The release of Ad Astra made us wonder: what are the greatest space movies ever made? Here’s Sarah Ward’s list of unmissable classics.
When the protagonist of Ad Astra, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), rockets beyond the earth, he takes a lifetime of baggage with him. Three decades after his father launched into the sky, the dedicated astronaut charts his trail. James Gray’s film follows his journey in turn, flying in the jetstream of its entire genre.
Reaching for the stars has long been one of cinema’s obsessions, since Georges Méliès took viewers to the moon in 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune. It’s a fertile realm, sparking stories about exploration and pondering humanity’s place in the universe. And, as you’ll see in the list below of the greatest space movies, isn’t short on highlights.
Like the monolith that towers over its prehistoric apes, changing their behaviour and altering the course of earth’s history, 2001: A Space Odyssey looms large over the space film genre. Co-written by Arthur C. Clarke, Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 feature is the greatest space movie ever made and the greatest movie in general.
Ever the meticulous, probing director, Kubrick’s exacting tendencies leave an imprint on every frame. However it’s 2001’s existentialist musings on evolution, technology, life both human and extra-terrestrial, and intelligence both organic and artificial that are unshakeable. This epic doesn’t just soar – it dances to the fluid sounds of The Blue Danube.
When Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Stanisław Lem’s Solaris in 1972, his was the second film to do so. Thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 version, it wasn’t the last; however it is the benchmark.
Set on a space research station orbiting the titular planet, Solaris grapples with the world beyond ordinary human knowledge and experience, as well as the world within it – and how, even while floating in space, our emotions and memories create their own universe. Striking both to watch and to contemplate, Tarkovsky’s film ranks among the most sensitive, smart and substantial additions to a realm that routinely displays all three traits.
Spawning the best space franchise there is, Alien is as thrilling as it is formidable. Watching as a xenomorph stalks and terrorises the spaceship Nostromo, Ridley Scott’s feature draws upon myths, fears and existential woes to wring every ounce of suspense out of its premise and setting.
Serving up a masterclass in confined horror, and giving cinema one its best heroines ever in Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, Alien sparked a series that has grown and evolved just like its eponymous extraterrestrial. That includes Scott’s return to the fold for 2012’s Prometheus and 2017’s Alien: Covenant, embracing the franchise’s deeply ruminative underpinnings.
Before First Man explored Neil Armstrong’s ascension through NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs, and his eventual footsteps on the moon, The Right Stuff focused on Project Mercury – the US’s first crewed spaceflight. The historical drama spends ample time on earth; however Philip Kaufman’s epic remains both ambitious and engrossing.
Based on Tom Wolff’s non-fiction book, it’s an exploration of perseverance, ingenuity and courage, as well as an examination of the circus that surrounds such a mammoth endeavour. Stellar performances help, including from Sam Shepard — and, unsurprisingly, The Right Stuff particularly soars when its pilots do just that.
In the hands of a post-Forrest Gump Robert Zemeckis, Carl Sagan’s Contact made a moving leap from the page to the screen. Dissecting the science-versus-faith debate, it’s the 1990s’ brainy, philosophical space picture, complete with a weighty performance from Jodie Foster as a researcher communicating with aliens and a fine early-career turn from Matthew McConaughey. While Independence Day might’ve been the bigger sci-fi box-office success of the decade, this story about reaching out to extraterrestrials offers a stirring and reflective alternative.
With Sunshine, Danny Boyle shoots for the sun, sending a crew to reignite the earth’s pivotal star in the year 2057. That a spaceship’s inhabitants mightn’t make it home can often be left unsaid, but that’s not the case in Alex Garland’s twisty, intelligent screenplay.
An excellent international cast that includes Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh and Benedict Wong all ponder their earth-saving mission, their mortality, and their best and worst traits. Boyle has always jumped around genres, but this brand of sci-fi suits him.
Its opening nine minutes represent Pixar at its best. The beloved animation studio’s glimpse into the future turns a trash-compacting robot into a symbol of humanity’s failures and fears, while also taking our lazy, wasteful tendencies to an extreme that’s insightful, amusing and not all that far-fetched.
Such a story shouldn’t be this delightful. But Pixar’s adorable, perceptive family-friendly film tackles its thoughtful premise in a lively way. More than that, it also renders its vision of space, and life on a spaceship, in the same manner.
A lunar station. A hefty supply of helium-3 to mine. Multiple Sam Rockwells. Duncan Jones’ filmmaking debut takes Nathan Parker’s savvy sci-fi screenplay, embraces its mind-bending concept, and turns it into a space thriller as well as an existential drama. The key, long before he won one Oscar and was nominated for another, is Rockwell.
Moon boasts a fantastic sense of levity and makes the most of a vivid set, but Rockwell pilots this movie at his loose yet contemplative (and dancing) best. It should come as little surprise that the role was specifically written for the ever-dynamic actor.
Stranded alone in space after a trip to service the Hubble Telescope goes wrong, only George Clooney’s veteran astronaut could hear Sandra Bullock’s mission specialist scream. Moviegoers everywhere did too, of course, with Alfonso Cuarón’s seven-time Academy Award winner deservingly becoming a box-office behemoth.
Visually and emotionally, Gravity takes audiences on an involving trip, perfecting both the wonder and terror of venturing beyond humanity’s pale blue dot. At its heart, though, this is a masterful survival film, with the vast emptiness of space amplifying a galaxy’s worth of life-or-death worries.
The space movie genre isn’t short on standouts, and isn’t averse to taking risks. Still, few films stand out quite like High Life, or prove so willing to commit to a provocative story. With Claire Denis at the helm, that’s to be expected.
In her English-language debut, the acclaimed French auteur makes the kind of sci-fi feature only she could. The basics seem familiar, as a crew ventures into the unknown on a crucial mission. But with Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche along for the ride (and excellent as ever), this is far from standard.