Sunday, March 20, 2011

Top 5 List: In Space, No One Can Hear You Go Mad

5. The Dark Side of the Moon

Probably the most obscure movie on this list, it's still immensely entertaining in that direct-to-video early 90's way. Written about at length here, "The Dark Side of the Moon" was directed by no one of real fame (DJ Webster) and starred no one of real notoriety. But it does seem to come from a genuine place and it does tweak the idea of madness in space into some interesting theories about the dark side of the moon, the Bermuda Triangle.... and the devil himself. The production values do lack something, but its the film's atmosphere that more than makes up for any economic shortcomings.

4. Planet of the Vampires

Now here's a really interesting film. Ever wonder how one of those Italian giallo films would play in space? Mario Bava attempts just that here with "Planet of the Vampires". Take all the visual trademarks of the wildly popular giallo genre- i.e. garish lighting, extravagantly cheap looking costumes, fog drenched settings and a distinct emphasis on obscuring the killer or killers through POV shots or off screen menace- and one gets the basic set up. But I make "Planet of the Vampires" sound worse than it is. I actually really like this film and it does build up some incredible tension while leapfrogging the idea of "madness in space" for future consumption. A crew of astronauts lose contact with their shipmates and are forced to land on a strange planet where the crew members begin to resort to mind-numbing fits of rage and violence against one another. Bava stretches out the appearance of the 'vampires' to sustain the film's thriller status while developing a unique metaphor for our modern definition of vampire. Bava's film has long been out of print, but i recently emerged on Netflix's streaming service.

3. Sphere

Ok, a bit of a cheat here, I admit. "Sphere" takes place under the ocean instead of outer space, but its emphasis on cramped confinements, lost space ships and side plots involving the 4 specialists (Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Liev Schrieber and Sam Jackson) facing their worst fears all fit into this list. I'm an unabashed lover of Barry Levinson's somewhat loopy and intellectually stuffy adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel, and the film hasn't diminished in my opinion since seeing it opening night back in 1998. "Sphere" tosses out alot of ideas- time travel, psycholgical warfare, killer jellyfish- and its oblique ending never registered with the mainstream movie-going public and that's a shame. "Sphere" still remains an under appreciated film that examines the treacherous outcome of dealing with extraterrestrial methods, even when the best minds in the world are in charge.

2. Event Horizon

For many movie fans of my generation, "Event Horizon" was THE best madness in space film to come along. Not only is it an effective science fiction tale, but an out and out horror film that managed to combine the best elements of both genres. Starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan and Joely Richardson, the crew is assigned to recovering a ship that was lost years earlier and then re-appears. Of course, something evil is brought aboard and each astronaut is forced to confront some of their scariest thoughts. The joy of "Event Horizon" is not in the reductive narrative, but its eerily timed scares and psychological dread. Director Paul W.S. Anderson has gone on to create some really awful muck, but "Event Horizon" has that something that still makes it relevant for this type of list.

1. Solaris (1972) and Solaris (2002)

The definitive films about the possible ill-fated effects of a lonely trek through outer space, I suppose the real master of the genre is Russian novelist Stamislaw Lem who wrote the original novel. A grounbreaking mixture of guilt, science fiction and political repression, the novel is a terrific read which gives us two very different films. Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky's version of the novel is ponderous and trance-inducing with its long stretches of space travel (and earthbound travel as well). Stephen Soderbergh's 2002 update runs half the length of Tarkovsky's original but has a serene style all its own. Though visually miles apart, both films retain the central idea of an astronaut growing increasingly mad by the effects of the planet Solaris. These two efforts may seem like easy additions to the madness in space genre, but they're both illuminating pieces of art that continue to expand and open up new ideas everytime I watch them.

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