The best space movies of all time

Space, or more specifically outer space, is always within our sight and yet tantalizingly far from our grasp. We see the stars every night, but few of us will ever have the privilege of escaping Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a big universe out there, but nobody knows when or if humanity will be able to explore it. Regardless, the idea of space has captured our collective imaginations for centuries. It truly is the “final frontier,” as they say in Star Trek. It’s also a fertile breeding ground for the imagination. In the space that we imagine, almost anything can happen. That’s what makes space movies so enticing to watch. Everything is fair game in this genre, from grounded stories set in reality to tales that take place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” The selection of space films out there is seemingly as endless as the infinite night sky, so we’ve put together this list of some of the greatest of all time.

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Avatar

Avatar (2009)

Guess which movie is once again the highest-grossing film in history? The sequels may still be a few years away, but James Cameron’s Avatar is the king of the world, so to speak. This innovative 3D adventure still plays out in stunning detail in 2D as well. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a former Marine who finds new purpose on the planet Pandora. To win the trust of the local people, the Na’vi, Jake’s consciousness is placed in an Avatar body that mimics the Na’vi themselves so he can live among them and learn their ways. While working on his assignment, Jake attracts the attention of Neytiri ( Zoe Saldana), a Na’vi warrior who teaches him about her world. She also makes Jake question whether he’s working for the right side.

Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
162 minutes

Galaxy Quest

Galaxy Quest (2009)

Galaxy Quest may be a love letter to Star Trek, but you don’t need to major in Trekology to enjoy or understand the film. Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, an actor who headlined the Galaxy Quest TV series as Commander Peter Quincy Taggart decades ago. The alien Thermians mistake the show as a historical record, and they recruit Jason to help them deal with a very real threat to their race. When Jason ropes in his former castmates, it becomes the adventure of a lifetime that just happens to be hilarious as well.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell
Director: Dean Parisot
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
102 minutes

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon (1980)

Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon is a bit overdue for a cinematic reboot, but the 1980 film adaptation is a beloved camp classic for one of the first sci-fi pulp heroes. As a rockin’ soundtrack from Queen sets the scene, Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) find themselves stranded on the planet Mongo, which is ruled by Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow). It’s a marvelously cheesy tale as Flash goes from a sports star to a freedom-fighting superhero. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Rotten Tomatoes: 83%
Stars: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton
Director: Mike Hodges
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
114 minutes

The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

Earth is doomed in Douglas Adams’ classic sci-fi comedy novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For the most recent movie adaptation, Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent, a hapless man who may be the last human male alive. Thanks to his friendship with Ford Prefect (Mos Def), Arthur escapes Earth before its destruction. During their misadventures in space, Arthur and Ford encounter Trillian (Zooey Deschanel), another human, as well as President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) and an incredibly depressed robot named Marvin (Alan Rickman).

Rotten Tomatoes: 60%
Stars: Martin Freeman, Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Bill Nighy, Anna Chancellor
Director: Garth Jennings
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
103 minutes

Stargate

Stargate (1994)

What do you get when Indiana Jones and Star Wars collide? The answer is Stargate, a sci-fi film that liberally borrows from its predecessors. James Spader stars as Dr. Daniel Jackson, an archaeologist who is recruited on an expedition through the enigmatic stargate to an alien world that may have influenced Egyptian culture thousands of years before. Kurt Russell co-stars as Colonel Jack O’Neil, the troubled commander of the expedition. Daniel and Jack soon find a human population in the new world who live under the rule of Ra (Jaye Davidson), a malevolent alien overlord.

Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Stars: Kurt Russell, James Spader, Jaye Davidson, Viveca Lindfors
Director: Roland Emmerich
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
121 minutes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy (2015)

Remember when Hollywood prognosticators had Guardians of the Galaxy pegged as Marvel’s first flop? Instead, director James Gunn turned Marvel’s space misfits into household names. Chris Pratt headlines the cast as Peter Quill, the lone human among a group of alien thieves that includes Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista). Additionally, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper have very strong vocal performances as Groot and Rocket, respectively. The Guardians came together out of necessity to escape prison and cash in on a big score. But they also found a new family in each other.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper
Director: James Gunn
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
122 minutes

Star Trek II

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is not only a great space movie, it’s also a terrific nautical film. The outer space duel between Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and the vengeful Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalbán) largely takes place on two crippled starships that can barely see each other. On that level, it’s almost a submarine thriller. But what makes this Star Trek movie special is the way that it humanizes Kirk as he confronts his fears of aging and death. Not everyone made it home from this adventure, but Star Trek wouldn’t be around today if not for this powerful film.

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Stars: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Kirstie Alley, Ricardo Montalbán
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
113 minutes

The Fifth Element

The Fifth Element (1997)

The Fifth Element was a breath of fresh air for the sci-fi genre, which had largely been stuck in worlds inspired by Star Trek and Star Wars. Instead of revisiting the old tropes, this movie made up its own mythology with wildly imaginative aliens and a fantastic journey for Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), a remarkable woman who may be the physical manifestation of the fifth element itself. Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) is the everyman hero who gets dragged along with Leeloo on the adventure of a lifetime, while clearly carrying a big torch for her as well.

Rotten Tomatoes: 70%
Stars: Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Chris Tucker
Director: Luc Besson
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
126 minutes

The Last Starfighter

The Last Starfighter (1984)

What if your life could be extraordinary? The Last Starfighter plays with that idea by starting off in a trailer park, where Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) has no prospects in life other than his skill at the arcade game Starfighter. Alex is so good that he attracts the attention of Centauri (Robert Preston), the alien creator of the game. Centauri recruits Alex to be a Starfighter in a distant part of the galaxy, while leaving a robot double of Alex named Beta behind on Earth to take his place. Unfortunately for Alex, even Earth will be a battleground in this conflict, and he truly will be the last Starfighter before all is said and done.

Rotten Tomatoes: 76%
Stars: Lance Guest, Dan O’Herlihy, Robert Preston, Catherine Mary Stewart
Director: Nick Castle
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
101 minutes

First Man

First Man (2018)

We like to think of our real life American heroes as charismatic, larger-than-life personalities, and that’s an expectation that’s jettisoned for Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Based on the authorized biography of astronaut Neil Armstrong by James R. Hansen, First Man gives us a version of the legendary astronaut who is at times as unlikable as he is extraordinary. Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong is disarmingly stoic and often silent. Just as First Man bucks our expectations when it comes to the protagonist, it does the same in its depictions of spaceflight. Rather than focus on the glory and sentiment of the first trip to the moon and everything that led to it, First Man punches you in the gut with the sacrifice and danger inherent in our early attempts at spacefaring.

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll
Director: Damien Chazelle
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
141 minutes

The Martian

The Martian (2015)

How do you make a sci-fi movie about a lone astronaut trapped on Mars for four years feel like something other than a bleak, dragging struggle for survival? You cast Matt Damon as the astronaut. Based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel, The Martian‘s shipwrecked star keeps the story as rich with humor as it is with suspense in spite of Damon’s Mark Watney having no one to talk to besides video diaries. It’s surprisingly funny and upbeat considering the director, Ridley Scott, who’s no stranger to science fiction but whose films don’t tend to be laugh riots. At the same time, Watney’s struggle to survive is as suspenseful as it should be, regardless of his complaints about disco music or his struggles with potatoes.

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
142 minutes

Wall-E

WALL-E (2008)

In spite of making plenty of great animated films, WALL-E remains Pixar’s most daring creation. Centuries into the future, the titular waste reclamation robot toils alone on a world humans abandoned centuries ago. Smitten by EVE — a robot designed to find vegetation — WALL-E takes to the stars to find her. He soon finds the Axiom, where the helpless remnants of humanity have grown completely dependent on machines. A post-apocalyptic love story that is simultaneously funny, sweet, and bleak, WALL-E is a classic that needs to be experienced at least once.

Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Stars: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard
Director: Andrew Stanton
Rating:
G
Runtime: 
97 minutes

Solaris

Solaris (2002)

Solaris didn’t rake in record ticket sales upon release, most likely due to the fact that it wasn’t what most audiences are expecting in a space fantasy. Solaris is a remake of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film of the same name, both of which are based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel. While visually pleasing, Solaris foregoes advanced special effects because the space fantasy elements exist to examine more personal and metaphysical issues. George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychologist still struggling with the death of his wife sent to a space station orbiting the oceanic planet Solaris. He arrives at the station to find a dead friend, two uncooperative crew members, and a mystery involving dead family and friends appearing on the station. Rather than exploring outward, Solaris dives inward, exploring issues like grief, faith, and the afterlife.

Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Stars: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies, Viola Davis
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
98 minutes

Moon

Moon (2009)

In Moon, Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut approaching the end of his long assignment on the moon. Unable to communicate directly with anyone back home except through pre-recorded messages and having only the mechanical GERTY (voice by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Bell begins to suffer psychologically and physically from his isolation, to the point where he isn’t sure if the things he’s seeing are real. The low-budget film gives Rockwell a chance to shine. Taking his first time at bat with a feature-length film, director Duncan Jones — son of Ziggy Stardust himself, the late David Bowie — delivers a powerful but quiet film set in the not-too-distant future.

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Dominique McElligott, Kaya Scodelario, Benedict Wong
Director: Duncan Jones
Rating:
R
Runtime: 
95 minutes

Star Wars

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

If you’re looking for scientific accuracy or poignant social commentary, the 1977 classic Star Wars isn’t the movie you’re looking for. But when it comes to epic space opera set in a galaxy of diverse, fantastic aliens, George Lucas set the standard. With groundbreaking special effects and a rag-tag crew of heroes,  Star Wars inspired a generation to dig as deep as they could into science fiction and fantasy. It gave us some of our most iconic heroes and villains, as well as sparking a franchise that continues to thrive in all kinds of media. Action-packed and fun with an unforgettable score by John Williams, Star Wars is still an entertaining watch today, even if it took them over 40 years to give Chewie his medal.

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness
Director: George Lucas
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
121 minutes

Apollo 13

Apollo 13 (1995)

Ron Howard’s rousing film about the real life crisis aboard NASA’s Apollo 13 is a perfect example of life imitating art. Just as Apollo 13 shows public interest in the space program waning by 1970, only to be reignited by the life-or-death situation the astronauts find themselves in, Howard’s exhilarating docudrama helped restore interest in the heroes of NASA in the ’90s. Showing us the lengths to which the trio aboard the shuttle and the professionals in Mission Control have to go to make the astronauts’ survival possible gave audiences a more tangible idea of not only what a precarious notion it is to send manned missions into space, but the creativity and dedication of everyone involved.

Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Stars: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Ed Harris
Director: Ron Howard
Rating:
PG
Runtime: 
140 minutes

2001 A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Decades after its theatrical release, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey still stands alone as a mind-bending science fiction epic unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. For most of the film we follow the journey to the distant Jupiter, via a ship governed by the malevolent artificial intelligence HAL. While it involves subjects we’ve seen in plenty of other science fiction films — space travel, rogue A.I.s, aliens — 2001 handles it differently than any other space film you’ll see. Heroes die quietly and in the bleak void of space without dramatic music or ceremony. With stunning visuals and a quiet, minimalist treatment, Kubrick makes you feel you’re on board while Dave (Keir Dullea) struggles against HAL. The final half hour is wonderfully overwhelming, trippy, and completely open to interpretation.

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Rating:
G
Runtime: 
142 minutes

Gravity

Gravity (2013)

When Gravity opens, astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are tasked with making repairs on the Hubble Telescope, but their mission is endangered when space debris from a destroyed satellite strikes the telescope and the astronauts’ ship. Everything goes wrong at once. Kowalski disappears and most of the remaining hour and a half follows Stone’s tense, thrilling, often dizzying, and seemingly impossible task of surviving and finding a way back home. This is Bullock truly as you’ve never seen her before. Gravity is so suspenseful, just watching it can feel like a worthwhile endurance test. It isn’t a movie you’re going to necessarily want to rewatch right away, but it’s one you need to see.

Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime:
91 minutes

Alien

Alien (1979)

Unlike its more explosive sequel, Ridley Scott’s Alien does more with less in this epic thriller movie. At the time of its release, posters for Alien warned “In space no one can hear you scream,” and it was an apt description of how Scott uses the space setting to isolate his characters and make their plight seem that much more hopeless. The small crew of the Nostromo is stalked by a nearly unkillable alien beast. As nightmarish as the monstrous alien is — both when it famously bursts out of  Kane’s (John Hurt) chest and once it’s fully and horrifically grown — the real story of Alien is the tension and paranoia building in the Nostromo‘s crew members. The suspense builds to a terrifying crescendo, and the alien — designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger — looks like something pulled directly from your darkest dreams.

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Skerritt
Director: Ridley Scott
Rating:
R
Runtime: 
117 minutes

Interstellar

Interstellar (2014)

With Earth on its last few gasps of breath, Dr. Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), and others are recruited for the desperate search for humanity’s new home. The heroes pay dearly for their journey. When they reach a planet orbiting a Black Hole, years pass for their loved ones back home in the span of seconds for the protagonists. Interstellar isn’t something to put on for noise in the background. Visually beautiful and thought-provoking, the film deals with complex questions of both science and philosophy that can make it difficult to penetrate at times. While the end result is the relatively generic message of “love conquers all,” the journey to that message is as much a mesmerizing odyssey as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Rotten Tomatoes: 72%
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin
Director: Christopher Nolan
Rating:
PG-13
Runtime: 
169 minutes

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