Two silent films stand out in shaping the genre. Georges Mèliés' A Trip to the Moon (1902, France) follows a group of scientists (astronomers) who build a rocket ship and travel to the moon. They are captured and escape from the moon's inhabitants and return to Earth. The plot may not sound all that scary; however, it was Mèliés sleight of camera lens techniques in which he was able to astound and amaze audiences in a way that had not been done before.
Inspired by Mèliés, a near forgotten film from Ashley Miller similarly titled A Trip to Mars (1910, USA) most closely aligns with the contemporary held vision of space horror. In Miller's film, a scientist discovers a powder that reverses gravity, so he uses it to float to Mars. As he explores the red planet, he encounters a strange and frightening alien race that look like evil clowns before he returns to Earth. There may be other films, but given that a majority of early films are lost or deteriorated beyond restoration, it is difficult to know the extent that space horror was explored in this medium.
The genre picked up right along with the interest in space exploration beginning with the 1950s. Given the space race was warming up between the USSR and US, the idea of Communism fueled that old fear and tension of invasion that plagued society at the turn of the century. Alien invasions were threatened or carried out in the open with The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953) or via more covert and sinister means, either consciously or not, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958). The heyday of invasion films centered in this decade and waned in the 1960s, being replaced by spies, cowboys, gritty crime/vengeance, and slasher films leading into and including the 1970s.
It all changed in mid 1979 with an ominous movie poster with the word A L I E N stretched out above a side lit, egg-shaped pod with an eerie yellow light seeping out, carrying the tagline: In space no one can hear you scream. Directed by Ridley Scott and co-written by Dan O'Bannon (O'Bannon wrote the screenplay.) and Ronald Shusett, Alien audiences are drawn along with the Nostromo crew as they explore a mysteriously abandoned ship on LV-426 and encounter a new and hostile alien species. The idea of being far from home with limited life-sustaining resources (e.g., oxygen) struck fear into the crew and audiences alike. Unlike the mid-century films which were best classified as invasion films, Scott's film added unabated horror to science fiction in an interstellar setting that jump-started the genre. Alien spawned several inferior imitations as well as inspiring standout films – Event Horizon (1997), Pitch Black (2000), Sunshine (2007), and Europa Report (2013) – that would further the genre in their own unique ways.
Alien marked the beginning of a successful franchise that spans almost forty years and many popular culture mediums. The main series includes four films by four directors in the first twenty years. All have been financially successful, even the often misunderstood Alien3. It would take fifteen long years after Alien: Resurrection (1997) before Scott returned to the franchise with Prometheus (2012), a prequel featuring an expedition funded by Weyland Corporation. And next year, Scott's follow up, Alien: Covenant (2017), will see David (Michael Fassbender) return as the lone survivor of the first prequel. There have been spin-off films that crossover with another alien-centric franchise that produced two Alien vs. Predator movies, and the Alien franchise has been prolific in literature (novels and comic books), video games, collectibles, and even a role-playing game!
The four core films and first prequel feature a female lead fronting an ensemble cast. It was fortuitous that Sigourney Weaver was cast as Warrant Officer Eilen Ripley, a role that was originally going to be filled by Tom Skerritt, who was later offered and accepted the role of Captain Dallas. For Weaver, it was her first lead role and one that would become iconic in popular culture and film history. Prometheus also featured a lead female character with Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), an archaeologist studying ancient cultures that have star maps in common. With Alien: Covenant, Scott may deviate from his prior formula and instead focus on a male who is a synthetic human. In all of the films, a small cast has been assembled. Alien and Aliens excelled in this arena with exemplary nods to the latter for also including some of the best dialogue lines in the franchise.
The franchise solidified this fascinating subgenre of horror by exploring and/or representing a myriad of topics relevant to understanding and appreciating popular culture. For example, Ripley probably best represents and defines the concept of “final girl,” the last and sole survivor when the credits rolled.1 This was a trope carried over from the slasher films and fit well within the space horror genre. Another concept was explored through the AI characters of Ash (Alien), Bishop (Aliens), Annalee Call (Alien: Resurrection), and David (Prometheus) called the “uncanny valley.” The term refers to usually an adverse reaction to things that are like natural beings, in this case humans, but are actually only life like.2 Periphery concepts touched in the franchise, but explored in depth elsewhere, include the confines of space (Pandorum, 2009), psychological (Solaris, 1972), and body horror or mutilation (Event Horizon, 1997). Of note: additional concepts part of the genre but not the franchise include the doppelganger (Moon, 2009), found footage (Europa Report, 2013; Apollo 18, 2011), and yes, vampires/paranormal elements (Dracula 3000, 2004).
Lastly, the Alien films and franchise as a whole have defined a set of tropes that audiences have come to expect with this genre. Obviously, the sense of isolation is the prevailing stereotype that works well. The starry night may look beautiful from Earth, but when engaged in space travel, the universe becomes inhospitable and dangerous. Body fatigue, depression, and claustrophobia can plague an astronaut, not to mention the limited and precious cargo of life-sustaining resources. A military and/or corporate presence often featured in the Alien films typically represented a negative element. For instance in Aliens, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) was a company man and had no scruples with trying to incubate aliens in Ripley and Newt (Carrie Henn). Naturally, horror breeds a high fatality rate resulting in a lone survivor, usually the final girl. And, the uncanny valley was represented by an android or synthetic human in the storyline. As a result of Ash's secret (being a synthetic human), his disregard for protocol regarding quarantine and trying to kill her, Ripley was justifiably hostile to Bishop (also a synthetic human), for example. These are just a few examples of tropes that are specific to the franchise, but the genre as a whole, have several others.
The Alien franchise has been the most influential in the space horror genre, defining new tropes and re-appropriating stereotypes made popular by others. Topics and themes have been explored that are related to space exploration and, more generally, by society. Additionally, the films and characters, particularly Ripley, continue to resonate with fans, with the proliferation of the Alien universe into other mediums of popular culture. Most importantly, the franchise has come to represent the culmination of the journey of space horror from the early silent films and invasion literature, as well as casting its influence (and inspiration) for representations of space horror in the future.
1. Clover, Carol J. (1992). Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2. Reichardt, Jasia. (1978). Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction. New York: Penguin Books.