Hollywood’s Fascination with Shafts of Light


Hollywood’s always eaten itself, wearing hoary old tropes on its sleeve proudly. Think of the gorgeous dame who turns out to be nothing but trouble of a thousand noir thrillers or the Power Walk – when the heroes walk slowly towards the camera, shoulder to shoulder in a show of unity, strength and their intention to bust heads (you’ve seen it everywhere from The Wild Bunch to Transformers including a classic parody in Monsters, Inc.)

But here’s one you might not realise is so popular until you remember how many times you’ve seen it, the religious-tinged, almost orgasmic shaft of pulsating light into the sky. Nothing yells ‘climax’ like it, and here’s a random sample that barely scratches the surface.

You’ll notice a lot of the entires in this list are from more recent films. The reason is simply because shafts of light are a lot easier to program into your Maya workstation than hand animate. Somewhere a software engineer is making a killing out of a plug-in called ‘Climactic Shaft of Light into the Sky’.

1 Iron Man (2008)

When Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) needs an energy source for his cool new weaponised flying suit, he realises he has to turn to a project of Stark Industries that showed great promise but never went anywhere.

He has to miniaturise the arc reactor to fit into his chest piece – no small feat considering the current prototype is the size of a house and sits in a Stark Industries warehouse somewhere shooting a majestic beam of light into the sky.

2 Raiders of the lost Ark (1981)

There’s nothing like God’s fury against the Nazis. After a movie full of show-stopping imagery and special effects including the infamous melting of Major Toht’s (Ronald Lacey) head, Colonel Dietrich’s (Wolf Kahler) rapid dehydration and Belloq (Paul Freeman) completely exploding, there was only one way director on the rise Steven Spielberg could go.

The lid of the Ark of the Covenant flies off into the sky, twirling atop a hurricane of wind riding a shaft of fiery light that pierces the clouds above the secret Geheimhaven base on a small island north of Crete.

3 TMNT (2007)

Villain industrialist Winters (Patrick Stewart) wants to take over the world using the services of the Four Generals, but when the time comes, the Generals have plans of their own. They want to use Winters’ equipment to bring thirteen mythical monsters to Earth to enslave the human race, and when the device is switched on, a shaft of pulsating light thrusts into the air from the roof of Winters’ building.

4 Dragon Wars (2007)

Amid the atrocious acting, corny dialogue and ropey special effects there are actually some cool sequences in this South Korean-made, LA-set ancient-dragon-curse-with-modern-warfare action thriller. But after the giant serpents Imoogi and Buraki fight at the end, heroine Sarah (Amanda Brooks) knows she has to fulfil her destiny and sacrifice herself to lift the curse (…or something).

The practical manifestation of that? Sarah bravely stands to face the giant, hissing Imoogi, and her soul (…or something) floats up out of her body as a lithe, dancing shaft of energy rising into the air.

5 Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier (1989)

Read William Shatner’s autobiography Up Til Now and you’ll learn what a dog’s breakfast the production of his first directorial effort in the Star Trek film franchise was, resulting in one of the worst movies of the series.

When the Enterprise crew is hijacked and forced to penetrate the cloud at the centre of the galaxy in a search for God himself, they find him on a remote planet as a ridiculously religious-looking face in the middle of a heavenly shaft of light surging into the sky.

6 The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

Considering Jackson’s take on Toklein’s epic fantasy tale was so visually magnificent the question isn’t whether he employed a shaft of light into the sky but why there weren’t more of them.

As Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) approach the green-tinged Dead City of Minas Morgul, it comes to life to signal the army of Orcs and the Witch King inside to march. The signal? A shaft of green light thrusting into the darkened sky, visible to Gandalf and Pippin on a balcony at far-off Minas Tirith.

7 Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

When the guys are preparing to make their way back to 2010 from 1986, it’s an appropriately weighty moment, so it calls for a visual marker of equal profundity. So rather than just switch on, the water in the hot tub in front of Adam (John Cusack), Jacob (Clark Duke), Nick (Craig Webber) and Lou (Rob Corddry) becomes a vortex of water and light spinning like a waterspout into the sky.

8 The Last Airbender (2010)

When Katara (Nicola Peltz) and Sokka (Jackson Rathbone) find the resting place of the mythical Airbender Aang (Noah Ringver) in the ice, they awaken both Aang and his big pet flying dragon thingy. But they don’t just stand up shaking the ice off their heads. It cracks open with a huge beam of energy that shoots a piercing beam of light majestically into the sky.

9 Tron: Legacy (2010)

It’s a portal to the outside world, so what else would it be but a huge twine of light, a hundred beams of data and computer code gushing urgently into the air through a boarding platform somewhere deep in The Grid. Luckily for Sam (Garrett Hedlund) and Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the programmer-turned-digital-hippie-guru Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has more power than the evil CLU (young CGI Jeff Bridges) realises, holding him back while the young couple step into the beam to the escape.

Can you think of a number 10?