Greeting Guardians of the Galaxy into UK cinemas, our writers scour the cinematic universe of fantasy and sci-fi in search of the best films set beyond the Earth.
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”. Spanning six movies, numerous animated series, hundreds of novels, dozens of video games and countless hours of fan-created content, the Star Wars universe has captured the imaginations of audiences like no other. So what better pick than the film that started it all?
It would be disingenuous to claim that everything film set beyond this world owes a debt of gratitude to Star Wars. Inspired by adventure serials of the 1930s, Star Wars is a simple tale of heroism set in a galaxy divided; its rich mythology and tangible universe separated it from what came before.
Despite only following its ragtag group of heroes, the 1977 original teased at a more expansive world. Mere mentions of Jedi, bounty hunters and Clone Wars were enough to capture imaginations, and provided the launch pad for the universe to evolve.
A lot of credit must go to the set design and the impeccable practical effects done by Lucas’ ILM. From the stuffy interior of the Mos Eisley Cantina with its plethora of peculiar customers, to the cluttered interior of the Millennium Falcon, the world felt functional and lived in.
With a new trilogy in the works, the Star Wars legacy shows no sign of stopping.
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” The tagline of the truly brilliant Alien says it all.
Yes, it may have a simple characterisation of the alien as a threat, but the claustrophobic set design, cinematography and chilling performances from a great cast combine for a tense, engaging cinema experience, that consistently explores the theme of isolation and the fear of being hunted in your own home in the vast expanse of space.
Shot on a low-budget over a short period of time in studio sets made of scrap metal, the film has a grimy fatalism that builds the tension even higher.
A number of the shots in Alien look shockingly real – because they are – not least one of the most unforgettable dinner party sequences in cinematic history, where John Hurt’s fellow cast members had no idea just how much his food had disagreed with him.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II
In the sequel to Clive Barker’s singular and infamous tale, after a flaying-filled opening half, Kirsty Cotton, still traumatised from the events of the first film, uses the iconic Lament Configuration box to enter the infinite labyrinth of sadistic pleasures in a bid to find her father.
Hellbound presents a rare vision of hell, one completely uninfluenced by any religious mythology. Only briefly glimpsed in the 1987 classic, this film a year later presented Hell as a vision of extreme S&M (as well as being the last time the Cenobites stayed true to their original purpose).
While a number of the practical effects have lost their punishing visceral effect (not to mention the iffy matte-painted landscapes), what hasn’t dissipated is the uncomfortable power of its themes and ideas; the notion of apathetic individuals striving for the ultimate sensory experience, to the point where pleasure and pain blur into intolerable sensation, proving haunting a long time after.
Much maligned and divisive, David Fincher’s debut film is vastly underrated, not least because of the astonishing level of Nietzschean nihilism evoked through Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161’s dank locales.
The darkness established in the retconning of the series, in which they immediately kill off all the surviving members of Aliens’ cast save for Ripley, is continued in the sickly lighting of the maze of tunnels, prison system and foundry.
This grimy atmosphere proves far more oppressive than the all out war of its predecessor, and harkens back to the sense of futility of the original Alien as a woefully underprepared ragtag band of unarmed individuals attempt to defeat a lone predator that sits a few places above them on the food chain.
The molten lead climax also rivals Aliens’ iconic ‘Xenomorph Queen vs. powerloader fight’ for a grandiose ending, and provides a fittingly impressive and operatic conclusion to the trilogy. Just don’t mention Resurrection.
Okay, maybe Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride toes the line for ‘Films Not Set On Earth’, fronting a pretty equal split between the dull Victorian lifestyle of “The Land of the Living” and the raucous community of “The Land of the Dead”, but that’s what makes it so interesting to watch.
Victor Van Dort’s sudden descent into The Land of the Dead, a colourful and exciting place, and his accidental marriage to Emily, a piano-playing, moonlight-dancing corpse, just goes to show how boringlife on Earth is. This is summed up pretty well in the pun-tastic line relayed to Victor: “why go up there when people are dying to get down here.”
The Land of the Dead is vibrant and happy, adorned with jazz-singing skeletons and hearty drinks of poison. Compared to the grey melancholy of Earth, it makes marrying a corpse look like the better option, don’t you think?
Contrary to her orbital reality, Dr. Ryan Stone dreams that Gravity was instead set on Earth due to the catastrophic events she endures in space. However, if Earth was its setting, we wouldn’t have had this defining sci-fi movie, a landmark in technological and cinematographic excellence.
With Earth as the backdrop to Stone’s ordeal, we’re constantly reminded of how grounded Alfonso Cuarón’s direction is despite the ambition of the film’s fictional location. Her capacity to withstand such turmoil in the isolated setting of space is driven by fetal metaphors, human connections, and the absence of security, stimulating Stone’s senses to return to terra firma.
A thrilling theatrical experience I couldn’t envisage watching elsewhere, Gravity is a rare 3D blockbuster that doesn’t undermine its added dimension. Instead, the visual intensity is enhanced by 3D, grasping cinemagoers’ emotions, which is then audibly assisted by the triumph of vacuumed silence.
Gravity provokes unparalleled cinematic sensations audiences weren’t aware were possible. Enabled primarily through its space setting, the film is not only an accomplishment of science fiction, but an accomplishment of cinema.