As the most inhospitable, difficult to reach, and mysterious place that humans have ever explored, the depths of space have long held a great fascination for filmmakers. Whether it’s in the fantasy context of Star Wars, more difficult and cerebral sci-fi like 2001, or exploring the true heroism of Earth’s astronauts, space is a deeply dramatic and awe-inspiring setting. With this week’s release of the Brad Pitt space epic Ad Astra, we counted down our top 10 space movies.
We limited our selections to one film per franchise, and masterpieces like Blade Runner and Arrival, which have significant chunks about space, but never actually take their characters there, were excluded.
10. Star Trek (2009)
Though the best of the Star Trek franchise is found on television, its 2009 big-screen reboot brought the series to a whole new audience, letting us explore one of the few fictional futures more utopia than dystopia. Though the sequels, Into Darkness and Beyond, fared less well, critically, J.J. Abrams’ first effort was a worthy entry into the canon.
9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
No single movie series has as fundamentally shaped how moviegoers see the vast void of space as Star Wars. All 10 major releases have space travel and planet-hopping at their core, but we’ve chosen to honour the best of the franchise here. Not only is it the most interesting Star Wars story since 1977, The Last Jedi has the series’ best single Space Moment with Admiral Holdo’s silent, monochrome kamikaze attack on the Imperial fleet.
8. Wall-E (2008)
Possibly the finest hour of one of the most reliably magical movie studios of all time, one could certainly make an argument for Wall-E to rank higher on this list. Yet, though its space scenes are mostly fantastic – especially Wall-E’s fire extinguisher ride – they don’t quite stack up to the earthbound portion. That said, the animation is still beautiful; planetary rings shimmering around outstretched, grasping hands. There’s no better way to introduce a child to the wonders of the universe around us.
7. Moon (2009)
Still by a wide margin his best film, Duncan Jones’ directorial debut is a fantastically contained and well-thought-out example of hard sci-fi done in an accessible way. Set entirely on, well, the moon, with no inhabitants save for one worker and a companion robot, it captures the incomprehensible loneliness of space on a limited budget while telling a hugely compelling mystery tale. As an example of what people colonising the cosmos might look like, it’s not exactly optimistic, but it is never less than utterly believable and movingly human.
6. Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard’s iconic disaster movie is arguably the definitive astronaut movie, and though it may have to share that title with The Right Stuff, there’s certainly a lot more space here than in Philip Kaufman’s 1983 classic. Howard keeps things cramped and airless, reminding us always of the hostility of the environment – there are no safety nets outside the Earth’s atmosphere. The only film here based on true events, it’s a testament to the filmmaking that Apollo 13 didn’t need to go through a wormhole or introduce us to aliens to make the absolute most of its setting.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Before the release of Infinity War, the MCU had taken us to space with Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but it’s the grand finale of the superhero saga that proves the franchise’s most impressive. From the opening assault on the Asgardian ship, to the fateful trip to Thanos’ homeworld undertaken by one division of the Avengers, beautifully rendered comic-book space is vital to Infinity War. The planets it introduces us to are visually stunning and memorable, none more so than the desolate and mysterious Vormir, allowing the Russo Brothers to cast the widest possible net for the vast scope of this most epic of blockbusters.
4. Gravity (2013)
A breathtaking technical triumph, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity brought audiences into the inky blackness and head-spinning emptiness of space like very little else before or since. One of the many, many aspects that made Gravity so special was its closeness to earth, the terror of Sandra Bullock’s situation cruelly amplified by the visible safety of our blue planet. We take it for granted, not realising just how great a blessing it is in the cold endlessness of our galaxy. Cuarón took audiences far out of their comfort zones, but kept things just grounded enough that we could feel every breathless, thrilling beat.
3. Alien (1979)
No single director can match the influence of Ridley Scott on modern science fiction. So much of the genre owes a debt to the cityscapes of Blade Runner and the steaming, creaking hulls of Alien that it’s impossible to envision a cinematic landscape without these films. No other film has managed to distil the primal terror of unknowable space down into a single, relentless monster, but that’s exactly what Scott did with Alien. The universe here is uncaring, bordering on actively malevolent, with the one visit to terra firma bringing with it a grotesque death and a terrifying mystery. A cosmic horror in a Lovecraftian mold and a simple “Jaws, but in space” thrill-ride, Alien remains a titanic figure in its genre.
2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The granddaddy of outer space epics, 2001 is just as grand, mysterious, and confusing now as when it was first released 50 years ago. Astoundingly ahead of its time – with the notable regressive exception of its mostly silent female characters – Kubrick’s most iconic film searches the dark heart of deep space to find answers that only raise further, more profound questions. Made one year before the Apollo 11 mission, 2001 sees humanity’s journey into space as the logical endpoint of our evolution, even as sentient AIs and stargate-induced transformations rob our species of a recognisable soul. Perplexing, yet transfixing, it’s understandable that when conspiracy theorists attempt to discredit the moon landings, they turn to Kubrick as its architect.
1. Interstellar (2014)
Now, it may seem like sacrilege to rank a film so clearly inspired by 2001 above the original, but Interstellar’s humanity pushes it into the next echelon. It’s science fiction that ties weighty, difficult science to deeply felt and relatable emotion. Concepts that we thought we understood, like time and gravity, become malleable and, in doing so, rip these characters heart-wrenchingly away from their lives on earth. Where Kubrick saw little but terror and the incomprehensible whims of higher powers, Christopher Nolan finds thrills and human connection without having to sacrifice the awe and spectacle. Unbelievable visual effects transport you to new planets, through mesmerising wormholes, into the mind-melting fourth dimension, and finally to a bright, optimistic future for the human race. Mixing hope with terror (and some funny robots), Interstellar is a movie made of pure wonder.
Originally published 09/10/2018