There’s a trope that has become infamous in recent years, especially with superhero movies: The Pillar of Light. You know the image, the villain is close to succeeding in their master plan, and the final step involves a device that fires a blue beam of light into the sky. The purpose of this light often doesn’t make sense and is always stopped before it does whatever it was intended to do. The trope has popped up in many Transformers movies as well as a handful of Marvel movies.
Most recently the blue pillar of light was seen in the trailer and on the poster for Godzilla: King of Monsters. I decided to list my five favorite pillars of light, regardless of how the movie ranks on my personal list.
The Fifth Element (1997, dir. Luc Besson)
The 23rd century that filmmaker Luc Besson presents in The Fifth Element was unlike anything I’d seen at the time. The production design was highly influenced by French comics’ artist Moebius who created what is a 90s pop science fiction aesthetic, in the same way that the 1950s imagined the future as a variation on the design of that era. The plot of the movie is very much in the wheelhouse of the bohemian multicultural new age influences of the 90s and also overlaps with an odd Egyptian trend in film at the time (see Stargate, The Mummy). The beam of light in this film comes Leeloo, a bioengineered woman who is the living McGuffin of the plot. Added bonus, she sends her ray of light out through the top of the Great Pyramid.
Superman: The Motion Picture (1978, dir. Richard Donner)
The movie that would plant the seed of the big-budget superhero blockbuster. Director Richard Donner starts his film appropriately on the doomed planet of Krypton but instead of jumping right to the escape of Kal-El, the future Superman he sets up the sequel in the first scene. Attempted insurrectionists General Zod, Ursa, and Non, are held in a stasis field, imagine two hula hoops spinning on their sides. When the unanimous verdict of guilty is handed down from the council, the dome rolls back, and the spinning portal of the Phantom Zone comes into view. The stasis field creates the pillar of light, extended way past the seemingly atmosphere-less Kryptonian sky. It establishes the epic scale of what’s to come over the next two hours and is a low key non-end of the world pillar of light.
The World’s End (2013, dir. Edgar Wright)
Visual comedy master Edgar Wright brings his Three Cornettos trilogy to a close with this tale of fortysomething men reuniting to recreate a seminal bar crawl from their youth. In a smart movie, Wright flips the expected roles of his regular leads Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, making the former the slacker loser and the latter a buttoned-up straight man (a complete reverse from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). The buddies end up in the middle of some crazy, out of this world chaos which culminates at the final bar on the crawl: The World’s End. There are several crucial blue light beams throughout the film as the group encounters adversaries, but for the finale, we get one big spectacular blast into the sky. And this time, the bad guys kinda win.
Ghostbusters (1984, dir. Ivan Reitman)
This pillar of light is another instance where it’s not saved for the finale and instead is the second act twist. Walter Peck, a pesky EPA lawyer, believes the Ghostbusters are a scam and want their operation shut down. After discovering they are using a nuclear-powered reactor for their spirit cold storage system, he gets a court order to shut it off. As a result, we get a beautiful beam of light and other strands trailing off as the formerly imprisoned specters begin infesting the city en masse. What I love about this particular pillar is it’s not the end of the world, it’s the beginning of the end. The music that accompanies the scene is also eerily menacing and, in a movie that walks the perfect tightrope of tone between comedy and horror/action, gets us worried about the bad things that are coming next.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, dir. Steven Spielberg)
This the king of the pillars of light and it is part of the big finale. Indiana and Marion are in the clutches of the Nazis and taken to an island in the Aegean Sea. Belloq has gotten his hands on the mythic Ark of the Covenant and plans on unleashing its power for the glory of the Third Reich. You know the setup and the iconic payoff. The gory conclusion has the Nazis vaporized first by the power of the Ark, and then we get a massive pillar of light creating a circle of clouds around it before everything gets sucked back up, and the lid pops back on. I personally think the pillar of light trope was born here and everything since has been an attempt to imitate with varying degrees of success. Nothing beats the original though, and it’s a perfect ending for a pretty exceptional movie.