Films

The 10 most terrifying space films ever

Cinema and space travel have danced round each other ever since Georges Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon in 1902. There have been bizarre and boringly utopian visions of life beyond our atmosphere, but just as on Earth, it gets really interesting when things go wrong. Especially as, unlike on Earth, in space you’re an intruder in an environment your body is incapable of surviving in, sustained by vulnerable and unreliable technology, with nowhere to escape to if something goes wrong. Is it any wonder it’s been the location for some of the most terrifying films ever made? Join us, then, as we run the gamut from sublime to silly, and look at the most frightening rocket trips ever.

10. Moon

It’s hard to talk about 2009’s Moon without giving crucial details away, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading. Not only does it show a chilly future where a lonely astronaut toils away in almost total isolation, but it also gives us a dystopia where humans are cloned, for slave labour. Even for a genre where paranoia about corporations is rife, that is cold. Even more spookily, there’s a cruel logic to it.

Plausibility level: relatively high

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9. Saturn 3

Seventies camp, based on a genuinely frightening idea. Human scientists are deemed obsolete and are to be replaced by robots linked to other humans. However, the one arriving at Kirk Douglas’s space station has been programmed by a psychopathic Harvey Keitel.

Plausibility level: low

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8.Solaris

Many forget how creepy the 1972 Soviet classic is. It’s the story of a bereaved scientist visiting an outpost in deep space, one positioned next to a mysterious living planet that can read his mind and manifest figures from his memory – including his dead wife. This is bad, but even worse are the thoughts the film prompts on isolation, regret and loneliness – real-life horrors amplified by the setting.

Plausibility level: medium

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7. Galaxy of terror

This 1981 cheap’n’cheerful Alien knock-off from Roger Corman stands out for several reasons. James Cameron worked as production designer and second unit director, and the horrendous alien-worm-rape scene is one of the most genuinely repulsive things ever committed to film. Bad taste can make it out of our atmosphere, too.

Plausibility level: low

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6. Event horizon

More mind-reading, only this time by a malevolent ship that’s literally been to hell and back in an attempt to attain faster-than-light travel. For his 1997 film, director Paul W Anderson presumably had seen Solaris, as again the character’s imaginings are made flesh. Only this time, there’s human vivisection and a naked Sam Neill.

Plausibility level: low

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5. Sunshine

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Another what-can-go-wrong-does-go-wrong scenario, this 2007 film is essentially ‘Sod’s Law: The Movie’, as a mission to reignite the sun faces every problem conceivable. Many criticise its concluding shift into all-out horror, but there’s a deadly serious debate going on as Cillian Murphy is chased down the corridors by Mark Strong: is humanity worth saving? Strong’s hideously deformed astronaut doesn’t think so, convinced by the enormity of space that our extinction would be meaningless. Which is a pretty chilling thought.

Plausibility level: medium

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4. 2001: A Space Odyssey

Bearded brainiac Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi masterpiece has a street rep as an optimistic vision of a future of space stations and humanity reaching a higher plane of evolution. But don’t forget that long portions play out essentially as a horror film. Two astronauts are in charge of a brace of scientists in suspended animation, and their intelligent computer HAL starts to go a little wiggy, prompting a chain of events that culminate, horrifically, in one of the great soundless shots in film history. Hint: It involves an oxygen tube, and the vacuum of space.

Plausibility level: medium

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3. Gravity

Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, critics have been falling over themselves to declare Gravity one of the greatest space films of all time. After, that is, they’ve crowbarred their clenched hands from the seat rests. Yes, it’s that terrifying, taking her out of Speed and stranding her alone in the abyss with only a space suit, a rapidly diminishing oxygen tank and him from ER for company. Dazzlingly directed by Alfonso Cuaron, there’s never been a better presentation of the risks of space travel, and how vulnerable humanity is when we get out of our relatively tiny comfort zone. Essentially a distillation of every falling nightmare anyone has ever had, this one will be remembered for decades to come.

Plausibility level: terrifyingly high

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2. Marooned

It’s almost forgotten now, but Marooned was the Gravity of 1969, and is today far more than a retro curio. Made months before Apollo 11 was launched, it concerns an Apollo-based experimental space station that faces a mechanical failure and can’t return to Earth. In a ballsy move for the time, the astronauts aren’t the superhumans of The Right Stuff, but normal guys (including a young Gene Hackman) and they’re terrified. Built on the revelation that a successful space mission relies as much on good weather as on guys in Houston, it reportedly gave the wife of the Apollo 13 mission commander nightmares.

Plausibility level: high

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1. Alien

There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy. That’s a whole lot of room for all kinds of things to evolve. As if this wasn’t concerning enough, imagine being trapped in the middle of nowhere inside a giant tin can with one of these beasts for company. Alien (1979) plays ingeniously on both our insignificance in the vastness of space, and on the claustrophobia of travel in a pressurised box with a rocket on the end – with absolutely nowhere to escape to. Still a masterpiece of controlled terror. And putting people off their dinner.

Plausibility level: low

(Image: All Star)

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