For critics, Pandorum has been like an alien in the ventilation shafts — it’s on the radar, heading towards them, but they just can’t see it, no matter how hard they try. The glimpses from the trailer make it look, well, familiar, which got us to thinking about some of the of the movie’s precursors, those examples — both in the very best and worst sense — of the sci-fi/horror sub-genre we like to call… “Stalked on the spacecraft!”
While Alien had plenty of ancestors in sci-fi short stories and movies like The Thing From Another World, it’s most closely compared with this 1958 low-budget offering. Fair enough, too, because this has an alien creature stowed away on a spaceship, picking off the crew and moving in the ventilation shafts. An air lock finds its way into the plot, too. It’s creaky sci-fi at best, but not without amusement for the hoary old sexist dialogue and that seam running up the monster’s back.
The laughs are all inadvertent in this one, even though its co-writer, respected poet and academic George Garrett reckons he originally penned it as a send-up. Martian Princess Marcuzan and her bald, Dr. Evil-looking sidekick Dr. Nadir arrive on Earth in their balsa wood spaceship to steal human women for captive breeding. The only obstacle to their nefarious plan? Earthling astronaut Colonel Frank Saunders who, after being made half cyborg by NASA, is made totally crazy when the Martians blow him out of the sky. Now a monster-type creature, Frank (enstein) rampages after the aliens — and that means they unleash their “space creature”, which is… Crispin Glover’s dad Bruce Glover, making his film debut under a hundred pounds of furry costume. High tension ensues — if by “high” you mean “belly”, and by “tension” you mean “laughter”.
Between charting, oh, three million or so years of human evolution in a breathtaking jump-cut and taking us into the light fantastic of infinity, Stanley Kubrick also made 2001
a chilling exercise in AI run amok. Granted, HAL 9000 doesn’t lay eggs inside you, nor does he melt the bulkhead when his battery leaks, but his red-glowing eye is suitably demonic and he’s close to omniscient when it comes to the Jupiter Mission. When HAL reads your lips and learns you’re questioning his authority, look out, because the next step is him crashing a spacepod into your buddy and turning off the life functions of your other pals in suspended animation. Then, with you isolated outside the spacecraft, he’ll refuse to let you back into through the pod-bay doors. Happily, here’s where you take advantage of the genre’s always-handy plot device — the air-lock — to get back inside and take his mind apart.
Even HAL 9000 at his most functional would’ve been hard-pressed to label the source of terrific illumination in Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s existential mindbender remade, to little effect, by Steven Soderbergh a few years ago. Aboard the craft orbiting the liquid planet, neutrinos — maybe — will reorganize themselves into exact simulacra of the people you knew who are now dead or otherwise unavailable. Drawn from your own memory, they’re so life-like it’s… enough to make you want a Giger-style creature to kill you all off just so you won’t have to think about it anymore.
Riffing on much of the above in the lowest possible budgetary form, John Carpenter’s student film — written with future Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, with design by future Nostromo concept artist Ron Cobb — recast 2001 (and maybe Solaris and Silent Running) as a psychodrama between disaffected living astronauts, an involved dead guy, a computer… and an alien represented literally by a beachball. Aside, perhaps, from the lobster shadow in Teenagers From Outer Space, it’s the cheapest monster ever. But pretty funny, and it works in a galactic hippy tale where you don’t trip into infinity but are blown into it or, maybe, surf it.
In space, no-one can hear you scream. So the tagline went. In the cinema, it was a different matter, with everyone screaming as the chestburster did its gory business from inside John Hurt to make The Worst Dinner Ever. From that point — with Veronica Cartwright’s haunting, desperate “Oh, Godddd” ringing in our ears — we’re then on the edges of our seats and ready to leap out of them; which we dutifully do when the fully-grown Giger xenomorph makes short work of the remainder of the crew (minus Ripley and Jones, of course). Further non-alien horror came from the revelation that all this might have been avoided, were it not for that treacherous android, apparently filled with custard and sea grapes, being in the service of capitalism. The ventilation shafts, the drool, the cranium smashing proboscis, the acid blood — all of it made for the scariest space film ever made.
This is best-known as being the only lead role for poor, doomed Dorothy Stratten, who played the title role, a sexy robot who wants to be a real girl. Made in the wake of Star Wars and Alien, it sought to spin the sci-fi craze into slapstick comedy, years before Mel Brooks tried it with Spaceballs. There’s a Spock-like character in an Hawaiian shirt and a three-breasted alien who anticipates that gal from Total Recall. As for the stalking space creature? Well it’s also played for laughs as a little egg alien that pops out of Captain Cornelius Butt’s (you heard his name right) mouth and then sabotages his cryosleep with the effect he becomes as hairy as a wookiee! Yes, most of the humor’s on this level, but there are the occasional guilty giggles.
This mid-1980s effort, also known as Titan Find, follows the Alien template so strictly, right down to its monster’s black dripping probiscus, that it’s amazing Fox or Giger didn’t sue. In any event, Creature is strictly by the numbers, except that Klaus Kinski’s let off the leash to seemingly make up dialogue as he goes along, eat craft services as the camera rolls, and ogle his female co-stars. Tacky brain lobsters and exploding heads make this one worth the effort. Just. Creature was directed by William Malone, who’d return to the deep space territory co-writing 2000’s misbegotten Supernova, as well as bestowing upon us in-cyberspace-no-one-can-hear-you groan thriller Fear Dot Com.
This sci-fi horror from Paul W.S. Anderson — director of Alien vs. Predator and producer, not coincidentally, on Pandorum
— borrows from Solaris‘ mind-warp, Alien‘s lost ship and 2001‘s secret mission, following the investigation into the reappearance near Neptune of the disappeared spacecraft Event Horizon. Seems the thing which was supposed to make star-tripping easier via black-hole magic but instead brought back a supernatural presence from an alternate dimension. And this space spook caused those aboard the Event Horizon to indulge in a little orgy of rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism, all served up with generous amounts of eye-gouging. Now the rescuers begin to experience the same, starting with hallucinations…
It’s 2057, the sun needs to be kick-started (with a nuke the size of Manhattan) and the rag-tag crew of the Icarus II are just the suicidal crew for the job after the first such mission failed. But the puny humans’ almost-certain immolation-martyrdom threatens to send them all crazy, the way it did those aboard Icarus I. And maybe God doesn’t want His plan meddled with anyway. Danny Boyle’s film, which begins as a scientific sci-fi and winds up as a thought-provoking meditation on mortality, also comes with a middle act that’s like a space slasher flick. That’s because Icarus I’s Pinbacker (a nod to Dark Star‘s character Pinback) proves not only to be alive, but to have gone completely nuts because a) he’s spent seven years chatting directly to God and b) he’s melted his brain by exposing it to repeated sun blasts. Hacking up of Icarus II crew members ensues.