What defines a space movie? Does it actually have to take place in space and, if so, for how much of the runtime? Plus, how far away from Earth should we boldly go before breaching parameters of plausibility? These are questions we asked ourselves while compiling the best space movies available to watch on streaming, with a digital rental or purchase, or on physical copies.
We decided to focus mainly on classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey and modern masterpieces like The Martian which involve the exploration of worlds beyond Earth, but are told mostly from the perspective of Earthlings. What these astronauts (by choice or even by necessity) find on their adventures range from the mysterious to the macabre, or simply inspire homesickness. The following are some of the best sci-fi movies that take us on journeys beyond the stars and where to find them.
Andrei Tarkovsky was the highly imaginative mind behind some of the most intense, thought-provoking, and cerebral sci-fi dramas of all time and Solaris is among the finest examples, let alone one of the Soviet filmmaker’s biggest hits. It stars Donatas Banionis as a psychologist who experiences an unexpected, unexplainable encounter when investigating a death at a station established on a distant planet. This mesmerizing, mysterious, mind-bending thriller was later remade by Steven Soderbergh with George Clooney in the lead.
The Wandering Earth (2019)
There are many stories – including a few on this list alone – in which the human race’s solution for their planet’s dwindling resource(s) is to search for a new home. However, in the unique end-of-the-world drama, The Wandering Earth, the plan to save the planet from the nearly-expired Sun is not to abandon it, but to physically move it to a safer location in outer space. Director Frant Gwo’s Netflix exclusive, Chinese-language adaptation of Cixin Liu’s novel – which spawned a sequel in 2023 – is one of the most visually stunning and gloriously over-the-top films of its kind in recent memory.
Imagine if the youngsters who live out their intergalactic travel fantasy by building a pretend spaceship took things a step further and designed a craft that works. In one of the best Ethan Hawke movies, the then-15-year-old makes his acting debut as a teen who enlists his friends (played by River Phoenix and Jason Presson) to construct a ship from blueprints that came to him in a dream. The journey that Joe Dante’s Explorers takes our young heroes is one the whole family will love.
Earth no longer exists (as a habitable environment, at least) in one of the best sci-fi TV shows in recent memory, Firefly – a series cancelled before it could complete its story of a ragtag crew of galactic outlaws. Luckily, fans were given some closure in the form of the feature-length spin-off, Serenity, which sees Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) continuing to evade detection from their interplanetary government. The film mostly ditches the old school western themes and tones that made the original series so unique, but that does not prevent it from being a thoroughly exciting action thrillride.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
In Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and more play the stars of a cult favorite sci-fi series that was cancelled years ago and has since left them with unsatisfying career prospects. However, when a desperate alien species who believes the show is real enlists their help, they are sent to space for the gig of their lives. While Dean Parisot’s comedy is essentially a satire on geek culture (and a very clever one), it is still as exciting as any episode of Star Trek, Buck Rogers, or Battlestar Galactica could be.
Not to be confused with an Elton John biopic from 2019, RocketMan is a funny, family-friendly Disney movie that deserves a sequel. It stars comedian Harland Williams as a spacecraft designer who gets to live out his life-long dream of becoming an astronaut. Unfortunately, his childish antics and bumbling nature causes him and his fellow travelers quite a bit of trouble while on the first expedition to Mars.
Apollo 13 (1995)
In April of 1970, three astronauts boarded the 13th incarnation of NASA’s Apollo Project with a dream to go to the Moon. That dream would soon curdle into a nightmare as an onboard technical malfunction forced them and those at Houston into a race against time to safely bring them home before it was too late. Also one of Tom Hanks’ best movies, director Ron Howard’s breathtaking, Academy Award-winning retelling of that shocking event, Apollo 13, remains the ultimate cautionary tale of space travel, particularly due to its fact-based origins.
First Man (2018)
Just a year before the ill-fated mission of the Apollo 13 crew, Neil Armstrong fulfilled the dreams of every astronaut before him by being the first person to walk on the Moon and becoming an instant American hero in the process. However, what most Americans did not know is that he was a deeply complicated human being whose own personal issues and emotionally distant tendencies had a profound effect on his otherwise legendary journey. Damien Chazelle directs Ryan Gosling in one of his best performances as the titular First Man in this revealing biopic with Oscar-winning visual effects that place you right in the front seat of the Space Race… almost literally.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Those who want to get the full story of the Space Race will have to start here. Inspired by Tom Wolfe’s award-winning book, The Right Stuff chronicles the beginning of the United States space program as seen through the eyes of the seven experienced pilots (played by Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn, and Apollo 13’s Ed Harris, to name a few) chosen to be the first people to call themselves “astronauts.” Written for screen and directed by Philip Kaufman, this is a story (which would also inspire a Disney+ series of the same name) of staring the impossible in the face and having what it takes to achieve a goal, whatever the cost.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
As the Space Race was still on the way to reaching its peak with the Moon Landing, Arthur C. Clarke already had a vision for the future of space travel, and a dark one at that. As he was writing his groundbreaking novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, he and director Stanley Kubrick would concurrently collaborate on a screenplay for a feature film adaptation which would prove to be just as influential with its still impressive, Academy Award-winning special effects, thought-provoking themes, and (courtesy of the iconic AI HAL-9000) technophobic caution. The story follows a crew of astronauts investigating a mysterious discovery found on the Lunar surface, which evolves into a fierce battle for supremacy between man and machine.
Alfonso Cuaron won his first Academy Award for directing Gravity, which also completely and deservedly swept 2014’s technical categories for its unbelievably vivid recreation of outer space in all its beauty and its cold brutality. Most remarkably, the film is only 90 minutes and boasts a relatively simple story of one woman’s fight for survival right on the outskirts of Earth’s gravitational field, but Sandra Bullock’s winning performance and the paralyzing visuals make it larger than life.
A filmmaker who only knows how to make movies that are larger than life is Christopher Nolan and one of his best movies – let alone one of the most technically ambitious – is Interstellar. This adventure beyond the stars sees Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and other astronauts in search of a new home as Earth slowly grows uninhabitable and Cooper’s young daughter, Murph, grows older and older while his mission turns out to be a much longer process than either expected. As you might have expected, however, the film would take home the 2015 Oscar for Best Visual Effects, but the heartbreaking father-daughter story is truly why this modern, pre-apocalyptic sci-fi classic is destined to remain timeless.
The Martian (2015)
Matt Damon won a Golden Globe for his leading role in The Martian after playing a similar part in Interstellar. Also starring Jessica Chastain, director Ridley Scott’s thoroughly entertaining adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel follows an astronaut left stranded on the Red Planet, putting NASA in over their heads and forcing our protagonist to “science the shit out of” his situation to survive. For all of its gorgeous imagery, thrilling suspense, and braininess, what really sells this film is Damon’s engaging charisma and the script’s tasteful sense of humor amid an otherwise grim and distressing situation.
Titan A.E. (2000)
Years before The Martian or Interstellar, Matt Damon got to be the space traveler doing some saving, instead of being saved. In co-director Don Bluth’s underrated, animated gem that you might have assumed was a Disney movie, Damon voices a young, 31st-Century man from the 31st Century survivor of Earth’s complete destruction several years earlier, who becomes the final hope for humanity after learning he holds the key to finding a long-lost and musch-coveted ship called the Titan. Also starring the voice talents of Drew Barrymore and Bill Pullman, Titan A.E. is an inventive, visually unique, and thrilling adventure the whole family will love.
Years before Interstellar took Matthew McConaughey into space, he was the one keeping his feet on the ground while Jodie Foster went on a trippy ride through a wormhole. Based on the novel by famed astrophysicist Carl Sagan, Contact stars Foster as an ambitious astronomer who discovers irrefutable evidence of extraterrestrial life, leading to the construction of a device that may bring forth a new evolution in space travel. Plus, in another interesting connection to Interstellar, this transfixing and highly imaginative hit from director Robert Zemeckis is also a father-daughter story at its core, making it one of the most emotionally resonant and memorably unique space movies ever.
Ad Astra (2019)
At its core, this space travel hit is a father-son story, but not in a particularly heartwarming or inspiring way, to be honest. In Ad Astra (which translates from Latin to “to the stars”), Brad Pitt plays the son of a long-missing astronaut (Tommy Lee Jones) who now has the chance to finally find him when NASA suspects he is the cause of a strange threat to Earth. What director James Gray’s epic admittedly lacks in truly engaging emotional appeal, it greatly makes up for with stunning visuals and an extremely plausible, futuristic depiction of commercial space travel which I am sure Elon Musk got a real kick out of, despite the film’s boldness in not shying away from its potential dangers as well.
Any good space movie understands the dangers of space travel in any capacity, just like this creative gem of a sci-fi thriller from writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle, marking their first reunion after 2002’s 28 Days Later. When the Sun begins to lose its spark an international crew of astronauts (played by Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, and more) are sent to revive it with a nuclear blast. Almost like Armageddon with a bigger brain, Sunshine is a real nail-biter of a concept elevated by a thoroughly inventive storyline and an engrossing visual scope.
Another conceptual nailbiter with an inventive storyline and clever visuals is Moon, but its intensity comes from a more emotionally distressing place. Sam Rockwell gives one of the most memorable sad astronaut performances as a man nearing the end of his three-year mission retrieving resources from the lunar surface when he makes a startling discovery that changes the outlook of his career and his entire life. The criminally underrated debut of director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) is less concerned with the horrors of space travel than most of the other entries on our list, but brilliantly uses outer space as a backdrop for a gripping tale of existential dread.
The ultimate potential horror of space travel is contact with the unknown, and one film has maintained a reputation as the ultimate horror movie to touch on that subject. In the first installment of the ongoing Alien movies franchise, a commercial spaceship crew answers a distress call from a distant moon and the investigation brings them to the groundbreaking discovery of an extraterrestrial life form that puts everyone on the crew at risk of a brutal fate. Director Ridley Scott’s brilliantly crafted fusion of a cosmic epic with the pulse-pounding feeling of a slasher movie is also famous for introducing one of the most badass female characters in sci-fi history: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.
A nice palette cleanser from all the doom and gloom in most of the space movies above is this uplifting Pixar movies classic that does touch on some, otherwise, frighteningly plausible themes. Director Andrew Stanton’s dark vision of an uninhabitable, abandoned Earth is brilliantly filtered through the adorably charismatic titular robot left to clean up its mess, whose mission (and loneliness) appears to be reaching its end upon the arrival of a mysterious, advanced robot named EVE. Topping many critics “Best Of” lists for 2008 and taking home that year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature, WALL-E is a beautiful, thought-provoking masterpiece even beyond today’s standards of animated cinema.
The Star Wars movies or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films make space travel look fun, until you see these movies and begin to reconsider that thought. At least we can say that space movies give us a rush that most Earthbound adventures cannot hold a candle to.
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Jason Wiese writes feature stories for CinemaBlend. His occupation results from years dreaming of a filmmaking career, settling on a "professional film fan" career, studying journalism at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO (where he served as Culture Editor for its student-run print and online publications), and a brief stint of reviewing movies for fun. He would later continue that side-hustle of film criticism on TikTok (@wiesewisdom), where he posts videos on a semi-weekly basis. Look for his name in almost any article about Batman.