Fuel cell

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Just before the spaceship takes off for Fhloston Paradise, the audience gets to see the manual interface that the airport employees use to refuel the ship. On the tarmac beneath the spaceship, the ground crewman plugs in a portable control box to the underside of the plane, and presses a button to open a hatch in the ground, from which a new, glowing green radioactive fuel cell emerges.

One of the crewmen grabs it by its circular handles at the end, removes it from the hatch, and sets it on the ground.

He then uses the plugged-in control box to open a compartment on the underside of the spaceship, from which one of the ground crew removes the spent fuel cell by hand, and inserts it into the still-open hatch.

Finally they pick up the full fuel cell and insert it into the compartment on the plane.

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This scene is there to set up how Cornelius stows away on the craft, but also serves as a cinematic pun when it crosscuts to a scene inside the ship (but which must be seen rather than read to appreciate.) For such a “throwaway” technology, it’s handled really well.

  • The ground affords natural shielding from any collection of radioactive fuel cells.
  • Being circular, the cells and the handles to manipulate the cells are orientation-less.
  • There are familiar black-and-yellow-stripe warnings on the walls of the hatch and the revealed sides of the spaceship compartment. These warnings are only visible when it’s relevant.
  • The radioactivity trefoil symbol has the same colors and appears on the fuel cell, the hatch, and the compartment.
  • Having a portable and wired control box means that it’s not readily available for any passing hackers.
  • The transparent container lets the material act as an additional warning to observers: There is danger here.
  • The transparent container lets the fuel itself tell the ground crew which cell is spent and which one is full.

All told, short of making it automated, this is how it should work.

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Pneumatic Mail

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Korben receives physical mail to a transparent, flat pneumatic tube in his apartment. When new mail arrives, he hears a whoosh, the envelope drops into place, and the plastic material that the tube is made of becomes edge-lit with the film’s signature orange color.

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To retrieve the letter, Korben lifts a hinged side and slides the letter out. The tube hangs at from the ceiling about waist high, to the left of his window desk on the far side of his apartment from the door.

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The positioning of the tube is nice as the desk is one place he’s likely to put information received there to use: reading and storing if necessary. Another location might have been near the door, to catch his attention in a physical location that he frequents. But infrequent use is not too much of a problem since the edge lighting should catch his attention.

His attention could be drawn more aggressively to the tube by having the light blink a few times at the arrival of new mail, or when he enters the apartment. Presuming the system knows the importance of a given letters—such as when he is fired from Zorg industries—it could offer an additional audio cue, such as a simple statement of "urgent" using the same voice that announces his allotment of cigarettes in the morning.

Another tiny improvement might be to remove the flap entirely, but adding a grip gap at the edge, on the apartment-facing side of the tube. Presuming this wouldn’t mess with the pneumatic or stability of the letter in place, it would save Korben from having to target and raise the flap. Grabbing mail would just be easier.

Oddly, the edge lighting does not disappear when Korben retrieves letters, which is odd given the slight context-awareness that the rest of the apartment displays. The light should turn off or fade once the letter is removed.

The Positronic Ray

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To combat the Resistance uprising, Durand-Durand unleashes his dread Positronic Ray. To control it, he approaches a high backed chair and touches a spot on the back. The curved tip of the chair extends upwards a bit allowing him to sit down. As soon as he sits, the tip retracts to rest just above his head and the video panel slides close to him. The ray itself is mounted on a two-axis swivel just behind him, with the barrel pointing out of a horizontal window.

The interface consists of a complex array of transparent knobs mounted on a glowing flat panel, set beneath a large rectangular video screen. While he is using the weapon, we see his hands twiddling some of the shapes clockwise and counterclockwise.

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The chair interface seems fine, if technically unnecessary, giving the gunner a small ritual feeling of power. The weapons interface, on the other hand, is a disaster. It has around 50 visible controls, none labeled for what they control or their extents, none have the slightest ergonomic consideration, and few are differentiated from the others in shape or placement. Also they’re all transparent, so add a lot of visual noise to the difficultly of use.

From his video screen we can tell that there are only a number of things to control: target (coupled to the camera), beam size (coupled to the camera zoom), and a trigger. Control for these simple variables could be accomplished with a joystick for targeting, a thumb button for triggering, and a slider at his left hand for zoom/beam size. Three controls which Durand-Durand could really think of as two.

Additionally, the screen only shows him what he’s currently focused on, failing to grant any of the field awareness that he’d need to keep the enemy at bay. Ultimately it’s a weapons interface that only a pacifist could love. Admittedly, he’s a mad engineer, and not a mad interaction designer, so maybe it’s just his insanity that explains this fiddly spread of extraneous controls with poor mapping and myopic feedback.

I’d love to credit this bad interface with saving the people of the city of SoGo, but unfortunately if its destruction hadn’t come from the Positronic Ray, it would have come from being swallowed by the Mathmos. Ultimately, they were doomed.

SoGo, destroyed

Self-Destruct

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Furious at Durand-Durand’’s betrayal, the Black Queen walks to a set of five shoulder-height levers, each baroquely shaped, transparent, and hinged to a base on the floor. She pulls the middle one, and a bright white light below the base begins to glow. She then pulls the first lever. She glances at the fourth, but then changes her mind and pulls the fifth one, explaining that she is unleashing the Mathmos to devour the city. The Queen’’s brief hesitation implies that this isn’’t just an interface, but a self-destruct mechanism that must be activated in some particular, secret order to take effect. Upon completion of the sequence the city begins to fall into the liquid creature, Mathmos, that lives beneath the city.

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The Excessive Machine

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When Durand-Durand captures Barbarella, he places her in a device which he calls the “Excessive Machine. She sits in a reclining seat, covered up to the shoulders by the device. Her head rests on an elaborate red leather headboard. Durand-Durand stands at a keyboard, built into the “footboard” of the machine, facing her.

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The keyboard resembles that of an organ, but with transparent vertical keys beneath which a few colored light pulse. Long silver tubes stretch from the sides of the device to the ceiling. Touching the keys (they do not appear to depress) produces the sound of a full orchestra and causes motorized strips of metal to undulate in a sine wave above the victim.

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When Durand-Durand reads the strange sheet music and begins to play “Sonata for Executioner and Various Young Women,” the machine (via means hidden from view) removes Barbarella’’s clothing piece by piece, ejecting them through a tube in the side of the machine near the floor. Then in an exchange Durand-Durand reveals its purpose…

Barbarella: It’’s …sort of nice, isn’t it?
Durand-Durand: Yes. It is nice. …In the beginning. Wait until the tune changes. It may change your tune as well.
Barbarella: Goodness, what do you mean?
Durand-Durand: When we reach the crescendo, you will die… of pleasure. Your end will be swift, but sweet, very sweet.

As Durand-Durand intensifies his playing, Barbarella writhes in agony/ecstasy. But despite his most furious playing, he does not kill Barbarella. Instead his machine fails dramatically, spewing fire and smoke out of the sides as its many tubes burn away. Barbarella is too much woman for the likes of his technology.

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I’m going to disregard this as a device for torture and murder, since I wouldn’t want to improve such a thing, and that whole premise is kind of silly anyway. Instead I’ll regard it as a BDSM sexual device, in which Durand-Durand is a dominant, seeking to push the limits of an (informed, consensual) submissive using this machine. It’s possible that part of the scene is demonstration of prowess on a standardized, difficult-to-use instrument. If so, then a critique wouldn’t matter. But if not…Since the keys don’t move, the only variables he’s controlling are touch duration and vertical placement of his fingers. (The horizontal position on each key seems really unlikely.) I’d want to provide the player some haptic feedback to detect and correct slipping finger placement, letting him or her maintain attention on the sub who is, after all, the point.

The plastic educator

Dr. Morbius introduces the Krell “plastic educator,” saying, ““As far as I can make out, they used it to condition and test their young, in much the same way as we once employed finger painting among our kindergarten children.””

Morbius grasps the educator’s head mount.

The device is a station at which the learner sits. There is a large dashboard before him, in turn before a space enclosed in a tetrahedral encasement of plastic. To his right is a large column made of plastic with red and yellow graduations running up the side. Inside the column is a strange shape like a lathed accordion, terminating in a pulsing ring that indicates a level against the graduations. An arced panel hangs from the ceiling with other printed graduations with lines of light above and below. Blue neon squiggles blink randomly along the walls.

Morbius demonstrates proper placement of the educator interface.

To activate the station, the learner grasps a pair of curved metal arms, which are connected at a hinged base and tipped with crystal orbs. He leans forward, rests his forehead on a third arm, and pulls the pair of arms to rest on his temples. He turns a pair of dials on the dashboard before him, and the crystal orbs on all three arms glow, indicating that the headset is operational.

Morbius points to the intelligence indicator.

Adams and Doc try to guage their own IQs.

The device’’s immediate result is that the accordion shape inside the column rises such that the lit ring indicates the intelligence of the user. (To Adams’ and Doc’’s dismay, their readings are much lower than Morbius’.)

With the press of a lever Morbius manifests a thought visually.

The primary function of the device is for the user to make a thought of theirs manifest in the tetrahedral space. The user concentrates on the thing, and then pulls a lever at the base of the headset. A red ring at the base of the headset illuminates, and a material appears above a pedestal at the base of the tetrahedron. By concentrating, the user shapes this material into the desired thing. Morbius shapes it into an image of Alta. The image is a scaled, translucent, volumetric display of Alta, which moves and smiles just as she would.

The projection ceases immediately when the mechanism is removed.

To stop using the device and shut down the projection, the learner simply lifts the lever and removes the headset from contact, and the orbs, the red ring, and the volumetric projection all fade within moments.

Finished with his demonstration, Morbius turns the educator off.

Turning the dashboard off requires a user to turn two free-spinning dials that sit to each side of the headset inwards. The lights of the dashboard fade.

Microfiche reader

One other portable device that bears mention is Lt. Farman’s microfiche reader.

Farman checks Morbius’’ information.

When the officers originally learn Morbius’’ name, Farman fetches the device from a drawer. It is a small, metallic square box about the size of a pack of playing cards. He withdraws one of a set of thin transparent sheets of microfiche held in a pocket on the back, and inserts it to a slot at the top of the device. The device magnifies the contents of the sheet for the viewer, who can scroll by pulling the microfiche up and down. The particular microfiche displays all of the manifest information from the Bellerophon expedition, which Farman uses to verify Morbius’ information.

Farman looks for Julia Marsin on the Bellerephon’s manifest.

Farman uses an even smaller version of this device in the field, which consists of a small, lipstick-sized cylinder with a slit, through which he passes the same film to check for a “Mrs. Morbius.”

Though this seems like miniaturization that is far ahead of its time, microforms and optical magnification had been around and used to compactly store data since the mid 1800s. This device is an extension of these optical concepts, rather than modern digital media which only reached similar portable sizes in the early 2000s.

Military communication

All telecommunications in the film are based on either a public address or a two-way radio metaphor.

Commander Adams addresses the crew.

To address the crew from inside the ship, Commander Adams grabs the microphone from its holder on the wall. Its long handle makes it easy to grab. By speaking into the lit, transparent circle mounted to one end, his voice is automatically broadcast across the ship.

Commander Adams lets Chief Quinn know he’s in command of the ship.

Quinn listens for incoming signals.

The two-way radio on his belt is routed through the communications officer back at the ship. To use it, he unclips the small cylindrical microphone from its clip, flips a small switch at the base of the box, and pulls the microphone on its tether close to his mouth to speak. When the device is active, a small array of lights on the box illuminates.

Confirming their safety by camera, Chief Quinn gets an eyeful of Alta.

The microphone also has a video camera within it. When Chief Quinn asks Commander Adams to “activate the viewer,” he does so by turning the device such that its small end faces outwards, at which time it acts as a camera, sending a video signal back to the ship, to be viewed on the “view plate.”

The Viewplate is used frequently to see outside the ship.

Altair IV looms within view.

The Viewplate is a large video screen with rounded edges that is mounted to a wall off the bridge. To the left of it three analog gauges are arranged in a column, above two lights and a stack of sliders. These are not used during the film.

Commander Adams engages the Viewplate to look for Altair IV.

The Viewplate is controlled by a wall mounted panel with a very curious placement. When Commander Adams rushes to adjust it, he steps to the panel and adjusts a few horizontal sliders, while craning around a cowling station to see if his tweaks are having the desired effect. When he’’s fairly sure it’’s correct, he has to step away from the panel to get a better view and make sure. There is no excuse for this poor placement.