This year’s release of Europa Report and Gravity got me on a marathon of outer-space films. So here’s my pick-list. If you’re surprised there are only eight, it’s because I have a focus. The web is flooded with “best space movies”, but most are superficial, including highly futuristic blockbusters (like Star Wars), and even superior indie flicks (like Solaris) in which the outer-space settings are incidental to the plot. My picks involve crews of astronauts on an outbound missions (typically investigative or rescue) and catastrophic hazards inside the ship or EVA. These are the films that make you really feel like you’re in outer space and sharing the zero-g environments of the characters.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick, 1968. 5 stars. Any credible outer-space list has to lead with Kubrick’s masterpiece. What can be said that hasn’t? It doesn’t matter that its vision of the year 2001 is obsolete; it’s an ecstatically experiential film. You take in the vastness of space through some of the most euphoric imagery ever put on celluloid. Re-watching it with the others on this list was interesting, because it allowed me to get more out of it than the “Kubrick experience”. Which means I really got less out of it: for the first time (my fifth viewing in life) I could sideline all the transcendent mysteries and just enjoy the ride — the patiently plotted mission to the ice moon Europa.
Setting: Mission to Europa; Year 2001.
Ship: Discovery One.
Body Count: 4/5. Dr. Bowman is transformed into the Star Child.
2. Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979. 5 stars. This remains the scariest sci-fic film ever made, and the early scenes with Nostromo’s crew exploring the hostile planet still get my gut in knots. If Kubrick’s classic showed space travel to be an awe-inspiring wonder, Scott’s masterpiece showed the underside with claustrophobia, isolation, and invincible savagery. I never cease to be amazed at those who insist that James Cameron’s sequel is superior. Aliens is just Alien on steroids, and not even a fifth as scary; it’s a blockbuster involving military personnel whose job to die defending others. In Scott’s classic we feel the raw terror of six civilians stranded in space, hunted and devoured one by one.
Setting: Mission to LV-426; Year 2122.
Body Count: 6/7. Ripley the sole survivor.
3. Sunshine, Danny Boyle, 2007. 5 stars. I can’t say enough about this film. It postulates a near future in which the sun is dying, and a crew embarks on a mission to deliver a thermo-nuclear payload that will re-ignite the sun’s fire. Captain Kaneda’s death is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any film, and from that early point the mission becomes one calamity after the next. Crew members have to sacrifice themselves, and they even contemplate murdering the one of them “least fit” in order to save oxygen. It soon becomes clear that it’s a suicide mission. On top of all this, there is the terrifying subplot of a hideously disfigured religious fanatic who believes God wants humanity to die, and does everything he can to slaughter the crew. The visuals are absolutely stunning.
Setting: Mission to the dying Sun; Year 2057.
Ship: Icarus II.
Body Count: 8/8. All astronauts die.
4. Europa Report, Sebastián Cordero, 2013. 4 ½ stars. Don’t be put off by rumors of the quasi-documentary approach. This film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the wonder and terror as a film like this should. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.
Setting: Mission to Europa; Year 2013 (?).
Ship: Europa One.
Body Count: 6/6. All astronauts die.
5. Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, 2013. 4 ½ stars. I’m not a fan of 3D, but I admit this film totally demands the format. It effected me the way I wanted Apollo 13 to back in the ’90s, and even if it doesn’t carry the power of being a true story, it’s the better for eventually isolating a single lone survivor. It underscores the deathly beautiful silence of outer space, punctuated with assaults of flying shrapnel and horrifying mechanical failures at the right moments. It’s a visually perfect film. Some say it’s a future setting, others say it’s in the past, given the reliance on space shuttles. It’s not science-fiction in any case; like Apollo 13 it’s a desperate attempt to return from the Earth’s orbit to the surface when everything goes wrong.
Setting: Mission STS-157; Year 2013 (?).
Body Count: 4/5. Dr. Stone the sole survivor.
6. Event Horizon, Paul Anderson, 1997. 4 ½ stars. This was hammered by the critics but is now a cult classic, and as far as I’m concerned the best space-horror film after Alien. It’s essentially The Shining in deep space, with a space vessel standing in for the Overlook Hotel. The vessel is powered by a gravity drive that makes light-years of travel possible in an instant, but unfortunately also taps into power beyond space and time, bringing nightmares to life and causing people to revel in blood and carnage. There are slaughter scenes here to rival those of Hellraiser, but on a far creepier level. You never lose the deep-space feeling in these haunted walkways, and there’s a particular EVA rescue scene that’s nasty.
Setting: Mission to Neptune; Year 2047.
Ship: Lewis and Clark.
Body Count: 5/8. Three astronauts survive.
7. Mission to Mars, Brian DePalma, 2000. 4 stars. This one has a poor reputation, and I’m not sure why. It’s very good for a DePalma film, and while he was clearly inspired by James Cameron’s The Abyss, he inverts a lot of Cameron’s cheesy tendencies. He even has the balls to answer where life on earth came from: we learn that our human precursors began on Mars, and then seeded their DNA on Earth when the planet went red and became uninhabitable. The best part is the rescue operation which sees the crew needing to rescue themselves and damn near failing — the EVA scenes and the loss of the Tim Robbins character is a solid pay-off to the earlier scene in the ship where he and his wife are dancing in zero-g.
Setting: Mission to Mars; Year 2020.
Ships: Mars I and Mars II.
Body Count: 4/8. Three of four die in the first mission. One of four dies in the rescue mission.
8. Apollo 13, Ron Howard, 1995. 4 stars. The true story that happened when I was less than two years old. Revisiting it after the incredible visuals of Gravity, I expected to be let down, but it holds up mostly well. Except for the frequent scenes of Jim Lovell’s family reacting to news on TV, which are melodramatic and interrupt what matters on the Apollo and at Houston Control. It’s a miracle these three guys made it back to Earth, especially how they were coached to preserve their power and oxygen (my favorite being the make-shift filter to scrub the CO2 that was poisoning them). It’s the only film on this list in which “everyone lives”, and the only reason it doesn’t feel like a cheat is because that’s what actually happened!
Setting: Mission to the Moon; Year 1970.
Ship: Apollo 13.
Body Count: 0/3. All three astronauts live.
Marathon Watching Order
Those are my rankings, but this is my recommended watching order for a marathon, by chronology. It’s nice how similar themes end up back to back (two Earth-orbit missions, followed by two Europa missions, etc.), with a general escalation of menace.
1. Apollo 13.
3. Space Odyssey.
4. Europa Report.
5. Mission to Mars.
6. Event Horizon.