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What defines a space movie? Does it actually have to take place in space and, if so, how much? 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 with physical copies (if you still prefer those).
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 almost entirely 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 inspire homesickness. The following are our 14 favorite space movies and where to find them, starting with one of the subgenre’s most shocking true stories.
Apollo 13 (1995)
In April of 1970, three astronauts (Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton) 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. 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 fantasy that every astronaut before him had envisioned by being the first person to ever 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. Director Damien Chazelle casts his La La Land star Ryan Gosling as the titular First Man in this revealing biopic with Oscar-winning visual effects which place you right in the front seat of the Space Race… almost literally.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Of course, for those who want to get the full story of the Space Race, they will have to start here. Inspired by the award-winning book written by Tom Wolfe, 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 buried underneath the Lunar surface, which evolves into a fierce battle for supremacy between man and machine.
Likely one of the most stunning examples of the lasting influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is this, otherwise, stunningly unique space odyssey which earned director Alfonso Cuaron his first Academy Award for that category in 2014. In fact, Gravity would win six other Oscars - completely and deservedly sweeping the technical categories that year for its unbelievably vivid recreation of outer space in all its beauty and, more importantly, its cold brutality, with nearly seamless cinematography and gorgeous special effects which will have you holding your breath from beginning to end. Most remarkably, the film is only 90-minutes and boasts a relatively simply 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.
Speaking of larger than life, Christopher Nolan knows no other way to make films, and Interstellar may be his most ambitious and potent example of that on record thus far. 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 up to become Jessica Chastain while his mission turns out to be much a 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, The Martian is director Ridley Scott’s thoroughly entertaining adaptation of the novel by writer Andy Weir (originally published in chapters on an online forum) about an astronaut named Mark Watney who is accidentally 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 ensure his own survival. For all of its gorgeous imagery, thrilling suspense, and braininess, to me, 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 this underrated, animated gem, co-directed by the legendary Don Bluth, Damon voices a young man from the 31st Century, and one of the few survivors 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 ship called the Titan, if only he can reach it before an enemy alien race can. 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 can enjoy.
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 is core, making it one of the most emotionally resonant and memorably unique space movies ever.
Ad Astra (2019)
At its core, this more recent 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 phenomena that greatly threatens the 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.
Of course, any good space movie understands the dangers of space travel in any capacity, just like this creative gem of a sci-fi thriller. In writer Alex Garland’s second collaboration with director Danny Boyle (following 2002’s 28 Days Later), the Sun is beginning to lose its spark, which is no good for Earth, and a crew of astronauts from around the world (including Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, and future Captain America actor Chris Evans) 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.
Speaking of conceptual nail biters with inventive storylines and clever visuals, Moon is also all of that, but less in a cataclysmic way and more in a personally distressing way. It stars Sam Rockwell as an astronaut and Kevin Spacey as the voice of an AI named GERTY who are nearing the end of their three-year mission to retrieve resources for Earth from the lunar surface when our human protagonist makes a startling discovery which 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.
Of course, 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. When a commercial spaceship crew answers a distress call from a distant moon, their investigation brings them to the groundbreaking discovery of an extraterrestrial life form which puts everyone on the crew at risk of a brutal fate. From The Martian director Ridley Scott, Alien is the brilliantly crafted fusion of a sci-fi epic with the pulse-pounding feeling of a slasher movie that introduced the world to one of the most badass characters in cinema: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley.
A nice palette cleanser from all the doom and gloom that most of the space movies above would have you endure 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 beautiful, thought-provoking masterpiece even beyond today’s standards of animated cinema.
The Star Wars movies or Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 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. Who knows extraterrestrial territories we will explore in 2021 movies and beyond? Until then, is there a star-bound adventure that excites you the most?