies set on moving vehicles, we need to set a few ground rules. That way, readers can know why we chose the films we chose, and why some didn’t meet our criteria.
- The majority of the film’s action must take place on a vehicle of some sort (car, train, plane, spaceship). That means films where the main characters depart said vehicle for large amounts of time, or where screen time is split between on-vehicle and off-vehicle characters do not count.
- The vehicle must be in motion during the majority of the film’s runtime. Alien, for example, takes place partly on LV-426, partly on the Space Jockey’s ship, and partly on the space-docked Nostromo. We love the film, but it didn’t work for our purposes.
- Also, in the interest of variety we tried to refrain from duplicating films with similar moving vehicle settings. We selected what we deem to be one of the best examples. For some duplicates that we like, head to the honorable mentions section.
With that out of the way, onto our list (in no particular order):
1. Speed (1994)
Speed is one of the only films on our list that uses its moving vehicle setting as both a selling point and a plot point. It also uses several moving vehicles in its action.
In 1994, audiences turned out in droves to see how Keanu Reeves and director Jan de Bont (Tomb Raider) could make a thrilling movie about a bus forced to stay above 50 mph, and what they got was arguably one of the best action films of the early ’90s. Not to mention, Speed took home two Academy Awards – Sound Editing and Sound Mixing – key indicators of solid action fare. Unfortunately, the film’s sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control, couldn’t quite live up to its predecessor, despite also being set on a moving vehicle (this time a speeding cruise liner).
2. Air Force One (1997)
“Get off my plane.”
In a career made up of iconic lines, Harrison Ford seems to always find the next great quote. As fictional president James Marshall in Air Force One, Ford once again headlines a film filled with political intrigue while still getting to throw a few punches along the way.
Much like Non-Stop, Air Force One succeeds thanks to a strong leading performance and a clever use of a limited setting. The choice of staging a film almost exclusively on Air Force One is a great set-up in and of itself, but what makes the film even better is the casting of Gary Oldman as the villain, Ivan Korshunov. We just can’t help but consistently revisit that cheer-worthy final moment between Korshunov and Marshall.
3. Sunshine (2007)
While some (many?) will say that the film largely falls apart in its final act, Sunshine starts out as a compelling sci-fi story. A group of scientists, astronauts, and various military personnel set off on the Icarus II spaceship in order to “restart” the sun. However, what they find is that their fateful journey is filled with plenty of unexpected twists, beyond the whole blowing up the sun with a nuclear bomb part.
On the surface (pun intended), Sunshine seems like a very simple film, but director Danny Boyle finds new ways to create tension with very limited resources. Perhaps this was a precursor to making 127 Hours? Either way, Sunshine stands as a film that showed tremendous potential, but couldn’t fully deliver. A smart use of a moving spaceship setting, though.
4. Das Boot (1981)
The quintessential movie in the very limited submarine genre, Das Boot is an unrelenting film focused on the crew of a German sub at sea during WWII. Beyond that, though, Das Boot is a piece of cinema history, up there with some of the best films of all time. Its direction by Wolfgang Peterson, claustrophobic cinematography, and high production value make it a must-see, but for the purposes of this list it works because it puts the audience right there with the U-96 crew. While many of the films on the list try to make the setting feel accommodating, Das Boot wants the viewer to put themselves right there amidst the chaos and despair. We can’t recommend this classic enough.
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World will likely pop up on many lists as an underappreciated film and a franchise-starter that never was. Outside of all that, though, the film is a compelling story set mostly aboard the HMS Surprise, a naval corvette led by Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).
While films like Pirates of the Caribbean try to Hollywood-ize the sailor life and ship battles, Master and Commander takes a grittier approach, and is all the more successful (as a film) because of it. In fact, the film earned 10 Academy Award nominations (including two wins) in 2004, but was largely overshadowed by that year’s big winner, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. We had hoped to see more of Aubrey’s adventures – there are 20 Jack Aubrey novels in total – but director Peter Weir made it very clear that ship has sailed.
6. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Although the murder mystery genre has fallen off considerably over time, it was, at one point, a big seller. One victim, multiple suspects, and multiple believable motives were all one needed…well, that and a competent cast and crew. In Murder on the Orient Express‘ case, all the boxes were appropriately ticked – the intriguing mystery, the strong cast led by Albert Finney as iconic detective Hercule Poirot, and a big-time director in Sidney Lumet.
Murder on the Orient Express uses its moving vehicle setting to keep the story focused and, more importantly, to keep all of the suspects in one place. It’s a story that has seen several remakes over the years, including one currently in pre-production, but the original film is still well worth seeing.
7. Titanic (1997)
As one of the highest-grossing movies of all time it’s hard to top Titanic when it comes to moving vehicle movies. There is a fair bit of present day scenes featuring an elderly Rose, but the film truly starts as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson boards the RMS Titanic, and it stays mostly on-board until the ships harrowing plunge into the icy North Atlantic.
As we’ve already detailed, the self-contained, moving vehicle premise doesn’t lend itself well to dynamic cinematography or scenery, but Titanic’s (the ship) massive size helps support a 3-hour+ movie. What more is there to say? Titanic is an Oscar winner, a box office success story, and it might be THE best movie set on a moving vehicle.
Although these movies didn’t make our final list, there are a few moving vehicle films worth highlighting:
- Unstoppable – Denzel Washington and Chris Pine try to stop a runaway train in this exciting action flick directed by the late Tony Scott.
- Red Eye – A tense, small-scale thriller directed by Wes Craven.
- United 93 – The brutally earnest portrayal of that fateful flight on September 11th is evocative and unflinching. It keeps the action on the passengers almost exclusively and is all the more compelling as a result.
- Event Horizon – Supernatural horror on a spaceship destined for Hell. It’s a cult favorite.
- Snakes on a Plane – Did you really think this wouldn’t get a nod?
Which moving vehicle films are your favorites? What do you think makes for a great moving vehicle film?
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