Star Trek refers to the distant reaches of space as “where no one has gone before.” While physically a human has yet to travel beyond the Earth’s moon, the imaginations of filmmakers have blasted far beyond that boundary for over a century. Ever since the 1902 silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune, directors have brought their version of the final frontier to motion pictures. Some space films are as filled with fantasy as Lord of the Rings, while others are based on the real life adventures of astronauts. Whether they’re science fiction or historical fiction, here’s our takes on the best movies about what waits beyond the third rock from the sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Danny Boyle — who brought us Trainspotting and 28 Days Later among others — takes a crack at a big, gorgeous science fiction flick with Sunshine. With the sun it its death throes, a group of astronauts including Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans is sent to reignite the dying star with a nuclear payload. While the premise sounds like a slightly altered version of films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, Boyle’s film sets itself apart with stunning, trippy visuals and a tangible heart. Scientifically, very little of it makes any kind of sense, but you’ll be too mesmerized to care.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Based on the 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures puts a spotlight on a trio of unsung heroes — Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer). Working for NASA in segregation-era Virginia, the three female African American mathematicians help to make the calculations that render America’s earliest spaceflights possible, including John Glenn’s historic orbital flight. Dealing with absurd hurdles of the time like being forced to work in a separate building from their white colleagues as well as using different bathrooms, the three women nevertheless prove themselves too valuable to NASA’s mission to be constrained by bigotry. With charm, inspiration, and wonderful acting talent, Hidden Figures brings its heroes’ struggles to light in a way that’s just as entertaining as it is socially relevant.
With a running time of over 3 hours, The Right Stuff is exceptionally long for a film of its time, but it’s needed to tell the story of the Mercury astronauts. With an ensemble cast including Ed Harris, Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, and Fred Ward, The Right Stuff is epic in scope, while paying close attention to its heroes’ inner lives. The story focuses not only on the technical and physical challenges of the Mercury Seven, but the intense personal drama they endure while making history. While commercially it bombed when it was released, the film was a critical favorite that took home four Oscars from the 1984 Academy Awards.
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 hokie message of “love conquers all,” the journey to that message is as much a mesmerizing odyssey as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
Set in the near future, Ad Astra opens with Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) barely surviving a power surge on a space antennae. We soon learn the man responsible is McBride’s father Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones), the head of a doomed project meant to search for extraterrestrial intelligence. U.S. Space Command sends Roy to find and stop his father — a journey that takes him to the moon, Mars, and eventually the rings of Neptune. Ad Astra is a surreal epic that leaves us guessing about its hero’s motivations. Pitt’s performance is masterfully minimalist — telling us everything through his physical presence rather than dialogue. It leaves us with a message that doesn’t necessarily deride the quest for extraterrestrial life, but adds an affirming note to the troubling question, “What if we are all there is?”
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