12 Greatest Outer Space Movies
These films show what it’s like to travel in space, encounter extraterrestrials and/or battle monstrous creatures from another planet
The movies on this list tend to emphasize the difficulties of traveling through space and landing on other worlds; or they may explore the issues regarding contact with an alien civilization. And many provide good scientific verisimilitude, relying on the theoretical discoveries of such scientists as Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking.
Some of these movies, while definitely science fiction (with elements of fantasy perhaps), may contain little or no science. For instance, in Star Wars the scientific mechanism behind “the Force” was never explained, yet it’s the thematic basis of the entire movie (and all of its prequels and sequels). It could be said that such movies were made for entertainment rather than education or enlightenment. George Lucas has called Star Wars “fun.”
Moreover, some of these films are not strictly science fiction; after all, humankind has traveled to the moon many times and continues living in the International Space Station; therefore, such movies belong in the action-adventure or docudrama genres.
Now let’s countdown on the list of the 12 Greatest Outer Space Movies:
12. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Landing the first men on Mars is generally a good premise for a space movie. Couple that idea with Daniel Defoe’s classic survival tale, Robinson Crusoe, and you have the basics of a tremendous, popcorn-eating, action-adventure, sci-fi flicker. In this film, two American astronauts do indeed land on Mars, though one doesn’t make it alive. The lone survivor, Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee), along with Mona the monkey, learn how to survive on Mars, which is pretty much as it appears these days, except you cannot walk around on the planet without a spacesuit, as Commander Draper was able to do. Eventually Draper encounters a dark-skinned humanoid slave who escapes from laser wielding aliens, the faces of which we never see. Then Draper dubs this man "Friday." Perhaps corny by present standards, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is still a thrilling adventure tale every sci-fi buff should see at least once.
11. Forbidden Planet (1956)
In terms of film scenarios, the only sci-fi movie plot that’s been ripped off more than 2001 is that of Forbidden Planet. Set in the twenty-third century, a starship - looking like the prototypical flying saucer - journeys to Altair IV, a bleak planet where an expedition had come 20 years before. The only survivors of the prior expedition are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his lovely daughter (Anne Francis). The crew of the spaceship eventually learns that Dr. Morbius has discovered the advanced technology of the Krell, a race of extinct aliens. Commander John Adams (Leslie Nielsen) wants to share the Krell’s technology with the people of earth, but Morbius refuses. A monster from Morbius’ subconscious then begins murdering crew members, who soon must flee before Dr. Morbius destroys the planet along with the wonders of the Krell.
10. War of the Worlds (1953)
This flicker is based on H.G. Wells’ famous science fiction novel about an alien invasion from Mars that takes place in Victorian England. The plot of the movie updated to fit the modern world of the atomic age in the United States, a race of bug-eyed creatures lands in Manta Ray-shaped spaceships, which soon wreak havoc on human civilization by wielding powerful heat rays. Seemingly, nothing can stop these tentacled beings from another world; however, lacking immunity to earth’s pathogens, the invaders eventually perish. Anyway, Steven Spielberg directed an updated version of the tale in 2005, but the aliens don’t invade from Mars - they emerge from underground. Sorry. Only movies about invaders from space qualify for this humble list!
9. Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope (1977)
The first movie that launched a franchise, and certainly one of the most popular movies of all time, Star Wars, called an epic American space opera, written and directed by George Lucas, has millions, if not billions of fans worldwide. There’s not much science in this movie (space ships fly though space like jet fighters, sound effects and all), but it’s loaded with space battles and encounters with alien creatures in a galaxy far, far away, so most audiences haven’t been disappointed. Anyway, the movie involves the adventures of five main characters: Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi, Princess Leia and Han Solo, all of which enmeshed in a never-ending battle between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance. The movie spawned two very successful sequels in the 1980s and three less successful prequels in the 1990s and 2000s.
8. The Right Stuff (1983)
Based on the book by Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff chronicles the exploits of American test pilots in the late 1940s and early Fifties, e.g. Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier aboard the X-1 in 1947. In the early 1960s some of these test pilots become America’s first astronauts, known as the Mercury Seven. The movie shows Alan Sheppard (Scott Glenn) as he becomes America’s first man in space in 1961. The rest of the film covers the other exploits of the Mercury Seven astronauts, whom Chuck Yeager dismissively calls “spam in a can.” At the end of the flick, Yeager is nearly killed as he tries to break the altitude record flying the Lockheed NF 104-A, proving, nevertheless, that he still has the right stuff. The movie is excellent when showing the dangerous conditions test pilots and early astronauts had to endure.
7. Gravity (2013)
If there’s a movie that excels at showing what it’s like to travel and work in space, Gravity fits the bill. The story is about two astronauts – Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) – who are marooned in space, when a Russian satellite, purposely destroyed by a Russian missile, scatters satellite debris across the orbits of the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, all of which are trashed by these deadly projectiles. Stone and Kowalski soon realize that the only way to escape death, particularly from a dwindling oxygen supply, is to venture to the Chinese Space Station Tiangong and use its escape capsule to descend to earth. In general, the science behind this movie is solid and the film wins seven Academy Awards.
6. Apollo 13 (1995)
The Apollo moon missions were certainly spectacular events, involving humankind’s greatest technological achievement of the twentieth century, if not all time. This movie is about the flight of Apollo 13, which, while drifting toward the moon for an eventual landing, suffers a malfunction during a routine mixing of the ship’s oxygen tanks. One of the tanks explodes, which causes the ship to tumble out of control, prompting the alarm from Commander Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem.” Having lost much of the ship’s oxygen, Mission Control cancels the mission. Then the three-man crew, led by Lovell (Tom Hanks), must somehow return to earth, which they do, of course, despite many problems. An authentic depiction of space travel, Apollo 13 won numerous awards, including two of those Academy ones.
5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Relying heavily on the clichés of the times, as perhaps all science fiction movies do, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was about a common man, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), who becomes obsessed with the image of Devils Tower in Wyoming after having an encounter with a UFO. At about the same time, other people have encounters with UFOs. Investigators also find lost aircraft and ships, such as the famous Flight 19 Avengers and the cargo ship, Cotopaxi. Eventually the UFOs direct the authorities and Neary to Devils Tower, where much larger UFOs soon arrive. The ETs show themselves too, looking very much like quintessential aliens or “greys,” and many missing people are returned to the earthlings, including the pilots of Flight 19. Along with the release of Star Wars, 1977 was a very good year for outer space movies.
4. Contact (1997)
Based on Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, Contact is about Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodie Foster), a SETI scientist who finds evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials. Arroway detects radio transmissions coming from the star Vega, 25 light years away. Investigators soon discover that the transmissions contain 60,000 pages of blueprints for what appears to be a complex machine with room for only one human. A colleague of Arroway is chosen to pilot the machine, but a religious fanatic destroys him and the machine. Fortunately, though, another identical machine was built and Arroway is chosen to pilot it. Traveling through wormholes, Arroway journeys to another planet and finds an alien in the guise of her deceased father. The alien tells Arroway that humankind is now on its way to the stars. Then Arroway loses consciousness and awakens 18 hours later on the floor of the machine. Her recording device reveals nothing about the trip except 18 hours of static.
3. Interstellar (2014)
In the not-so-distant future, earth suffers a crop blight which threatens the survival of civilization. NASA enlists former astronaut Cooper (Mathew McConaughey) to venture to another star system, where three planets have already been surveyed by other astronauts. As the story goes, an alien civilization has created a wormhole through which astronauts can travel trillions of miles in only days. The hope is that one of these planets will be suitable for earth’s surviving people. Anyway, along the way, Cooper and the other astronauts encounter effects caused by massive gravitational fields, which, warping space-time, cause time dilation – one hour for the astronauts equals seven years for people back on earth. Altogether, Interstellar is excellent in its use of advanced astrophysical theories, particularly Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It also “borrows” heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Hey, if you're gonna borrow . . . !
2. Alien (1979)
Many outer space movies involve a monster running amok scenario, and Alien is perhaps the best of this bunch. Sigourney Weaver stars as Warrant Officer Ripley who commands the spaceship Nostromo. (Up to this point in American movies, few women commanded any kind of ship). Anyway, the 7-member crew of the Nostromo investigates a distress call and lands on a small planet where an alien spaceship had been abandoned many years before. The crew enters the mysterious vessel, where an alien creature attaches itself to crew member Kane (John Hurt). Even though Ripley demands a quarantine of the afflicted crew member, an android allows Kane inside the Nostromo. Later, in one of the most iconic scenes in all sci-fi movies, a monstrous creature erupts from the chest of Kane. Seemingly growing larger by the hour, the monster then attacks the crew one by one.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (perhaps the greatest science fiction writer of all time), 2001: A Space Odyssey is so good it’s considered an epic movie in the tradition of such films. Interestingly, a joint effort by both the British and the Americans, it was filmed almost entirely in England. The film has four different acts: an ape-man wields an animal bone, perhaps humankind’s first tool or weapon; scientists investigate an alien monolith on the moon; two astronauts and the HAL 9000 computer journey to Jupiter; and Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) enters the Jupiter monolith wormhole and comes out the other end as a Star Child. These days, people are still trying to figure out exactly what happens in this movie, and if there’s a better outer space flick out there, the author cannot identify it.
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© 2015 Kelley
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