Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, has received great reviews from critics and viewers alike since its release last Friday. The two stars (no pun intended) play astronauts who have to survive in the vacuum of space after a tragic accident occurs while they're in orbit. It's one of the few movies that seems to justify the use of 3-D technology and IMAX's panorama effect, because both serve to make the horror of being adrift in an endless void more tangible, especially as seen through to claustrophobic lens of an astronaut's helmet. In the spirit of the mind-shredding terror that is the space beyond our quaint little atmosphere (and beyond our breathable air, moderate temperatures, and solid ground), here is a list of five of the most terrifying space movies, and why they will make you glad that NASA is on furlough.
This franchise had several really great directors, as well as one of the most terrifying monsters ever created. The first film, Alien, was directed Ridley Scott, and set in a nihilistic, industrial dystopia. The towing ship Nostromo is sent into deep space to collect refined ore, presumably because earth has used up all it’s natural resources. The crew stops on a strange planet, which is where they encounter the xenomorph. Chest-bursting, flesh-ripping, and acid-spraying catastrophies ensue.
People have come up with a lot of theories as to what the Alien represents, but the one thing that's certain is that space — the majority of the universe — is indifferent and cold, and humanity is meaningless to it. The alien is the perfect embodiment of that indifference. It's foreign and inhuman, but somehow perfect in its soullessness. The character Ash says that the alien is a, "perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."
The second film was directed by James Cameron, who predictably turned it into Terminator in space with a horde of Aliens. The third was directed by David Fincher, who brought the story to an outlying space prison with some interesting characters. He also brought the number of aliens roaming around back down to one, which seems to be the right number of aliens per film.
Forget that Mayan calendar misprint. This movie touches on an apocalypse that we know for a fact will happen someday: our sun dying, leaving the earth a frozen wasteland, and then erupting into a red dwarf and consuming everything. Sunshine's dialogue has a desperate sadness that only Danny Boyle can deliver (he also nailed it in zombie apocalypse movie 28 Days Later). This movie is about a group of astronauts on a one-way trip to the dying sun to deliver a nuclear payload that will revive the star. The team leader, Robert Capa, is played by Cillian Murphy, who has a predilection for playing dark, tormented characters that find a way to thrive in chaos and terror. Along the way, characters are picked off by the harshness of space, burnt to a crisp by the sun, suffocated in the void of space, and killed by a crew member driven insane by the sublime, god-like nature of the sun. Looks like the Mayans got one thing right.
Have you ever wondered what the geographic location of hell is? Turns out it’s not at the center of the earth, but out in space, and all you need is a gravity drive and a black hole to get there. This interstellar thriller was directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, and is about a crew sent to rescue a vessel that went missing seven years prior while testing the artificial black hole technology to try an create a worm hole between two points in space. (Who thought that was a good idea?). When the crew gets to the lost ship, they find it has emerged from a hellish dimension carrying all of their nightmares, and that the ship intends to bring them back to hell with it. This film is a fun combination of old-school Latin devilry and futuristic technology. It fills the void of space with demon visions and sentient and satanic spaceships.
While this movie isn’t necessarily a horror film, there are plenty of tense moments and gory deaths. Directed by Brian De Palma, Mission to Mars tells the story of a recovery craft sent to save the remaining crewmember of the first manned mission to the red planet. The rest of the mission's crew was killed after they triggered an ancient alien defense system: a sentient whirlwind that rends anyone unfortunate enough to get caught by it. The rescue crew also experiences some pretty gruesome losses, the most notable being an instant death as a result of taking one's helmet off in space.
What's especially terrifying is what the characters discover about the alien civilization that came before them — and about human origins. And about how the plot of Prometheus is a bit of a rip off.
The crème de la crème, of course, is Stanley Kubrick's classic film about a space mission that traces the origin of mysterious black monoliths, and seeks to reveal why we, as a species, attain self-awareness. This film offers a multitude of beautiful and meaningful images that both entrance and disturb viewers on very deep level. The homicidal artificial intelligence Hal has become a cultural representation of the dangers of technology. Primitive apes discover violence, death, and ultimately, progress. Spheres elegantly and agonizingly dance in space. The Star-Child peers back at earth. These images will haunt you like existential ghosts, and leave you simultaneously satisfied and unsettled.