Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Houston, we have problems: A cinematic guide to what can go wrong in space

Photo: Movie Poster Image Art (Getty Images), Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

The study of space dates back millennia, long before the same ancient humans pondering the sun could fathom just how we’d get beyond our own stratosphere (and before the word “stratosphere” even existed). Science fiction stepped in to fill that void, with the literary works of Johannes Kepler, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne giving way to films that charted the stars. Since 1902’s A Trip To The Moon, movies set in space have just gotten bigger, louder, and more thematically complex. By the ’70s and ’80s, whole franchises were taking place in galaxies far, far away, but the filmmakers behind these explorations have never lost sight of what makes space so alluring—and dangerous. These cinematic perils range from the believable, like equipment failure aboard the Apollo 13 or the possibly prescient rogue artificial intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey—which turned 50 this month—to taking a wrong turn and ending up in hell or at the mercy of a transported slasher. Look, we’d all like to skip on the moon or discover a new (hopefully habitable) planet, but as this inventory shows, such voyages would first strain our mettle—and metal—to the limits.

1. Equipment failure

The most ordinary (and with good reason) hurdle for cinematic trips to the stars, malfunctioning equipment has nonetheless threatened to derail plenty of celluloid missions. James Caan played one of the first fictional humans in space in Robert Altman’s Cold War thriller Countdown, where he was almost stranded thanks to a malfunctioning power source. Not long after, the engine failure in 1969’s Marooned, a sci-fi survival film that’s in many ways a spiritual predecessor to The Martian and Gravity, imperiled the lives of Gene Hackman, Richard Crenna, and James Franciscus. The Apollo 11 moon landing bolstered the success of that adaptation of Martin Caidin’s novel, but it was the aborted Apollo 13 mission, with its exploding oxygen tanks, that got the big-screen treatment from Ron Howard, and nine nominations from the Academy. The real-life U.S. Space Camp inspired the 1986 romp SpaceCamp, which stars Kelly Preston, Lea Thompson, a young Joaquin (né Leaf) Phoenix, some malfunctioning oxygen tanks, and a damaged robot that sends them into space. And in what was already a restrained affair, Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report relies on engine failure to thwart the crew’s return, along with traces of life found on Jupiter’s moon. [Danette Chavez]

2. Space debris

Aside from shoddy equipment and corporate machinations, space debris (or, in lay terms, space junk) poses the most realistic threat to would-be explorers. In addition to the remnants of celestial impacts, there are now thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth, and they’re all losing bits and pieces due to erosion, disintegration, or collision, which in turn can damage other satellites. For the most part, regular old space junk has wreaked havoc in disaster/sci-fi hybrids—Deep Impact and Armageddon are like Kessler effects unto themselves—while cascading artificial objects underscored the themes of human failure and progress in Alfonso Cuarón’s more grounded space-exploration film, Gravity. The fact that the chain reaction that leaves Sandra Bullock swinging around in space—a predicament perfectly captured by the director’s signature tracking shots—is set off by a Russian missile strike on an old satellite is really just the freeze-dried cherry on the allusive sundae. More recently, the events of 2016’s Passengers were kicked off by the ship running afoul of an asteroid field while the crew is in hypersleep. The debris causes a malfunction that rouses Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) from hibernation early, but it’s the character’s own selfishness that ruins things for Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence). Sometimes, space hell is other people. [Danette Chavez]

3. Manipulated by corporations

The worst thing about having a job in space is that it’s still, fundamentally, a job. That, more than any acid-blooded penis-crab or freaky H.R. Giger tongue-mouth, was the true dark realization of Ridley Scott’s blue collar horror epic Alien, a space movie where your boss is just as likely to get you killed as some kind of extraterrestrial threat. After all, the crew of the Nostromo could not care less about a beeping alien distress beacon—they’re truckers, basically, not heroes—so it’s only company protocol, and the threat of forfeited paychecks, that gets them down to the surface of LV-426 to get turned into monster food in the first place. And while there is an evil android Ian Holm onboard, sabotaging their efforts to survive, there’s no indication that Ash is doing anything other than what he was programmed to do: protect the company’s bottom line, above all else. (If Scott’s film was set in 2018, and not the distant future, he’d probably have a cushy bonus waiting for him back on Earth, and a fully stocked 401k.) [William Hughes]

4. Good old-fashioned mutiny

In late December of 1973, Skylab 4 halted all communications with mission control. Protesting the grueling work of what was then the longest manned mission to space, Gerry Carr, Bill Pogue, and Ed Gibson ignored all tasks in an unscheduled day off that counts as the first (and so far only) mutiny in NASA history. But there’s plenty of precedent for such actions in science fiction: 1965’s Mutiny In Outer Space pitted the crew of Space Station X-7 against their own commander, whose bout of “space raptures” are inconveniently timed with the arrival of an alien fungus that’s overtaking the station in an attempt to reach Earth. A full-scale interstellar insurrection is the subject of 1988’s Space Mutiny, a South African turkey that recycles special effects sequences (and some of the space-ark premise) from the original Battlestar Galactica in service of a paint-by-numbers, discontinuity-riddled military coup on a craft with a remarkably large basement. Space Mutiny reached a new audience when it was featured in the eighth season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which is only appropriate considering that one of that show’s biggest conceptual and visual inspirations also concerns a mutiny in space. In Silent Running, Bruce Dern offs his crewmates and seizes control of their freighter, the Valley Forge, after refusing orders to destroy some precious cargo: the remains of Earth’s last forests. Carr, Pogue, and Gibson would be permanently grounded after their Skylab 4 antics; for Dern’s character, the consequences are much more existential. [Erik Adams]

5. Rogue AI

Artificial intelligences should be the perfect shipmate. They don’t eat, they don’t sleep, they don’t smell or get tired or talk when unwanted. And yet, as we know from science fiction, they are the fucking worst. Sometimes, they’re too smart for their own good. Of course we have HAL 9000, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, who became sentient and murderous, his unfeeling, all-seeing eye an eternal image of the dangers of man’s creation. Dark Star took that a step further, with a bomb that accidentally learns Cartesian doubt, and does the only thing bombs know how to do. Even comedies aren’t safe from AI going on the fritz. In WALL-E, a ship housing the last vestiges of humanity is controlled by a corporate AI whose will supersedes even the captain, leading to a full-scale mutiny. A short-circuiting AI sends the airplane from Airplane II spiraling into insanity. The point, in all of these, is this: If you are going to venture into a territory as hostile and lifeless as the depths of space, do not rely on a damn computer to keep you safe. Stock up on food and keep a hand on the tiller yourself. [Clayton Purdom]

6. Space madness

The mental rigors of space exploration go hand in hand with the physical ones—though real-life astronauts gaze upon the vastness of our corner of the galaxy, they do so under the strictest of conditions. They’re confined most of the time, and every bodily function is measured or controlled. It’s no wonder that astronauts have trouble readjusting when they’re terra-bound again, a subject Noah Hawley and Natalie Portman will explore in the upcoming Pale Blue Dot. But onscreen scientists have experienced, shall we say, mental duress, on interplanetary voyages for decades now, albeit in ways not exactly tethered to reality. The 1979 film The Black Hole earned Disney its first PG rating with lobotomies for the whole Cygnus crew, courtesy of the mad Dr. Reinhardt, who just wanted to see what was on the other side of the eponymous chunk of spacetime. Playing to type, Brad Dourif became obsessed with the Xenomorphs as an unhinged scientist in Alien: Resurrection, even helping the damn things to propagate aboard the space station. And though a whole lot of bad stuff befalls the Icarus II crew on their way to reignite our local star in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, it’s the deranged Captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong) who puts their mission in danger in accordance with Alex Garland’s script. Then there’s 2009’s Pandorum, which is named after the fictional form of psychosis that takes the ship’s crewmembers—including Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster—down one by one. Space madness isn’t always incurable, or even madness, though; in William Eubank’s Love, astronaut Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) experiences crushing loneliness that leads to extreme tattooing before giving way to an extraordinary discovery. [Danette Chavez]

7. Aliens—they just grow up too damn fast

The first cases of syphilis, the sexually transmitted disease whose complex and deceptive symptoms are coded into the tropes of body horror, weren’t recorded in Europe until the mid-1490s, leading to one popular theory: that the disease arrived as a bacterium from the Americas (namely, Columbus’ colony at Hispaniola) and rapidly evolved into its venereal form. Thus, as alien invasions of Earth seem to reflect imperialist anxieties (beginning with the obvious example of The War Of The Worlds), so space itself seems to breed creepy crypto-colonialist fears. Alien, the cornerstone of the genre, even offered up a monster that doubled as a grotesque parody of human reproduction and anatomy: the schlong-headed xenomorph, which stalks the crew of the Nostromo, a space tug named after a novel by Joseph Conrad, the master of colonialist and imperialist madness. But the lurking extraterrestrial menace found in the average Alien take-off (ranging from the relatively big-budget Life to the sublimely titled Inseminoid) tends to be less intertextual: a spore or sample that grows rapidly into a slithery, expedition-killing predator in close quarters, upending the human crew’s top-of-the-food-chain status. Whatever threat it is that’s waiting to germinate on distant planets, it’s got something to do with what we’re afraid of back home. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

8. There’s a killer on the loose

There’s no real good place to encounter an invincible supernatural killer, but space has to be among the worst. Sprinting out into the airless void would be just as deadly as getting cornered by a machete-wielding maniac, and even if you were able to send out a distress signal, even the slowest-moving slasher would be able to catch up to you before help arrived. Perhaps that’s why sending their villains to space has been such a reliable crutch for horror franchises in need of a gimmick: There’s Hellraiser 4: Bloodline, which sees Pinhead and his minions stalking the crew of a spaceship built in the shape of a giant puzzle box, just one of three storylines in this overstuffed, Alan Smithee-directed sequel. But while Hellraiser 4 suffers from an excess of ideas, Leprechaun 4: In Space has the opposite problem, attempting to conceal the franchise’s overall lack of direction with cheap clip-art effects and cheesy one-liners. (That being said, a leprechaun popping out of an unsuspecting victim’s genitalia is about as creative as it gets.) And although no one could ever accuse the Friday The 13th franchise of being creative in anything but its kills, the series managed to go nine movies before resorting to blasting Jason Voorhees into space—and giving him a makeover while they were at it. [Katie Rife]

9. Detour into the supernatural

The isolation of space, combined with the ineffable mysteries it holds—all its theoretical wormholes and slippery time dilations, governed by an unpredictable and impersonal cosmic force—makes it a natural spot to meet the supernatural. Sometimes, these encounters can be benevolent—tossing you into a dimension where you can throw books at your daughter, say, like in Interstellar, or showing you the complete path of your life from old man to death to rebirth as a floating space baby, like in 2001. More often, however, those colluding fears of the unknown, of isolation, and of the dark combine to create true paranormal terror: taunting you with apparitions of the dead, like in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (and Steven Soderbergh’s remake of same), or the manifestations of all your deepest fears and regrets, as in the Shining-on-a-space-station horror Event Horizon. Sometimes, as in Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires, these mysterious, alien spirits will even possess the corpses of your fellow crew members, manipulating them like puppets in an utter mockery of your presumed place in the universe. To quote Albert Einstein, space is full of some really spooky shit. Don’t go in it. [Sean O’Neal]

10. And then there’s The Cloverfield Paradox

The plot of Netflix’s marketing coup might make for a confounding viewer experience, but consider how much more confusing it might be for a character in the film, a derivative sci-fi thriller that was written into J.J. Abrams’ loose Cloverfield series ex post facto. A particle accelerator aboard a space station orbiting near-future Earth throws an international crew of scientists into a parallel dimension, unleashing mischief that doesn’t make sense even in light of the movie’s Scotch-taped internal logic: a complete stranger found alive inside a wall; disembodied limbs that scamper around like The Addams Family’s It; a haunted foosball table; a MacGuffin lodged in a scientist’s internal organs. It’s bad enough to be a crew member on a spacecraft destined for doom, but even worse to be trapped in what appears to be a dimensional fissure between rejected sci-fi scripts. Did we mention the giant monsters invading Earth? [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]