With taxes, famine, war, and Piers Morgan all haunting our home planet its little wonder some of us look to the stars for comfort. Ninety nine per cent of space is unknown, which is a hell of a canvas upon which to project whatever we want. Planets full of cuddly space bears, ancient peace-loving religions, galaxy hopping space cruisers; Earth is a four-hour timeshare lecture in comparison. If only it were true though. The reality is far more ominous. You don’t even need to cross the bounds of Earth’s atmosphere before temperature drops and oxygen deficiencies are kicking your ass. Once in space a chilly minus two hundred and seventy degrees will set every liquid in your body to stone. Try and make it back to home soil and the friction of a speedy descent will cook you to a crisp. Even if you’re wearing a spacesuit an endless drift in to the black abyss will drain your air supply before you got anywhere near an alternative world. And if you found said planet it would likely be propagated by deadly organisms, poisonous gases and yet more crazy temperatures. Bottom line, when you head in to space shit happens. Hollywood are up to speed, so for every Star Wars there’s a Star Oh My God Why Did We Come Here. Here are the ten best should have stayed on terrafirma films.
- 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
By 1968 filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was forty and many years in to his cinema career. Despite only having six feature films in his back catalogue, it was a case of quality over quantity, Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964). The two traits Kubrick would be not for were set; he wouldn’t be rushed, and he would offer a masterpiece in every genre of cinema. Next up was science fiction. Pointed in the direction writer Arthur C. Clarke, the pair drew inspiration from the author’s short story The Sentinel and worked towards a simultaneous novel and film release. We follow the shuttle Discovery One as it journeys to Neptune to investigate a mysterious black monolith which has appeared on the planet. Before the monolith can be tackled though, the two man crew must address the growing problems with their ships artificially intelligent computer, HAL 9,000. What sounds like a straightforward plot belies nearly all of the film’s concepts. Musing in a grand but abstract fashion on the nature of alien life, human life, time and space, 2001 asks a lot of audiences, resulting at the time in opposing critical opinions at the time of release. Whilst everyone agreed it was the most startling visual presentation of space seen on a cinema screen, not everyone was wowed by the plots confounding bookends, scratching their heads over apes throwing bones, towering black slabs, and Bowman’s colourful trip to god knows where at the finale. But for those that can bring their own imagination and intellect to the table, 2001 remains one the landmarks of cinema and the starting point for every piece of modern sci-fi cinema that followed. Clarke released his own sequel novel in 1982, entitled 2010: Odyssey Two, itself brought to the screen two years later as 2010 by director Peter Hyams and telling the story of a joint American and Russian expedition to find out what happened to Discovery One.
Tasty Morsel – The film originally started with a ten minute interview sequence with actual scientists discussing extra-terrestrial life. The scene was removed following a screening to studio executives.
- SILENT RUNNING (1972)
Such was the uniqueness of 2001 it took four years before anyone tried to follow in its footsteps. Emanating from another strong literary source, in 1972 Russian cinematic auteur Andrei Tarkovsky delivered a cerebral and introspective take on Stanislaw Lem’s novel 1961 Solaris. More a study of self, space was a warm light field backdrop rather than a dark all-encompassing threat. That same year the visual effects genius behind 2001 offered a counter point to Tarkovsky, a film where space was once again an endlessly black chasm and the individual struggles to make a dent on it. Having turned in another winning sci-fi effects performance for The Andromeda Strain (1971) Douglas Trumball got behind the camera for the first time for Silent Running (1972). Bruce Dern is one of four crewmen aboard the Valley Forge, a giant space freighter hauling bio-domes of plant life back to Earth for reforestation. When orders come in to jettison the domes and return the hauler back to commercial service Dern decides to make a one man stand against the destruction of the precious greenery. The fragility of Earth compared to the vastness of space would become a well-trodden path in cinematic sci-fi but it was Trumball who got there first. Given the technical limitations of the time, the first time director presented a feast of practical science fiction effects. Around this Dern gives a bombastic film stealing display as the space hauler trying battling crewmates and space itself in an effort to preserve the Earth he remembers. The obvious climax isn’t delivered, but rather a bittersweet finale that the writers of Wall.E (2008) were clearly paying attention to.
Tasty Morsel – To save production costs Trumbull refused to heat the pool for Dern's skinny dipping scene, leaving the actor to wade in to a freezing pool in the altogether.
- ALIEN (1979)
Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s story for Alien took a while to reach 20th Century Fox. Having worked on Dark Star (1974) O’Bannon started work on a script called Memory about a ship of astronauts awoken from hypersleep by a distress beacon. When Shusett came on board inspiration was drawn from the artwork of H.R Giger and the reason for the beacon became apparent; the script was renamed Star Beast. After a round of unsuccessful sales pitches Roger Cormen’s studio showed interest. On the cusp of signing the deal, a friend offered one final throw at Fox via Gordon Carroll, David Giler and Walter Hill’s Brandywine production company. Some script rewrites later Fox were on board. Ridley Scott wasn’t first choice for director but after the success of Star Wars (1977) space themed fare was in vogue and the budget for the renamed Alien was upped considerably; Scott took the director’s chair. Solving his biggest headache, O’Bannon pointed him to the work of Giger and the question of what the alien would look like was answered. The additional stroke of genius from Scott was to keep the creature hidden for most of the film. The creature’s state is never stable, moving from egg, to facehugger, to chestburster, to fully grown, only offering brief unsettling glimpses at each stage. The icing on top were the seven crew members on the menu. The script didn’t assign sex to any of the characters so Scott was free to build the crew he wanted. A middle-aged, weathered group of everyday people complimented the worn, lived-in, authentic feel of the Nostromo. This perfect combo of character, monster and setting remains the most terrifying venture in to space to date.
Tasty Morsel - The original name for the ship in Alien was Snark. It was later changed to Leviathan before Scott finally settled on Nostromo.
- APOLLO 13 (1995)
And you think people have a short attention span now. Back in 1969 the first moon landing by Apollo 11 was one of the biggest events in the history of human kind. Just a year later people have already started to lose interest. For NASA it was almost just as well then that their Apollo 13 mission was a headline grabbing near disaster. Public interest in NASA and space flight got a much needed boost and the occupants of the Apollo 13 craft became almost as famous as their moon walking predecessors. Jim Lovell, commander of the mission, co-wrote a book detailing the events Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, which was released in early 1994. Even before that discussions of a movie adaptation were circulating around Hollywood, but it was his book which formed the basis of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995). A relatively straight forward telling of the events of 11th to 17th April 1970, all Howard really needed to do for cinematic success was replay what actually happened in the Apollo 13 capsule and back at NASA headquarters. What pushed elevated Apollo 13 well beyond the level of mere docu-drama though was the fantastic cast Howard assembled. Backing American nice-guy for the ages Tom Hanks as Lovell was a cast of some of the great character actors of the time. Ed Harris, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, Xander Berkeley and others handle the script masterfully, despite the often dry nature of the technicalities of space flight and rescue. Such are the performances, what would have been a very procedural story becomes a completely human one. So invested are we in Hanks, Bacon and Paxton’s fate the authenticity of Howard’s film almost gets overlooked. But his work in capturing a realistic venture in to space should not be underestimated. Apollo 13 was the first film to present the realities of actual space flight on the big screen. Audiences and critics approved, earning a $355million box office take on a $50million budget.
Tasty Morsel – Real Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell appears in the film as the captain of the recovery ship the USS Iwo Jima.
- EVENT HORIZON (1997)
Somewhere in time a version of Event Horizon exists which rivals Alien as one of the creepiest and blood soaked space thrillers ever created. That the version released, hacked to pieces by director Paul WS Anderson at the insistence of studio Paramount, is still a fantastic horror film is both a joyous feat and a sad what-could-have-been. With James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) hurtling towards a $200million budget, on set issues pushed the release date back to September 1997. Paramount needed a summer blockbuster to fill the void and tasked Anderson with completing Event Horizon with a six week editing schedule, four weeks less than the industry standard. Following a test screening of its 130 minute initial cut, executives balked at the films length and excessive gore. With no time left to work on the edit Anderson took a knife to his project. That the resulting movie is still a brilliant slice of sci-fi horror is a testament to Anderson. Throwing chunks of Alien (1979), Hellraiser (1987), and The Shining (1980) in a blender, Event Horizon is a gothic haunting in space with hellish overtones. We follow the crew of the Lewis and Clarke as they journey to Neptune to intercept the Event Horizon, an experimental spaceship which disappeared years earlier but has miraculously reappeared. Where its been and what has happened to its crew kick starts the mystery and the terror. Despite Anderson’s efforts the film was not well received by critics and only achieved a third of its $60million budget at the box office. Though it has since been reappraised as an underappreciated genre classic, the excised footage that Anderson was forced to chop was controversially lost not long after release. All hopes of a restored director’s cut in all its gory glory disappeared with it.
Tasty Morsel – The model of the Event Horizon used in the film includes an X-Wing from Star Wars. Eagle-eyed viewers can spot in on the ships antenna when the Lewis & Clarke carries out its initial flyby.
- SUNSHINE (2007)
Danny Boyle doesn’t do big budget. It was an unusual move then to venture in to space for an epic Earth saving venture. That it was former collaborator Alex Garland offering him the script sealed the deal, the writer having already worked with Boyle on The Beach (2000) and 28 Days Later (2002). Cutting to the chase to preserve the modest £40million budget, Sunshine’s opening voiceover sets the scene; the Sun is dying, Earth has become an ice cube, and the only way to reverse the damage is to steer a Manhattan Island sized bomb in to the fading star. Cut to a group of astronauts cut from the same world-weary cloth as the Nostromo’s crew, months in to a possible one way mission to save mankind. If the Icarus II looks like an unstable ship for a world saving operation, its because it is, and no sooner have we met its occupants then things start going wrong. Inevitable explosions and hull breaches send the Icarus II scuttling for its doomed predecessor the Icarus I. Once there though an unexpected find threatens the entire venture. Whilst Sunshine’s twists are fairly predictable and its space logic questionable even to those with an unscientific mind, Boyle’s talent as a director carries the film forward fantastically. The script is tight, the action fast, and the superbly written characterisation is sprinkled between the plot twists with genius efficiency. A cast of actors on the cusp of their big breaks, including Chris Evans, Rose Byrne and Mark Strong, raise the quality bar further. Boyle seals the deal with a unique visual style that jarringly captures the overwhelming unknown of deep space and searing heat of the sun from only a few miles away.
Tasty Morsel – For those worried types, the sun won’t actually burn itself out until another four billion years, becoming gradually hotter, not colder as shown in Sunshine.
- PANDORUM (2009)
The current record for the longest amount of time in space belongs to Valery Polyakov. The Russian cosmonaut was aboard the Mir space station for 483 days in a row from January 1994 to March 1995. Rigorous tests followed his return to Earth and showed that there were no lasting adverse effects on such a prolonged stay in space. Hollywood likes to go that much further though, and the invention of ‘hypersleep’ has allowed screenwriters to fire off cast members in to the deepest reaches of space for years at a time. A convenient get-around for tales that require deep space exploration, no one gave consideration to the effects of an extended stay in space until German director Christian Alvert got together with writer Travis Milloy for Pandorum (2009). It’s the year 2174 and Earth is finally full to breaking point. To save the species 60,000 lucky folk have been packed aboard the supersized Elysium spaceship for an 123 year trip to Tanis, a planet with similar properties to Earth. Selected crew members are awoken every two years to service the ship, but when two senior officers awake with amnesia and vital parts of the ship locked off they must battle the onset of ‘orbital dysfunctional syndrome’ to find out just what has gone wrong. When it transpires someone or something is also awake with them on the ship ODS becomes the least of their worries. Alvert’s film makes little effort to hide its influences, Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), The Descent (2005)¸but rather than create a lazy carbon copy Pandorum uses the familiar to launch in to a refreshingly new tale with a generous amount of unpredictable twists and turns, each one building the nightmare for the leads Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster. Where the story ends up is a location few viewers would guess at the start of the film. Largely ignored by critics upon release Pandorum has built a healthy following as a cult classic, so much as an online petition has garnered thousands of signatures urging Milloy and Alvert to deliver the prequel and sequel discussed during the film’s marketing campaign.
Tasty Morsel – Walking Dead superstar Norman Reedus makes his second appearance for Germ director Alvert, having previously starred in the filmmakers Antibodies (2005).
- MOON (2009)
It’s fitting that the debut feature from British director Duncan Jones is a stark, retro-tinged, sinister trip to outer space, given that Jones’ father is none other than the late musical stargazer himself David Bowie. Taking the admirable step not to use his father’s famous surname, Jones started his career as a commercial director before joining forces with writer Nathan Parker for his cinematic debut Moon (2009). As first forays go it was as good a first feature as has ever been offered by a first time director. Sam Rockwell gives the performance of his career as Sam Bell, a man coming to the end of a three year contract mining helium-3 on the far side of the moon, 1,095 days spent with just his robot companion GERTY for company. With just two weeks to go before he can return home Sam starts to experience hallucinations, one of which causes him to crash his rover vehicle. Waking up in the moonbase infirmary awaiting a rescue Sam begins to suspect that his contract and the mining operation isn’t at all what it appears to be. Though Jones’ influences, his favoured sci-fi pictures from his childhood Silent Running (1972), Dark Star (1974), Outland (1981), we never hidden, the unique style Jones has arrives so fully formed Moon is more the sort of picture you would expect from a director many years into a career. Space will always provide a ready-made tension and a stark backdrop but Moon doesn’t rely on these well used tropes alone; a unique study in to the nature of what it means to be human is threaded masterfully amongst an unnerving story. With a nod to his father’s musical brilliance, proceedings are wonderfully scored by a brilliant Clint Mansell soundtrack, as jarringly sparse and arresting as Jones’ superb visual design.
Tasty Morsel – Look out for the shelf in the galley marked Soylent; something green on the dinner menu for Sam?
- GRAVITY (2013)
Despite promises by the likes of Richard Branson and Elon Musk that space travel will be within reach of the average traveller in a few years to come, the reality is there probably isn’t a person alive now that will be commuting through the stars within their lifetime. The closest any of us will get to the reality of seeing our home planet from above is Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). Like nearly all cinematic ventures to space the big screen is truly the home of Gravity. Though just as riveting on the small screen, the dizzying cinematography and frighteningly limitless expanse of our solar system lose their edge. Even so, if you ever needed a film to put you off space travel for life Gravity is it. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are out on a routine spacewalk to service the Hubble telescope when space debris from a destroyed Russian satellite batters them in to a tailspin which threatens to leave them drifting in space for as long as their limited oxygen supply will support them. The minutia of how to survive in space with limited equipment becomes the story, with Bullock giving the acting performance of her career as her Dr. Ryan Stone has to tackle everything space can throw at her. Viewed as a whole her situation seems impossible, but taken as small challenges and victories Stone gradually clings on to life in the most inhospitable environment human kind has thus far found to put themselves in. The daunting challenges faced by Stone and wonderfully counterpointed by Curaon’s achingly beautiful cinematography; Earth from space never looked so stunning, none more so than the opening thirteen minute sequence when visual wonder turns to disaster. Even when things go south for Stone though Curaon still keeps the visual treats coming as every modern cinematic trick is employed to keep the viewer as on edge and startled as Stone is.
Tasty Morsel – With the exception of the film's final scene the entire movie was shot on green screen.
- INTERSTELLAR (2014)
At its time of release FilmsFilmsFilms espoused Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar as one of the masterpieces of this century of cinema. Our assessment still stands as such, but in the Nolan back catalogue and the general opinion of moviegoers Interstellar seems to have become a big of a forgotten feature. It probably doesn’t help having to go up against a Nolan back catalogue of classics that seems to grown every year, Memento (2000), The Insomnia (2002), The Prestige (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), Dunkirk (2017). Interstellar is perhaps not an easy film to get on with. When we meet Matthew McConaughey’s Coop it’s on a future Earth that has been decimated by our own hand, by people more obsessed with twiddling with the electronic device, by overpopulation without a care as to whether our planet can actually support the children most of us are choosing to have. It’s a fair bet that this is most of you reading this; it’s not a particularly welcoming story set-up. On top of that there is the film’s transition from big to small screen. In cinemas Interstellar was breath-taking, one of the most visually stunning representations of space ever seen. Scaled down to television size the impact isn’t quite as great. And then there’s the ending. Taking considerable time to build towards a mind bending climax involving rifts in space time and inter-dimensional hypothesis, the best way Nolan found to represent this was an underwhelming kaleidoscope effect. Despite these small faults Interstellar is still one of the biggest achievements in modern storytelling. Not afraid to credit its audience with the intelligence to wrap their head around a fully realised tale of our planets survival and its place amongst the stars, Nolan’s film ask big questions against a backdrop of even bigger set-pieces and grand acting performances. Topped off with Hans Zimmer’s best ever soundtrack its little wonder we place Interstellar on such a high pedestal.
Tasty Morsel – For the cornfield scenes Nolan grew an actual 500 acre field of corn, which later sold at a profit.