Cruisin' Across the Silver Screen

This summer a virtual auto show's worth of cars are screeching around the big screen.

Tom Cruise nearly loses his head — literally — in a futuristic Lexus in Minority Report, Scooby and Shaggy cook up some grub in the psychedelic Mystery Machine in Scooby-Doo, and Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones battle aliens while riding in a high-tech Mercedes Benz in Men in Black II.

Whether it’s a groovy van or a sportster that can read your mind and DNA, a sweet set of wheels is essential for Hollywood's heroes. But why are the cars the stars drive so important?

"People love cars," said Don Sherman, a contributor to Popular Science and Automobile magazine. "If you peel back their emotions and enthusiasms, at some level you discover an automobile."

And audiences get carried away by cars on the big screen, experts say, because in the movies real-life vehicles leave reality in the dust.

"Cars are very technological devices and they serve as a good platform for displaying new technology, whether real or imagined," said Csaba Csere, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver. "[Filmmakers] can play these games with cars and have a lot of fun with them. Some of them feed into a driver’s fantasies."

Cruise's cruiser in Minority Report, a sleek rounded Lexus created for the Steven Spielberg flick, is one such car. Although it’s featured in only a few scenes, the designers created a myth to go with the machine.

In theory the Lexus, meant to be a realistic vehicle in 2054, is outfitted with an infrared system to prevent fender-benders, a voice activated driving system, DNA recognition and an automatic valet feature.

"It’s not made to replicate any real car," said Meg Seiler, a Lexus spokesperson, although she said it takes some cues from current Lexus vehicles. "Clearly it's a car designed for a film, so you want it to have some wild factor, and for it to look cool. That’s film. That’s Hollywood."

The futuristic features are mostly fiction, but even some of today's vehicles can perform unexpected feats.

"There are a couple cars out there that will accept voice commands. The Jaguar S-type and the Infinity Q45 will change the radio station or increase the temperature control with a voice command," said Csere. "Current GPS [Global Positioning System] systems are incredibly detailed. You can program in an address manually and the system will give you directions verbally. It’ll tell you, ‘Take the next left.’"

But as for the DNA, "That's pretty far removed," he said. "Right now, a key is a pretty easy device."

Technology aside, experts say both the best and worst thing about movie cars, is the chase scenes.

"Cars are visually interesting when in action, screaming around corners, flying over jumps," said Csere. "But modern chase scenes are laughable, and that’s just the way movie scenes are done."

Sherman, who wrote about the Minority Report car for Popular Science, agreed. "It’s all smoke and mirrors. [Movie cars] only do enough to make movies."

And he added, "I saw the car used in The Fast and the Furious in a shop in southern California. I asked the guy who built it what he did to make it so fast and he said, 'Nothing but turn up the speed on the camera.'"

But in older movies before the dawn of digital technology people racing cars in films actually performed the onscreen stunts. And both Sherman and Csere agreed that the best chase scene to zoom across the big screen was in Bullitt, a 1968 cops and robbers movie starring Steve McQueen .

"McQueen, who was an amateur racer, insisted that the car chase be filmed with realism," said Csere.

And some of the worst car chase scenes? Csere cited an example from the small screen sleuth Magnum P.I ., in which Tom Selleck’s character has trouble outdriving some thugs in a Cadillac limousine.

"A Ferrari is a faster car," he said referring to Magnum's hot wheels. "If you can't beat some guys in a Cadillac limo [while driving] in a Ferrari, you might as well shoot yourself."