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In the early-to-mid 2010s, a popular trope in sci-fi blockbusters was to have the third act begin with a (usually blue) beam of light shoot into the sky or from the sky, either to open a portal to another world or cause destruction on Earth. Many superhero movies utilized this trope, including Iron Man, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel, both of the mid-2010s TMNT pictures, and Fant4stic. The trope was so frequently used that it garnered online quizzes, Reddit posts, and listicles questioning its continued popularity. My question is thus: what was the first film, TV show, or other piece of media to use a third-act skybeam?

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    Beams shooting into the sky have been a real-world thing since at least 1993.
    – DavidW
    Feb 12 at 23:14
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    A fire in the sky as prelude to a final battle is used in Chestertons 1922 novel "The Man who Knew too Much", although it is somewhat mundanly a firework and the invaders are alien only in the sense that they are muslims trying to conquer the British islands. But as far as the imagery is concerned, that seems a familiar trope even then. Feb 13 at 11:57
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    Might be worth putting "skybeam" into the title, since it has become such a trope. Feb 13 at 16:24
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    @PaulD.Waite In Iron Man, the movie ends with the giant arc reactor shooting a giant beam into the sky. Admittedly, it's not for a portal, but it is a blue sky beam. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the Lizard shoots a light into the sky that will turn everyone in New York into lizards. Feb 13 at 20:18
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    Not an answer because it isn't in the third act and they aren't blue but there are beams of light shooting up into the sky at 8:08 in the classic 1936 science fiction movie Things to Come.
    – user14111
    Feb 14 at 9:12

9 Answers 9

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In Superman: The Motion Picture (1978), General Zod and crew are surrounded by a blue beam of light which reaches to the atmosphere, before being imprisoned in the Phantom Zone. enter image description here

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    If the trope is understood specifically in terms of a beam that opens up a portal to another world or ushers in some kind of apocalypse, I don't think the beam was intended to play any role in taking the prisoners to the Phantom Zone--it seems like the floating black square that we saw approaching them from the side did that, the beam itself was more like a force field keeping them from escaping. Scene 8 of the shooting script refers to them being "Trapped inside the central dazzling white ring of light".
    – Hypnosifl
    Feb 14 at 19:47
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Spoiler

Not a movie, but a short story.

H. P. Lovecraft's "The Color out of Space" (1927) has a light beaming up from the tainted well into space. A faint residue of it then drops back into the well, indicating that whatever poisoned the area has not completely left.

All the while the shaft of phosphorescence from the well was getting brighter and brighter, bringing to the minds of the huddled men, a sense of doom and abnormality which far outraced any image their conscious minds could form. It was no longer shining out; it was pouring out; and as the shapeless stream of unplaceable colour left the well it seemed to flow directly into the sky.

[...]

Then without warning the hideous thing shot vertically up toward the sky like a rocket or meteor, leaving behind no trail and disappearing through a round and curiously regular hole in the clouds before any man could gasp or cry out. No watcher can ever forget that sight, and Ammi stared blankly at the stars of Cygnus, Deneb twinkling above the others, where the unknown colour had melted into the Milky Way.

[...]

And from that stricken, far-away spot he had seen something feebly rise, only to sink down again upon the place from which the great shapeless horror had shot into the sky. It was just a colour—but not any colour of our earth or heavens. And because Ammi recognized that colour, and knew that this last faint remnant must still lurk down there in the well, he has never been quite right since.

This is the earliest occurrence I can think of (I did not count the pillar of fire - Exodus -, as it does not move up into the sky).

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    Any chance you could edit this answer to add a direct quite from the story itself? Feb 13 at 20:10
  • "Night had fully set in, and all the abhorrent grounds seemed faintly luminous with more than the fitful moonbeams; but this new glow was something definite and distinct, and appeared to shoot up from the black pit like a softened ray from a searchlight, giving dull reflections in the little ground pools where the water had been emptied."
    – Hatman
    Feb 13 at 20:27
  • @LogicDictates I hope I did it right, I am new to this SE section. Feb 13 at 21:58
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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) has a large pillar of fire that reaches into the heavens in the final act of the movie.

Pillar of fire reaching up into the sky

While used in a slightly different context to what most people think of, since you mentioned Iron Man I feel like this is in the same vein as that.

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  • It was one of the movies included on the lists I was looking at, so you're in the right direction. Feb 13 at 2:08
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    Which is itself descended from the pillar of fire in 1956 the 10 commandments youtu.be/AdK5bMt0HlE?si=jATldi57A5EUf6A0 Feb 13 at 3:05
  • @lucasbachmann: The pillar of fire is mentioned in the Bible, and the Wikipedia article about it shows a painting from 1800 that specifically associates it with the Ark of the Covenant. What leads you to suggest that the depiction in Raiders of the Lost Ark descends from that in The Ten Commandments?
    – ruakh
    Feb 13 at 9:40
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    @ruakh I'm speculating Spielberg likes Charlton Heston movies given the well documented origins of Indiana Jones and it was a special effect. Note a pillar of fire attacking the enemy is a movie product (in both movies) not a biblical one. In real life it sounds like a volcano to me being a cloud by day and fire by night - but that's off topic. Feb 13 at 17:08
  • @ruakh Well, unless someone is about to mention Antique mythology, I think you can go ahead and post an answer about the Bible.
    – Stef
    Feb 14 at 7:50
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A very early example is Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938):

When a deadly Nitron ray strikes Earth, Flash Gordon and his friends travel to Mars to battle Ming the Merciless and his new ally Queen Azura.

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  • In terms of imagery, we only see the beam from space, with a thick line going towards a sphere, not from the ground with a beam filling the sky. Which is unsurprising given the difference in special-effects capabilities and perhaps budget between then and the late 70s / early 80s, or modern superhero movie skybeams. But anyway, the question asks specifically for light shooting up into the sky, and that perspective on the beam is left entirely to the imagination. So good find, but I'm hesitant to upvote it: to me it seems related but not quite an example of the trope. Feb 16 at 4:25
  • @PeterCordes From the question: "beam of light shoot into the sky or from the sky"
    – Laurel
    Feb 16 at 4:31
  • Ok fair enough on the direction point, but seeing the beam in the sky from the ground is important, IMO. All we actually see in Flash Gordon 01 is is a beam shooting at the planet from the outside, from so far away that no layer of atmosphere / sky is visible at all. Feb 16 at 4:53
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    @Peter Cordes I looked at the first episode somewhere else on internet. In that scene a beam of light shot out from Mars. In the next shot the beam of light struck Earth. The next shot showed a place on the surface of Earth. A curving beam of light struck the ground, there was an explosion, and two Martians appeared. One of the Martians poked a small device into the ground, which emitted vapor and the Martian died as Ming and Azura watched from Mars. So in the version I watched, the beam of light was seen on the surface of Earth. Feb 16 at 5:54
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The Hildebrandt Star Wars poster from 1977 uses Luke's light saber as a light shooting into the sky.

enter image description here

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Not as early as some of the other examples but Tron (1982) had similar visuals

Movie poster for Tron (1982), showing a man stretching upwards towards a floating disc, surrounded by light with a beam of light reaching upwards

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    Might be worth adding additional info about the role of the beam in the movie, as opposed to just the poster -- tron.fandom.com/wiki/Master_Control_Program says "Arguably, the MCP's single greatest physical weakness was the energy beam that extended up into the sky, appearing as the never-ending top of the MCP's head ... Judging by the fact that Flynn was ultimately returned to the real world by being ejected up into this beam, it's highly likely that this beam functioned as the MCP's own private I/O Tower", i.e. sole channel where programs/information could be sent to the real world.
    – Hypnosifl
    Feb 14 at 19:21
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The Quatermass TV series from 1979 had beams of light coming down from space to allegedly transport the "Planet People" (basically youthful new age travellers) to a new and better world. They gathered in their thousands at stone circles and then disappeared.

It later transpires, due to the detective work of Dr Quatermass, that these unfortunates were actually being harvested for their protein.

I can't find an image that shows these space beams, maybe someone with better Google-Fu can edit?

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    to be clear, quartermass found this out -- he did not cause it.
    – releseabe
    Feb 13 at 6:03
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The end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) featured two main characters, Decker and the android Ilya (who was an extension of the machine superintelligence V'ger), being enveloped in a beam of light when they somehow merged together to transcend our dimension (Decker and Spock had speculated that V'ger needed to merge with a human to leave our universe and explore "other dimensions, higher levels of being"). After they disappeared we saw the beam growing larger as Kirk, Spock and McCoy raced back to the Enterprise, and then the whole structure of V'Ger disappeared in a light show, apparently having followed Decker and Ilya into another dimension. You can see the sequence starting around 45 seconds into this clip:

It doesn't exactly match later iterations of the Pillar of Light trope since it isn't a beam starting on Earth (V'ger was in orbit) and the beam isn't leading into a "hole in the sky", but it is at least an example of a third-act mysterious cosmic beam bridging our ordinary reality and some other realm of existence, and the shot of the characters standing in the beam to leave our reality has echoes in later iterations of the trope like this one from Lifeforce (1985) (warning, slightly NSFW):

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The Bible

Luke 17:29 But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.

Acts 9:3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven.

Acts 26:13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.

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  • Why do you quote Luke on the destruction of Sodom, when Genesis is hundreds of years older?
    – user14111
    Feb 15 at 5:20
  • @user14111 bacause there is no light from heaven. In Genisis 19:24 God throws down burning sulfur.
    – Dale M
    Feb 15 at 5:22
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    Sky beams shoot up not down. Feb 15 at 5:35
  • I can't read the original languages, but in the KJV, Genesis 19:24 goes "Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of Heaven." Fire and brimstone, brimstone and fire. Whether fire raining down from heaven counts as a light shooting up into the sky is another question.
    – user14111
    Feb 15 at 5:35

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