It’s been seven years since Alfonso Cuarón’s mesmerizing sci-fi tale Children of Men hit theaters, and the director’s follow-up, Gravity, is equally stunning. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock star as astronauts adrift in space following a shuttle accident. The vast blackness consumes them. As our own Jason Bailey wrote, “It is a powerful visual, encompassing both the genuine awe of the setting, and the utter terror of the situation.” The space thriller toys with our fears of the unknown, just like these other frightening galaxy-spanning stories.
With Alien, Ridley Scott set a haunted house film in space, adding monsters, abject horror, and existential dread. It became the blueprint for numerous films that followed and were unable to shake its influence. Like another movie on our list, it remains the standard every terror in space tale is compared against. The otherworldliness of Alien wouldn’t be as frightening without the designs of H.R. Giger, who created something foreign, yet familiar with his womb-like sets and phallic creatures. Scott heightened the dread and suspense of Alien by keeping us in the dark, masking the horrible things that go slithering through chambers and creeping along corridors.
“Even from the beginning, he had a very clear idea of his ultimate goal. He wanted to make a movie about man’s relation to the universe — something which had never been attempted, much less achieved, in the history of motion pictures,” co-writer Arthur C. Clarke said of director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. “[He] was determined to create a work of art which would arouse the emotions of wonder, awe — even, if appropriate, terror.” The influential film, set during the restless Cold War and Space Race era, is a masterwork of psychological horror and tension, channeled through the breakdown of a sentient computer and a mysterious monolith on the moon.
Mario Bava’s space anxiety tale, Planet of the Vampires, was a major influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien (look for the mysterious spacecraft and alien remains), created on a shoestring budget. The iconic Italian director sets the scene with stylish, atmospheric visuals in his familiar gothic tone — a bizarre juxtaposition, but it works beautifully. The slow-burner finds members of a crashed spacecraft hunted by the possessed bodies of deceased crewmembers who are controlled by an alien force. Bava’s hypnotic camerawork and creepy score is arresting.
Paul W. S. Anderson’s take on space horror is reminiscent of Alien, reimagined as a pulpy B-movie with legitimately haunting touches. (Interestingly, the film was pitched as “The Shining in space.”) A rescue crew, led by Laurence Fishburne, boards the Event Horizon, which has been lost in space for some time. They discover that something terrible happened to the original engineers. Sam Neill’s Dr. William Weir, who designed the vessel, reveals that the ship creates wormholes so it can travel across great distances of space quickly. During one journey, it encounters something supernatural, which soon threatens to kill Fishburne’s crew.
Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, in an unforgettable performance) is finishing his three-year tour as a lone technician on a lunar mining station. He spends his days talking to a supercomputer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), building miniatures of his own hometown, and longing for his wife and daughter. A series of hallucinations and an accident inspires a chain of surreal events that leave us wondering if Sam has simply lost his mind or if the strange occurrences are actually real.
Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid’s Corporal and Lieutenant wake up on their spaceship from hypersleep. They can’t remember who they are or why they are there, but quickly discover that they’re not alone. The slow-burning, atmospheric story places us alongside the actors, so we’re grasping for answers with them, which heightens the psychological thrills in Pandorum‘s claustrophobic and isolated world.
Low-budget maestro Luigi Cozzi directed this B-grade Italian sci-fi horror flick, featuring Zombi‘s Ian McCulloch as an astronaut who uncovered alien life on another planet and has since become a drunk because no one believes his bizarre ramblings. The beings — which are meant to look like eggs or pods, but hilariously resemble avocados — have been brought back to earth and kill by spraying a toxic liquid on their victims, causing them to explode. There are fun lo-fi nods to Alien seen in the gross-out gore and violence. The film borrows from other Italian genre movies and boasts an underrated Goblin score.
A psychologist is summoned to a space station in order to investigate the truth behind the crew’s slipping grasp on reality. Solaris‘ chills aren’t inspired by creatures from the beyond, but rather the quiet madness of love lost, aching obsession, and the things that haunt us.
The director of Poltergeist and the writer of Alien (Tobe Hooper and Dan O’Bannon) made an effectively creepy sci-fi film in 1985 that featured space vampires who escape from a spaceship and inflict terror upon the city of London — potentially a metaphor for the increasingly dire AIDS crisis (if you can take this movie seriously, that is). Lifeforce is an over-the-top affair, with plenty of 1980’s ridiculousness, yet there’s something so wonderfully bizarre about the movie that it can’t be ignored. The film is known for Mathilda May’s nudity and Patrick Stewart kissing another man, but scenes of gore and suspense make it more than just a cult oddity.
Based on Ray Bradbury’s 1950 sci-fi short story collection, The Martian Chronicles, this Richard Matheson-adapted television film sets viewers in a truly eerie alien landscape where astronauts are hypnotized and poisoned by Martians (genuinely unsettling creatures) who convince them that they’re actually back on Earth and reunited with their dead relatives. From there, the madness spirals out of control.