This year could be a turning point for space travel, with a number of new manned craft due for testing, and several space tourism projects touted to finally get off the ground. It’s a step towards a future that’s been depicted in fiction for decades.
Here, we’ve picked out our favourite films about space – that means nothing set largely on Earth (so no Independence Day), or where the setting is simply a backdrop to a story that could be set anywhere (so no Star Wars). A true space movie is one that focuses mainly on the difficulties of surviving outside the warm embrace of Earth – and the drama that plays out against the dizzying scale of the cosmos.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
From its iconic opening, through to the rising terror of HAL 9000 – Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic is packed with hugely influential moments that have set the tone for so much of the science-fiction and space cinema that has followed. Kubrick worked with sci-fi author Arthur C Clarke on the story, which concerns a voyage to Jupiter to investigate a strange alien monolith that seems to affect human evolution. The film pioneered a number of special effects, and was nominated for four Oscars.
This critically acclaimed sci-fi horror movie barely needs introduction. It follows the crew of a commercial spaceship and the chaos that ensues when they discover a terrifying alien creature is loose on board – something for Richard Branson to be mindful of when Virgin Galactic eventually gets off the ground, perhaps. Sigourney Weaver stars as Ripley in a taut two-hour thriller full of iconic moments and gruesome prosthetics. It has spawned a number of sequels, spin-offs and crossovers.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Beloved by the terrestrial television schedulers of the mid-2000s, Apollo 13 is an all-star portrayal of the gripping drama of a failed mission to the Moon in 1970. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Gary Sinise brought mass appeal, but Apollo 13’s real charm is in the incredible attention to detail – director Ron Howard went to huge lengths to make it as authentic as possible, enlisting NASA’s help to train the cast, and even filming on board a reduced gravity aircraft to make weightlessness feel more realistic.
Event Horizon (1997)
The ship Event Horizon is on a mission to Proxima Centauri when it mysteriously disappears. Seven years later, it is broadcasting a distress signal, which Captain Miller, played by Laurence Fishburne, and his crew go to investigate. When they get there, all the occupants of the ship are dead. Soon the same forces that killed them begin to work on the rescuers, being haunted apparitions from their past and an evil force overpowering them. The crew members get picked off one by one as survivors attempt to escape and make sure this force never comes to Earth. Though the movie is filled with blood, gore and death, apparently it’s less gory than intended, and fans are still begging director Paul W. S. Anderson for the original cut.
George Clooney plays clinical psychologist Chris Kelvin, who is summoned to a space station orbiting an alien planet in this remake of the 1972 original. Upon his arrival, he finds it mostly empty, bloodstained and two crew members are dead. The surviving crew are tight-lipped about the problems they have faced, but when Kelvin wakes up the next morning, he finds a replica of his dead wife next to him. The crew have all been plagued by these facsimiles of their loved ones, which reappear when destroyed. It’s a question of what’s real and what isn’t. Are these people a blessing or a curse?
Towards the end of Danny Boyle’s space survival slasher, as the tension and profundity builds, the soundtrack becomes overwhelming. The camera spins and tilts as visual flashes and distortions race across the screen. The score, the work of Welsh electronica outfit Underworld, ratchets up and up until a sudden moment of calm. This is when Capa, played by Killian Murphy, touches the Sun. It’s a moment of almost religious reverence – and one of the most visually arresting in cinema. Throughout the film, Boyle plays heavily on the link between the Sun and God, creating a very real sense of its overwhelming physical and spiritual presence. It’s this almighty heft that ultimately drives the villain – and many of its heroes – mad.
When pollution makes the Earth uninhabitable, humans head into space, leaving behind a small but determined trash-compacting robot. One day a shiny new robot named Eve comes to the planet to look for signs of life, and Wall-E makes friends, showing her the life he has made for himself. When they find a plant, Wall-E is whisked away to the spaceship that now houses humanity, where he encourages a robot rebellion to help humanity get back on track. Wall-E has all the hallmarks of a space movie but packaged in a cute, family-friendly way – although it’s depiction of a sedentary human race adrift in the stars strike a warning note.
Duncan Jones’ directorial debut is a moving twist on the ‘stranded in space’ trope. It follows Sam Bell – who is nearing the end of a three-year stint mining helium on the dark side of the moon when he starts hallucinating. It’s a desolate, emotional film that stand aparts from many other space films in terms of tone – critics loved the cinematography, and Sam Rockwell’s performance as protagonist Sam Bell.
It took three years to do the special effects for Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s tense, disorientating movie about a first-time astronaut (Sandra Bullock) who becomes trapped in orbit after the space shuttle is hit by debris from an exploded satellite. The film, which also stars George Clooney as the commander of the shuttle team, is one of the most successful films of all time, with reviewers praising its cinematography, and Bullock’s performance – which involved gruelling, lonely hours in a spinning rig.
The universe is big. And Interstellar, more than any other film, makes you feel it. This is Christopher Nolan with all the requisite IMAX nobs and dials turned up to maximum. Nolan’s admirable trick here is to take all the cinematic tools at his disposal – and invent some new ones – and use them to convey the agonising contrast between the size of the cosmos and the perilous insignificance of a small band of humans. And it’s this contrast, even when the things flips to the fantastical, that keeps Interstellar grounded. This is a story about human survival, but also an ode to our understanding of the awe-inspiring, terrifying beauty of the cosmos.
The Martian (2015)
Andy Weir’s science-laden tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars works because of the long, detailed internal dialogue of the main character, Mark Watney. Translating the novel to the big screen – where audiences are less forgiving of in-depth screeds about the difficulties of growing potatoes in low gravity – was a difficult challenge, but director Ridley Scott nails it. The Martian combines the nail-biting drama of Gravity with the ingenuity on show in Apollo 13 as a team on Earth scramble to rescue Watney.
First Man (2018)
Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings, First Man brought the dangers faced by Neil Armstrong and colleagues into sharp relief. Starring Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, First Man begins with the early tests of what would eventually become the Apollo 11 mission – it shows the astronauts vying for selection and the honour of being the first to walk on Earth’s satellite, and grappling with erratic test versions of the lunar lander. But it kicks up another gear when the chosen three get into space – the landing sequence is gripping, quite beautiful cinema.
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