Dark Skies came out last week and no one saw it. You can blame its lack of success on the studio releasing it (who didn’t screen it and barely promoted it), because the movie itself isn’t that bad. As it stands, it’s a more than solid horror movie in the Blumhouse style, aligning itself with films like Insidious and Sinister.
But we’re talking about it here because it’s also a science fiction movie. Well, it’s kind of a science fiction movie. If you want to get specific, it’s a pretty solid/generic “something terrible is trying to invade my home” horror movie that swaps out the trolls/gremlins/slashers with aliens. Okay, so it’s a horror movie with some sci-fi window dressing… like most supposed “sci-fi/horror” hybrids.
When people say sci-fi/horror, they’re usually saying “a horror movie with coat of sci-fi paint.” After all, when you want to scare audiences, the horror half of the equation is going to inherently overtake the other. Which brings me to my big question of the moment: is it possible for a science fiction movie to be scary without deliberately borrowing a recognizable horror trope?
Take a look at what’s easily the most famous sci-fi/horror movie all time: Ridley Scott’s Alien, which isn’t just a great movie, but one of the greatest movies ever made. But go ahead and strip away science fiction setting. Forget about the fact that the doomed crew of the Nostromo are on a spaceship and are light-years from Earth. When you break Alien down to its basic components, it follows the haunted house movie template to a T: people wander the big spooky building until something jumps out at them and the audience screams. Repeat.
Now, Alien does this better than virtually every movie of its kind ever made, but the visceral nature of the scare — the idea of a monster that’s stronger and smarter than you and wants to kill you — is familiar. Alien‘s setting may be sci-fi, but its scares function like that of a (wonderful, amazing, terrifying) horror movie. You can apply similar analysis to something like The Terminator, which uses its delightfully pulpy science fiction premise (time-traveling killer robots!) to create one of the greatest slasher horror movies of all time. Once again, the threat, while sci-fi in origin, ultimately boils down to a horror archetype.
Of course, these are the cream of the crop. If you asked someone to list off every horror movie that had a central villain or monster with a science fiction origin, you’d have a very long list of very bad movies. For many films, the logic of blending science fiction and horror doesn’t go far beyond “We need a fresh setting and location for our generic horror movie.” I’m sure this was a conversation that occurred in the development stage of Dark Skies.
So that brings me to the big question: where are the sci-fi horror movies where the scares come from the sci-fi half of the equation?
Although traditionally not seen as a horror movie, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may fit the bill here. Although it’s not as in-your-face about it as something like Alien, 2001 is a film that uses its brainy sci-fi ideas to create one nightmarish scenario after another without resorting to a simplistic villain or conflict. Even the infamous HAL 9000 shrugs off any traditional horror classification. You have that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach throughout all of 2001 not because there’s an alien on the loose, but because the concepts the film explores are big and unknowable and completely beyond you. It’s scary because it suggests (rightfully) that we know nothing about anything in the grand scheme of the universe. That’s not only horror at its finest, it’s the kind of horror that you will never see in a traditional horror movie. Ever.
I can only think of a few other films that come close to achieving this sci-fi horror nirvana. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is quietly, existentially terrifying until it shoehorns a traditional (i.e. boring) unstoppable slasher villain into the second half, transforming a movie that was frightening because it made you aware how fragile humans are into a movie where a scary man stabs people. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon attempts to bring a sense of cosmic, quasi-religious dread into the science fiction genre, but all of its good intentions are undone by a ham-handed script and a hokey climax. I have high hopes that Alfonso Cuaron’s upcoming Gravity can build true horror out of its pure sci-fi premise, but we don’t know enough about that film to make any kind of judgment call.
It seems that the kind of sci-fi horror movie I’m looking for seems to be in incredibly short supply. Mainly because they’re not commercial… but also because they’re so hard to make that Stanley Kubrick seems to be one of the few who pulled it off.