With “The Martian” coming up on Friday, it’s a great time to visit a rarely discussed category of movies: “stranded in space.” Whether it’s on an alien planet or alone in a spaceship, the concept has been done very well and very badly—we’re looking at you, “Red Planet”—at different points in time. Because “stranded in space” covers a wide gamut of potential subgenres, you’ll find both alien monster confrontations and more realistic, scientific approaches to the concept below.
First, a few runners up. “Event Horizon” is reliably eerie, but it gets increasingly melodramatic and emphatically cheesy as it develops. “Europa Report” has some beautiful moments, but it just doesn’t hold together as a narrative. “Silent Running” is a classic, but the 1972 eco-fable barely held up when it was released, let alone today. Its message resonates; its delivery is sometimes difficult to take. Pitch Black presents a beautifully realized desolate planet for a great sci-fi cast to investigate, but the creature feature that makes up its second half doesn’t gel in a way that makes it essential. Similarly, “Riddick” has a great “man and his space dog” initial half hour before wandering into cheesier territory. The severely underrated “John Carter” is really an inversion: it’s about being stranded from space, not stranded in it. Ignoring a personal love for 1995 cult classic “Screamers” and resisting the temptation to throw “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” in here and argue that the endearing alien is technically stranded in space himself, let’s dive in to a very eclectic list:
Fresh off the heels of “Das Boot” and “The NeverEnding Story,” director Wolfgang Petersen delivered a forgotten gem. Willis (Dennis Quaid) is shot down over an alien planet and encounters an enemy soldier—a Drac alien called Jeriba (Louis Gossett Jr.) The two must come to rely on each other in order to survive. It’s informed by the novel and the earth-based “Hell in the Pacific,” in which an American and Japanese soldier (Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune) had to survive stranded on an island during World War 2. “Enemy Mine” has more than a few tricks up its sleeve that take advantage of its sci-fi trappings.
The indie sci-fi movie Danny Boyle directed just before “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” “Sunshine” follows a group of astronauts attempting a last-ditch effort to re-spark a dying sun. The first half of the film deals with the incredible impact even small miscalculations can have. The crew is on edge after years in space, mistakes are made, and the fallout endangers the return trip, their ability to save humanity, and finally their lives. Turning on its heel halfway through and becoming a metaphysical monster movie never fails to throw viewers. It reveals what Boyle really wants to investigate in “Sunshine:” at what cost a human being will knowingly sacrifice his or her life. Where’s the line? That’s the question with which Boyle confronts his characters. As in most Boyle films, the quality of the cast sneaks up on you: Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and Cillian Murphy each give stellar performances.
The end-all, be-all of astronaut movies (yes, we see you puffing out your chest, “The Right Stuff”), Apollo 13 ditches the machismo of many astronaut movies and embraces the intellect, the science and the creativity that really got humanity into space. It’s based on—and very loyal to—true history. When the Apollo 13 mission breaks down on its way to the moon, scientists in flight and on the ground need to think their way around the physics and mechanics required to get the crew back to Earth. “Apollo 13” contains one of Tom Hanks’ best performances.
For something different in this category, let’s visit with William Shatner. Yes, “Star Trek” movies haven’t typically been very good, but “The Wrath of Khan” opened up new possibilities for the franchise. Bringing back Khan in full Ricardo Mantalban-inspired glory, the film played like “Moby Dick” from the whale’s perspective. Yes, this treats the entire ship as stranded, but the crippled “Enterprise” must employ guile and sacrifice in order to escape its obsessed pursuer. Easily the best of the “Star Trek” movies, it has yet to really find an equal in terms of giving viewers a movie-length, cinematic space battle.
Prepare for something that will make most film geeks shriek: Steven Soderbergh’s quiet “Solaris” is a better film than the Andrei Tarkovsky original. As much as I want to include something non-English in here, it’s difficult for a number of reasons. First off, other filmmaking cultures aren’t so focused on space. They realize other settings in ways we can’t, but we seem to have space tied up for the moment. Secondly, the greatest argument for a non-English inclusion is the Soviet 1972 version of “Solaris,” and it’s one of Tarkovsky’s less focused movies.
Its remake is a profound commentary on memory, as an astronaut (George Clooney) circles a seemingly telepathic planet which keeps resurrecting his dead wife. Based on his memories, however, these resurrections are empty shells, inaccurate snapshots of his most depressing memories of her. She mirrors his inability to remember her as she was, and he struggles to make her more than just a function of his depression. To quote David Edelstein at Vulture, Soderbergh’s version is “like listening to a minor-key piece of chamber music—a threnody for the dead set against a planet that’s like an abstract painting of woe.”
Back in 1956, when Leslie Nielsen was an up-and-coming dramatic actor, MGM mounted the very first big budget extraterrestrial escapade. An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the classic “Forbidden Planet” was surprisingly complex science-fiction. When an entire colony goes silent, a crew is sent to find the reason why. They find only a stranded young woman and her father still alive, living in comfort and yet hiding a vast secret. What follows is a film that legitimized science-fiction among Hollywood studios. It even convinced Gene Roddenberry that launching a TV show in space—a show that became “Star Trek”—might be a viable enterprise. “Forbidden Planet” still holds up beautifully today. It may be an artifact of its time, but it’s the kind of polished gem that really doesn’t fade.
While “Alien” is the superior film of the franchise, its players are never really stranded. They’re trapped, yes, but their ship is never broken—it’s merely incredibly slow in getting where it’s going. It’s splitting hairs, but there is an underrated film in the franchise in which the inhabitants of the movie really are stranded: “Alien 3.” Yes, certain parts are messy, but it’s the most psychologically driven film in the franchise. “Alien 3” was, essentially, a great big middle finger that director David Fincher aimed squarely at James Cameron’s “Aliens.” (Don’t worry, it’s OK to like both!)
While “Aliens” may be the more polished film, it also left behind much of what made Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” so compelling. “Alien 3” took the comically oversized arsenal away and left a population armed only with the occasional fire axe or lead pipe. They could do nothing against the terrifying creature they faced. It came down to guile and then to an impossible choice on hero Ellen Ripley’s part. It was the perfect psychological coda that said to audiences, “Who cares what’s satisfying, this is what’s right.” Despite failing in the theaters, it established “Alien” firmly as a horror franchise meant to scar, not an action franchise meant to worship splatter. Studio interference and issues with funding led to the alien itself being used sparingly, but the parts of “Alien 3” that are right absolutely sing.
Gravity is like an existential nightmare. When satellite debris destroys her space shuttle in orbit around earth, astronaut Ryan Stone has to MacGuyver her way to safety. Yet it doesn’t play as a survival story per se. Sandra Bullock’s singular performance gives viewers something else: a hero who feels overwhelmed, just like they are. She doesn’t keep a stiff upper lip, nor does she keep from breaking down. There are moments when she’s ready to give up. Who hasn’t been there, and so who can keep themselves from staring at the screen and seeing themselves in her shoes? It could be a debris field in space, or it could be a bill in the mail, a difficult phone call from a loved one, or a health problem. It’s that moment of breaking down that “Gravity” burrows into and finds its way around, that desperate distance from human connection, that feeling that everything’s lost and, well, maybe that’s what the universe wanted the whole time anyway: for you to lose. And then she rises to the occasion despite how impossible it seems and, somehow, day after day, so do we.
Yes, this is really second. What’s going on? Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” is as close to science-fiction royalty as it gets, one of the few genre movies let into the same club as the classic dramas and war movies that get treated as cinema’s golden children. That’s what makes critics treat “2001” like “Citizen Kane.” It is sci-fi’s official “best movie ever,” but it’s number one by an unvoiced consensus. If critics put something else up there, something not allowed to play with the dramas and war films, they might get laughed out. And so they keep “2001” minted in its spot, unwilling to move it lest sci-fi be denied serious consideration at all. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is brilliant, groundbreaking cinema. It is one of the best realizations of big idea science-fiction, but it does not hold sole claim to the spot any longer.
For years, Duncan Jones’ greatest claim to fame was being the son of David Bowie. Now, he’s either known best for his upcoming “Warcraft” movie or he’s mistaken for the similarly named member of the Yogscast. Yet with 2009’s “Moon,” Jones directed arguably the greatest science-fiction movie ever put to screen. The story of an astronaut contracted to mine helium-3 on the moon, things start going haywire when Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) rescues a person who seems to be his own self. Is he hallucinating his doppelganger, is there any way to escape, and can he trust the only company he’s got up there outside himself—a passive-aggressive robot who puts corporate interests first, voiced by Kevin Spacey. Rockwell is exceptional, and this is a film that can both bleed tears from you and rile you to anger.
How would you order these films? Is there something we missed?