2 Cult Sci-Fi Favorites That Out-‘Alien’ ‘Alien Covenant’

If you were disappointed with the latest iteration of Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial saga, give one of these smart, visceral films a chance.

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If you were disappointed with the latest iteration of Ridley Scott’s extraterrestrial saga, give one of these smart, visceral films a chance.

Image via Keepin' It Reel

It seems like Hollywood has giving up on science fiction horror. Apart from the mediocre “Alien: Covenant,” there haven’t been any big-budgeted entries in the sub-genre. Modern horror movies, mainstream ones anyway, seem to have landed on ghosts as the monster of the day. That’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but all a lot of them have to offer is cheap jump scares. There’s a niche a mile wide for good sci-fi horror films, but few directors seem eager to fill it.

Oh well, everything old is new again as the saying goes. On the bright side, there are plenty of movies from years ago that never got the audience they deserved. So, if you’re looking for something to scratch your sci-fi itch, here are two cult favorites form 2009 that might just do the trick.

1. “Splice

Released in 2010 (although it actually premiered at the Sitges film festival a year earlier), “Splice” stars Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as Clive Nicoli and Elsa Kast, two brilliant young scientists conducting genetic hybridization experiments. The purpose of the experiments is to create an enzyme with medical applications, but Nicoli and Cast seem more interested in the acclaim associated with creating an entirely new species.

The film opens with the birth (by way of mechanical uterus) of their latest project, Fred, a creature resembling a cat-sized grub made of scar tissue. It turns out that the scientists have already created a female, Ginger, and plan to mate the two. The scene is very well executed, not cluing you in to what’s going on right away. Watching the two leads cooing over what resemble living bags of the stuff McNuggets are made from is an interesting experience, and serves an important character building moment.

After their success with Fred and Ginger, Nicoli and Cast want to start combining human and animal DNA, but their bosses don’t go for it due in part to PR concerns. They are instead ordered to begin the next phase of their current project, isolating usable enzymes from Fred and Ginger. Nicoli and Cast decide the best course of action is to go behind their employer’s back. At first, they both agree it’s just a proof of concept, agreeing not to let the creature grow past the singe-celled stage, but this movie needs its monster, so of course that’s not what happens. To be fair, Cast is actually the one who decides to go all Dr. Frankenstein, whereas Nicoli just sort of goes along with it.

The end result is a female creature they name Dren, who goes through a series of metamorphoses. Her initial form is a legless, fleshy mass possessing no features other than a mouth and a tail with a stinger. This turns out to be a combination cocoon and placenta, which opens to reveal a rodent-like creature. As Dren ages, a process that occurs very rapidly, she becomes increasing human in appearance. Abigail Chu and French actress Delphine Chanéac play Dren in her child and adult forms respectively. The creature’s effects are a combination of practical and CG. While not every scene with Fred and Ginger looks quite right, overall the visuals are mostly top notch.

Film students and fans of classic monster movies might notice that the scientist’s names, Clive and Elsa, are a reference to the cast of the 1935 film “The Bride of Frankenstein.” That should give something of a clue to the story’s progression, although thematically “Splice” is closer to the novel “Frankenstein” than the 1931 film of the same name. Dysfunctional parental relationships play as important a role in the film as in Shelly’s novel, although calling “Splice” a gender-flipped “Frankenstein” really is doing it a disservice.

Despite some broad similarities, “Splice” is very much doing its own thing, although to say more risks going into spoiler territory. One critic describes it as “thinking person’s science fiction” and notes that it works equally well as horror and drama. The cast really brings their A game, especially Chanéac who manages to covey a lot of emotion despite being mostly covered with makeup effects and CGI. A talented cast and strong screenplay, combined with some truly top-notch special effects, make “Splice” a must-see for anyone looking for a truly unique monster movie.

2. “Pandorum”

Envisioned as a spiritual successor to another cult hit, “Event Horizon,” this film stars Dennis Quaid (for some reason looking and sounding like Harrison Ford) and Ben Foster alongside German actress Antje Traue in her English-language debut. The title refers to a fictional disorder called orbital dysfunction syndrome, which starship crews refer to as Pandorum. It’s a form of delusional paranoia brought on by the stress, isolation and physiological effects of long-term space travel.

After an okay, but obviously tacked-on opening sequence to catch the audience up on the backstory, the film cuts to Foster’s Corporal Bower violently coming out of hypersleep. When I say violently, I mean it. The audience knows right away that something has gone horribly wrong as Bower desperately pries open the door to his pod and slowly pulls the various tubes from his body. The scene of him peeling the built-up film of dead skin off his body is viscerally disturbing, and the lighting and audio design go a long way in reinforcing the feeling of confused isolation as he stubbles around the cabin.

He eventually manages to regain his composure enough to wake Lieutenant Payton, played by Dennis Quaid. As a side effect of being in hypersleep for much, much longer than was intended, both men are suffering from various degrees of memory loss. With the Elysium’s reactor malfunctioning and the bridge sealed, Payton sends Bower crawling through the ducts while he mans a control console. A thick web of moist tubes choke the narrow maintenance passageways, making it look as if Bower is crawling through the intestines of some great leviathan. Combined with the intermittent power surges from the Elysium’s malfunction reactor, the ship itself almost feels not only alive, but actively malicious for much of the film.

It quickly becomes apparent that Payton and Bower aren’t alone on the ship. The Elysium has been overrun with violent, cannibalistic mutants, and the human survivors aren’t exactly the most mentally stable bunch either. Bower, along with Traue’s Nadia and Cung Le as Manh, must make it to the reactor if they have any hope of saving both themselves and the remaining one thousand passengers still in hypersleep. The narrative is straightforward, although there are a few unexpected plot turns in the third act that I won’t spoil. I will say that the film does a good job of foreshadowing, although it’s easy to miss on the first viewing.

The effects, especially those of the mutants, are quite spectacular. As I hinted at before, the lighting does a good job of setting the mood. The handful of scenes with Bower and Payton in the control room are cast in warm orange, creating a feeling of safety, while the dim blue of the corridors reinforces the claustrophobia and paranoia. Part of what makes the film stand out is that it captures the same feeling as the early “Alien” movies in a way that not even the other entries in that franchise have been able to do.

I’m not saying that the film is without flaws. The opening, which I mentioned feels tacked-on, succeeds only in giving the audience information that the rest of the film does a fine job of conveying, making the intro unnecessary. The exterior shots of the ship look alright, but are still some of the weaker visuals in the movie. Also, the third act is very action-heavy compared the first two. While the action itself is fine, the film is at its best when it’s dark and claustrophobic. Still, it’s a solid piece, and at the end of the day, these are relatively minor issues.

One thing that both of these movies have in common is a general lack of jump scares. They’re not completely absent, but unlike a lot of horror movies, they aren’t used as a crutch. I can’t promise everyone will love these two films—there’s a reason they never achieved more than cult popularity—but they’re definitely interesting examples of the genre. Both are available online and on Blue Ray, and I recommend the latter, since most online sources don’t seem to have them in HD. Either way, for anyone who’s getting bored with the mystical mumbo jumbo that recent horror movies have been fixated on, they’re well worth the watch.

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