Overture's Pandorum marks a new cinematic space journey that goes awry. Unfortunately, the genre has a spotty record.

Another Trip to Space

on September 24, 2009 by Tyler Foster


The trailer for the sci-fi thriller Pandorum has the movie's hook written right into it: "What if you awoke with no memory? What if the world you knew was gone? What if you discovered ... you were not alone?"

An intriguing premise, to be sure, but Pandorum is definitely "not alone" when it comes to stranded-in-space horror-thrillers. Starting with Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) through to Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) and Pandorum, filmmakers have been eager to explore not only the final frontier but to study its more terrifying aspects. It's not enough to be somewhere that isn't Earth, either; a few films like Mission to Mars and Red Planet attempted to explore our neighbor after we landed rovers there in January 2004, but filmmakers ultimately chose to head back out into uncharted territory.

When asked why the isolation of space is more potent than, say, the isolation of John Carpenter's The Thing (set in Antarctica) or a film like Cast Away, SciFi Wire and Horror.com writer Staci Layne Wilson says, "[It's] because islands and the Antarctica are on Earth. We were all born on this planet, and even if we're unfamiliar with certain areas of its terrain, intellectually we know where we are. Space is truly unknown and unpredictable, and at the moment, uninhabitable."

Here's a short look into the history of outer-space horror (both good and bad):

Alien (1979)

Seven crew members on commercial mining ship Nostromo respond to a distress call from a nearby planet and head to investigate. They return with one of their group members paralyzed by a creature latched onto his face; a creature that eventually gives birth to the Alien (or Xenomorph, as it's sometimes called), which wreaks havoc on their ship. Alien was only Ridley Scott's second film, but it shot the director and his star Sigourney Weaver to stardom, racked up $78.9 million in its initial release—which equals around $230 million when adjusting for inflation—and spawned three sequels and a spin-off franchise. "I think Ridley Scott got it right in Alien," comments Wilson. "He used the contrast of claustrophobia and the great wide open to perfection, perfectly exploiting the reasons each is equally scary." Today, Scott is working on a prequel with plans to direct it, marking the first stand-alone Alien film since 1997.

Event Horizon (1997)

Pitched to the studio as " The Shining in space", Event Horizon tracks the slow and terrifying mental decline of a group of astronauts who get sucked into a black hole and mysteriously reappear seven years later. Director Paul W.S. Anderson ( Resident Evil ) stages plenty of splatter in this vivid, striking looking film and talented cast members Sam Neill ( Jurassic Park ) and Laurence Fishburne try their best, but as a whole, the movie fails to gel. Audiences seemed to agree, with the film taking in only $26.6 million against an estimated $50 million budget, although the film has gained a cult audience on DVD.

Lost in Space (1998)

Okay, okay, Lost in Space is certainly not a horror movie, but it does hit some of the same notes when the Robinson Family discovers an abandoned spaceship, and again when they find themselves stranded on an alien planet. Unfortunately, with its numerous imitations of Star Wars, gaudy "futuristic" production design, and, perhaps, the most terrifying thing on the list: an extremely cartoonish all-CG space monkey, Lost in Space did not sit well with audiences. It raked in $69.1 million domestically in August 1998—not too shabby, even against the $80 million cost—but it wasn't the franchise-starter New Line was clearly hoping for.

Supernova (2000)

A six-member crew rescues a mysterious man with a dangerous artifact, and discovers they're caught in the gravitational pull of a star on the verge of exploding. Right from the beginning, the production of Supernova was problematic. Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright quit five weeks before filming. Veteran action director and Alien producer Walter Hill stepped in to make the movie, but the studio didn't like the cut that Hill presented, so they had Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola step in and give it another pass. It didn't help. Supernova made $14.2 million against a $60 million budget. Even on DVD, the film wasn't left alone; the studio restored footage they'd cut from the PG-13 theatrical version to create an R-rated DVD.

Sunshine (2007)

In the future, the sun has begun to dim, so a crew of scientists is sent out with a nuclear bomb, hoping to drop the explosive in and "restart" the dying star. When that crew fails, a second crew is sent out, but in responding to a signal from the original crew, everything goes haywire. Sunshine bears several similarities to Event Horizon, and for the first two acts, it plays like a more refined, sophsticated version of Anderson's film. Most viewers, however, were turned off by a shift in the third act. Either way, the visuals created by director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler are stunning; Sunshine is almost certainly the best-looking film of the bunch. Of all the films on this list, it was the least successful, grossing only $3.6 million domestically against a $50 million budget.

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