10 great films set outside our solar system

No films take us further away.

15 December 2022

By Anton Bitel

Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) © Disney

In James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), tiny islands float over the jungle moon Pandora, sending cascades of liquid to the lunar surface below. These waterfalls – as fantastic (where does so much water come from?) as the skyscraper-sized, physics-defying rocks that issue them – are not just there to look good. They mark the fluid identity of the lead body-swapping character, whose key rites of passage take place by them. They exemplify the 3D blockbuster’s emphasis on vertical flights of fancy. And they also hint at a certain derivativeness, as Cameron catches the downstream drip from, for example, Soldier Blue (1970), Dances with Wolves (1990) and even The Smurfs.

Avatar may be set in realms far beyond our solar system, but Cameron’s immersive world-building created an allegorical playground in which he could explore all manner of earthly issues – the horrors of colonialism, the exploitability of a fragile environment, the resistible force of America’s military industrial complex.

It unfolds in the year 2154, yet evokes its own era with 9/11 imagery of ash fluttering around a felled tree tower, with imperialist wars waged for precious fuels, and with the antagonist freely issuing familiar neo-con phrases like “pre-emptive attack” and “fight terror with terror”. It provides a vehicle for viewing humanity at the contemplative distance of deep space, and for seeing ourselves in the exoticised otherness of the alien.

With Cameron’s sequel Avatar: The Way of Water now hitting cinemas, and more sequels to come, here are 10 more films way out of this world.

Avatar: The Way of Water is in cinemas from 16 December.

Book tickets for Avatar: The Way of Water (3D) at BFI IMAX.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Poster for Forbidden Planet (1956)

The first sci-fi film to feature human spacecraft that can travel faster than light, Fred M. Wilcox’s space adventure heads into deep space, turning the fantasy island of Shakespeare’s The Tempest into the remote planet Altair IV. Twenty years after the crew of an expedition to the planet has vanished, a rescue mission arrives to find sole survivor Dr Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his young adult daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), his powerful robot Robby, the remnants of an advanced but extinct civilisation, and a menacing, murderous creature that is a projection of Morbius’s subconscious.

No matter how far out into the universe the crew’s journey has taken them, they end up facing something inward and psychological, as Morbius’s id, accidentally amplified by a super technology, takes on destructively monstrous form. It embodies that part of our humanity that no evolution or hypertravel can repress, with the capacity to end civilisation.

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

Director: Mario Bava

Planet of the Vampires (1965)

A human crew in deep space, lured by a distress signal to a remote, fog-shrouded world, discovers not only the giant skeletal remains of another species (which evidently answered the same call many years earlier) but also a parasitic creature that hopes to use the bodies of visiting hosts to get off this planet. Yes, the influence of Mario Bava’s pulpy sci-fi adventure on Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is obvious and immense – but only the earlier Italian film, lit in vividly stylised yellows, reds, blues and greens, appears to be set on planet giallo.

Also, unlike Scott’s film, the aliens here, though disembodied in their natural state, can communicate through their human hosts, so that their impulses of self-preserving colonialism can be expressly, uncomfortably likened to our own. For the alien monstrousness on (and off) this planet, though labelled vampirism in the title, is of a decidedly geopolitical variety.

Solaris (1972)

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Solaris (1972)

When a skeleton crew of scientists on a space station orbiting ocean planet Solaris all show signs of mental breakdown, the psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is sent from Earth to assess their condition, only to catch glimpses of others on board, and eventually to encounter his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk) – who has been dead for 10 years.

Adapted from the 1961 novel by Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet sci-fi imagines a sentient planet which, in its attempts to communicate, imperfectly projects our fondest memories back at us in alarmingly material form. This is first contact expressed through the language of narcissism and nostalgia, as an incomprehensibly alien entity reaches out to us by reaching in, to show us who we are, what we cherish and what we really mean by ‘home’. It is a peculiarly cerebral and poetic trip into both deep space and the mysteries of the human mind.

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Director: René Laloux

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Based on Stefan Wul’s 1957 novel Oms en série, René Laloux’s animated feature is like a psychedelic anthropological study rendered in cutouts, except that the humans (or Oms, as they are called here in a pun on the French ‘hommes’) are decentred. Instead, the alien flora and fauna of the planet Ygam, where the Oms have been exiled, come into surreal focus. It is a cosmic ecosystem of Darwinian cruelty, where all manner of bizarre creatures prey upon each other, and where the giant, technologically advanced blue Draags treat the Oms as pets to be kept or vermin to be exterminated.

For all its heady imagery and extraterrestrial exoticism, this is about recognisable human behaviours. The Oms’ expulsion from Eden and revolutionary Exodus reconstitute elements of the Old Testament, while the Draags’ productivity meetings and organised Om genocide are modelled on more recent conduct of the Soviets and Nazis.

Dark Star (1974)

Director: John Carpenter

Dark Star (1974)

The scout ship Dark Star destroys planets whose instability might endanger neighbouring planets ripe for future colonisation. Yet 20 years into its mission, the vessel is in a state of extreme disrepair, its captain has died, the small hippie-ish crew are fed up with their work and each other’s company, their beachball-like ‘pet’ alien is becoming a threat, and their on-board, artificially intelligent bombs are acquiring Cartesian doubt about the nature of reality.

The directorial debut of John Carpenter and the writing debut of Dan O’Bannon (who also stars as Sergeant Pinback), this student film plays like a slacker satire of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), exposing all the ennui and idiocy of deep-space travel. Bored out of their brains, these astronauts clown, philosophise, reminisce and blow things up, even as their very existence is in a constant state of precarity. It’s a blast.

Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas

Star Wars (1977)

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” reads the text that opens what would turn out to be the beginning (if the middle, chronologically) of George Lucas’s – and now Disney’s – multi-billion-dollar space opera empire, where a dynastic, quasi-religious saga of endless Manichaean conflict plays out against a backdrop of different planets, each with their own terrain.

In the first film – since retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, and revised with new CGI – a desert planet (with a memorably alien-filled bar), some spacecraft interiors, a moon-sized, planet-killing space station and a forest rebel base form the stages for a young farmhand’s rites of passage and emergence into unexpected empowerment. Part of its appeal is as a boy’s own adventure set against a vast, dangerous cosmos – but the characters’ resistance to tyranny also accommodates much grounded critique of 20th-century US imperialism.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Director: Mike Hodges

Flash Gordon (1980)

After George Lucas was denied the directing job on Flash Gordon, he made Star Wars instead – and by the time Mike Hodges’ version of the film emerged, it came, ironically, very much in Star Wars’ shadow. Its tone, however, could not be more different. For as lunkheaded New York Jets quarterback Flash (Sam Jones) gets drawn into an interplanetary struggle against Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), a blend of lysergically colourful sets, hammily archetypal heroes and villains and a certain sly fetishism ensures that everything here is pervaded with high camp, hit home by Queen’s prog-rock score.

Adapted (and updated) from Alex Raymond’s comic strip and the three film serials (with Buster Crabbe as Flash) that it spawned in the 1930s, Hodges’ pantomime sci-fi is a swashbuckling romp, full of old-style derring-do, Technicolor fantasy and just a hint of off-the-planet perversion.

Dune (1984)

Director: David Lynch

Dune (1984)

There have been three film projects (and several TV mini-series) to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1970s version foundered in pre-production on its spiralling budget and length. Denis Villeneuve’s current and ongoing two-feature version is a marvel of set and production design, but has not (so far) overcome the blandness of its protagonist Paul Atreides. Yet David Lynch’s 1980s version had already solved that problem by casting a then unknown Kyle MacLachlan, who brought a much-needed quirk and character to the adolescent non-entity.

There’s quirk aplenty in Lynch’s desert-set dynastic drama, with its steampunk space-folding Navigators, its drugged-up local fanatics and its freaky-deaky villains. Yet if this grand folly takes the sci-fi epic for a surreal spin, it remains anchored in ancient myth (note the hero’s surname) and in contemporary tensions of an ecological and geopolitical nature. It bombed, but remains a weird pleasure.

Alien 3 (1992)

Director: David Fincher

Alien 3 (1992)

Besides the earthbound Predator crossovers, all the Alien films are set principally beyond our solar system. The franchise’s third entry is as interesting for the drafts rejected during its development as for the finished product in showing the different ways in which terrestrial concerns can be staged in extra-terrestrial locations.

Early scripts (including William Gibson’s) pitted Marxist exiles from Earth in a cold war against a corporately developed alien superarmy in a giant space mall. Another featured a small-town American city floating in a space dome. One for director Vincent Ward imagined monks on a planet made of wood with a huge vertical library – think The Name of the Rose in space with a xenomorphic killer. Combining several of these ideas, the finished film – David Fincher’s (now disowned) feature debut – was set in an all-male prison planet, where lone woman Ripley becomes a martyr/mater to stop multinational exploitation.

Hard to Be a God (2013)

Director: Aleksey German

Hard to Be A God (2013)

“This is not Earth,” says a voiceover at the start of Aleksey German’s 13-years-in-the-making, posthumously released labour of love, “it’s another planet, about 800 years behind.” In fact this is the future, as scientists from Earth live secretly on Arkanar, trying to bring about an Enlightenment on a planet where the “Renaissance didn’t happen”. Undercover imposter ‘Don Rumata’ (Leonid Yarmolnik) observes this backward society of bullying anti-intellectualism, oppression and thuggery, before eventually resorting to a violent intervention that reveals his own immense technological powers to be just as open to atavistic abuse.

Filming in a textured, mud-spattered black and white that underlines Arkanar’s archaic status as a place frozen in time, German offers a unique brand of dark-ages retrofuturism. Exposing our capacity for cruelty and idiocy with embedded Hogarthian glee, this is a bleak, grubbily dispiriting vision of humanity’s slow, perhaps entirely illusory, progress.

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