the fast and the furious

F9’s Space Scenes Began as a Joke. Then NASA Got Involved.

“Going to space was not something I took for granted,” says director Justin Lin. “It’s one of the most sound action set pieces in our franchise.” Photo: Universal Pictures

Warning: this post contains some space-related spoilers for F9.

Over the past 20 years, the multibillion-dollar-grossing Fast and Furious franchise has bent the laws of physics and tested the outer limits of moviegoer credulity, pulling off ever more fantastical flights of vehicular fancy with each new film. Jumping a supercar from the nosebleed floors of one skyscraper to another? Check. Careening a multi-ton bank vault through the streets of Rio de Janeiro? Check. Outrunning and outgunning a nuclear submarine across Russia’s arctic plain? Crashing a souped up Dodge out of the nose of a cargo plane during takeoff? Check and double check.

But in the blockbuster series’s latest installment, F9 (which hit overseas theaters May 19 and arrives at North American multiplexes June 25), director Justin Lin blasts viewers’ already sky-high expectations for automotive adventure into the stratosphere. Literally: Members of the Fast family escape the constraints of Earth’s gravitational pull and travel to outer space — in a custom-reinforced, rocket-propelled Pontiac Fiero, no less.

Lin is widely credited as the architect of the long-running movie series’s cinematic universe; the director who saved F&F from all but certain straight-to-video oblivion by persuading Vin Diesel to return with an uncredited cameo in 2003’s Tokyo Drift, then shifted the narrative emphasis from illegal street racing to Family (with a capital F) and, eventually, saving humanity from evil. Having also directed 2016’s $343 million–grossing Star Trek Beyond, the 49-year-old Taiwanese American filmmaker is uniquely poised to defend the decision to boldly go where no hot-rod franchise has gone before. He couches the move as a natural — perhaps even inevitable — evolution for F&F characters, who have been beating insurmountable obstacles one quarter-mile at a time for more than two decades (especially as they throttle ever closer to the franchise’s finish line: Furious 11).

While the rest of F9 dispenses with any semblance of realism — cars are yanked through buildings by massive electromagnets, Diesel’s signature Dodge swings across a jungle chasm on a metal cable like Tarzan, and Sung Kang’s character, Han, returns from the dead — the director says he extensively consulted with NASA scientists to root the off-Earth sequences in a plausible reality. “Going to space was not something I took for granted or I was very flippant about,” Lin tells Vulture. “It is something that I did have a lot of conversations about. A lot of conversations. And it went from rocket scientists laughing, going, ‘What the fuck?’ to us saying, ‘Well, can this really happen? If other rocket scientists have to get up there and the capsules are coated with these polymers? Blah blah blah.’ This is something that was thought out. If anything — logistically, scientifically — it’s one of the most sound action set pieces in our franchise.”

The series’s ninth installment finds the bonds of Fast’s ad hoc family of outlaw wheelmen (Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel) severely tested by blunt-force traumas inflicted by Dom’s long-lost blood brother Jakob (John Cena). He, a glowering super-assassin with deep underworld ties, is, naturally, hell-bent on possessing a weapon-hacking device capable of subjugating the nuclear capacities of the globe’s industrialized nations. En route to disrupting the character’s nefarious (if nebulous) plans, Gibson’s and Ludacris’s characters, Roman and Tej, find themselves jockeying the thrusters of a sort of tuner spaceship cobbled together by the Tokyo Drift triumvirate of Earl, Sean, and Twinkie (Jason Tobin, Lucas Black, and Shad “Bow Wow” Moss) from rocket-propulsion flotsam and the jankiest of janky ’80s sports coupes.

To hear it from F9 executive producer Josh Henson, who has worked with Lin on three F&F films, Star Trek and two TV series, the whole idea of blasting Diesel’s character, Dominic Toretto, and the family to infinity and beyond began as something of a lark. Henson and Lin’s longtime visual-effects supervisor, Alexander Vegh, proposed the idea with almost no expectation the director would ever take them up on it.

“Kind of as a joke, we put together a pitch that looks like, ‘Okay, Dom and the gang go to the moon, and they race cars; they’re racing cool rovers on the moon and Dom wrecks his rover. And the bad guy’s about to get away, but he’s just at the Apollo 11 site. And he finds the original moon rover, and he’s racing,’” recalls Henson. “We kind of did it as a joke, and we pitched it to Justin, and we had a good laugh. But then Justin’s like, ‘Well, maybe there’s something there.’”

Lin originally landed a start with the series on the strength of his shot-on-a-shoestring 2002 Sundance indie, Better Luck Tomorrow. Despite having zero background in action-adventure movie direction at that time, he has since evolved into one of Hollywood’s most bankable purveyors of concussive, megabudget action set pieces. According to longtime collaborators, Lin’s research-and-development process for those sequences begins humbly enough. “We’ll break it down into story beats, and we’ll start filming these kinds of ideas on iPhones with Hot Wheels cars,” says Henson.

“Basically, Justin will have the concept for the movie; he’ll start working out the actual arc of the movie. Then we all start to work on the action parts of the story,” adds Vegh, also F9’s second unit director and previsualization supervisor. “What’s the big crazy thing that’s going to happen? What’s that thing that we all have to tap our inner 6-year-old to make blow up?”

When it came to the practical realities of shooting F9’s outer-space scenes, however, Lin took a different approach, compiling a dossier of information about how the characters would achieve liftoff. “I got on the phone with NASA scientists, and I’m picking their brains about how to do it,” he remembers. Among the filmmaker’s questions: Could such a capsule be launched from the ground? How much fuel would it need? Could underwater diving suits like the ones Tej and Roman wear in fact stand up to extra-orbital pressures? And could a Pontiac Fiero really survive in space? “That Fiero, if you look at it, has been reinforced. It has been built out. And actually, they’ve been testing it,” Lin points out. “Earl, Twinkie, and Sean are not making this up. They work at a propulsion lab. They are rocket scientists!”

There is, of course, some magical movie thinking, the willful suspension of cinematic disbelief the filmmaker seems to ask of audiences for F9. That much is tipped by Gibson early on. After his character almost single-handedly dispatches a paramilitary goon squad and drives through a minefield — not only escaping death and serious dismemberment but emerging “without a scratch” — Roman momentarily pauses his signature wisecracking to ponder whether he and the other members of the Fast family are basically indestructible. He wonders aloud if something other than luck has kept them from injury or immolation throughout so many dangerous adventures.

I point this out to Lin and ask him if Tyrese’s speech is some sort of head nod. “Look, we’re 20 years in,” the director says. “For the self-awareness, I felt like it was appropriate … to be able to have the character articulate that. Personally, I love it. We wanted to acknowledge that for the first time. To say, ‘Hey, let’s be very conscious of it.’ Twenty years in, this is the time to let the audience know, ‘Hey, you guys have definitely been a part of this.’”

“A lot of times, people tell me, ‘Oh you’re defying the laws of physics,’” Lin concludes. “I’d like to think that I know that.”

F9’s Space Scenes Began as a Joke. Then NASA Got Involved.