Our film critics didn’t come away from Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar with much praise, but it did get us thinking about other flicks — epics, comedies, and truly weird classics — set in or about the great beyond. Below are our 25 favorite space movies since the Big Bang.
25. Ice Pirates (1984)
In this undistinguished parody of the sci-fi genre, Robert Urich is Jason, who leads a band of pirates in redistributing the wealth of the few to the coffers of the needy. He also joins up with Princess Karina Mary Crosby in searching for her father and a possible source of water in the next galaxy. Meant to be a campy romp, the film stops short of achieving a goal that should have been effortless. — Eleanor Mannikka
24. Event Horizon (1997)
In this sci-fi/horror scarefest, Dr. William Weir (Sam Neill) is a scientist who has designed a spacecraft called the Event Horizon that will explore the outer reaches of space past the planet Neptune; the ship employs a special transport mechanism that, in effect, creates a black hole that the ship can pass through, allowing it to travel tremendous distances in a few seconds. The Event Horizon mysteriously disappears in the midst of a mission, with no trace of either the ship or its crew, but it reappears in Neptune’s orbit after a seven-year absence, and it’s sending out a distress signal. The spaceship Lewis and Clark, and Dr. Weir, are sent to investigate; the crew — Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne), pilot Smith (Sean Pertwee), engineer Justin (Jack Noseworthy), navigator Starck (Joely Richardson), physician D.J. (Jason Isaacs), and emergency technicians Peters (Kathleen Quinlan) and Cooper (Richard T. Jones) — are already tired and unenthusiastic about this assignment, and somewhat confused by Weir’s reports. The crew of the Lewis and Clark are convinced that Weir is not telling them something, and when they discover the Event Horizon, they find that things are not what they seem, and an evil presence has taken over the ship. Incidentally, the term event horizon describes the outer boundaries of a black hole. — Mark Deming
23. Contact (1997)
From our 1997 review: Adapted from the Reagan-era bestseller written by the late public-TV astro-populizer Carl Sagan, this account of the most benign interplanetary interaction since the heyday of E.T. falls somewhere between the golden anniversary of the Roswell Event and NASA’s own summer blockbuster, Pathfinder on Mars. Mainly, however, it’s a search for the lost daddy — a spectacle at once laughable and glum. ¶ The orphan of Bedford Falls, astrogenius Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster), has developed her precocious interest in ham radio to an obsessive search for life in the cosmos, most pithily (if pitifully) summarized by the flashback to her prepubescent postfuneral shortwave plea: “Dad — are you there?” Never less than earnest, even when enjoying a postcoital snuggle with resident hunk Matthew McConaughey, Foster battles the bureaucratic blob blocking her “journey to the heart of the universe,” but seems most at home in the role of a grade-school teacher. She’s a gracious fount of wisdom who ends the movie posed as Rodin’s Thinker. — J. Hoberman
22. Cocoon (1985)
Cocoon is a warm-hearted science-fiction fable that avoids becoming overly corny thanks to the performances of its mostly senior cast. Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche, and Hume Cronyn are three old-timers who sneak out of their retirement home a few days a week to swim in the large pool on an abandoned estate next door. When the threesome begins to feel curiously younger, they discover strange pods on the floor of the pool. These pods are alien cocoons, which are being pulled from the ocean by a team of extraterrestrials in human form led by Walter (Brian Dennehy), who has hired a local charter operator (Steve Guttenberg) to assist him. Walter explains to the seniors that energy from the cocoons is restoring youth and vigor to the older men every time they go for a dip. The aliens agree to let the men continue to swim in secret, but of course they can’t keep their discovery to themselves. Soon the pool is swarming with retirees, with the notable exception of Bernie (Jack Gilford), who has no interest in prolonging life any longer than necessary. The aliens ultimately prepare to return home and offer the retirees eternal life if they leave Earth behind as well. Director Ron Howard treats his old-timers with care and dignity, and they respond with deeply sympathetic performances (Ameche won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar); the film’s science-fiction trappings ably sustain the story’s all-too-human ruminations on youth, aging, life, and death. — Don Kaye
21. Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
A campy tale about a team of astronauts who land on the moon and find it inhabited by telepathic cat-women who scheme to get a ride to Earth.
20. Barbarella (1968)
The ridiculously long tagline for the camp sci-fi flick Barbarella asks: “Who seduces an angel? Who strips in space? Who conveys love by hand? Who gives up the pill? Who takes sex to outer space?” Why, it’s Jane Fonda as Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy, of course. Set in the year 40,000, the film follows our sexy heroine on a mission to stop the evil scientist Durand Durand (and yes, in case you’re wondering, that’s where they got their name) from destroying the galaxy with his sexually sinful ways. Her journey takes her to the heights and depths of carnal desire as she encounters orgasmic musical instruments, a lesbian sorceress who can turn fantasies into reality, and hookah-smoking ladies who inhale the “essence of man.” The film was a box-office bomb back in its day but has since become a cult classic, influencing many musicians, among others (such as Prince, Jamiroquai, and Matmos). — Eudie Pak
19. Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard re-created the drama of the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 moon mission — the failure that showed NASA at its best — with nail-biting detail and spectacular visual integrity.
18. Zardoz (1974)
A resident of 23rd-century Earth becomes involved in a revolution after discovering the hidden truth about society’s rulers in director John Boorman’s sci-fi drama. Sean Connery plays Zed, the central rebel, who begins the film as a member of the Exterminators, a band of skilled assassins who exact a reign of terror over the lesser Brutals. The Exterminators answer only to their god, a gigantic stone image known as Zardoz. Haunted by doubt about Zardoz’s true divinity, Zed chooses to investigate. His disbelief is confirmed when the god proves to be a fraudulent tool of the Eternals, a secret society of brilliant immortals who pretend to divinity in order to exploit the masses. Knowing the truth, Zed sets out to reveal the hoax and destroy the Eternals’ unjust rule. — Judd Blaise
10. Mission to Mars (2000)
Despite an ending that out-Spielbergs the master, Mission to Mars mainly coarsens 2001 in its mix of cosmic consciousness and “naturalistic” product placement (Dr. Pepper bloblets and multicolored M&M’s floating around the cockpit). As in the Kubrick trip, the middle voyage is best. Halfway through, [Brian] De Palma literally explodes his narrative to orchestrate a superb deep-space float-opera replete with runaway modules, high-tech lassos, dramatic self-sacrifice, and, in the most surprising maneuver, a montage-driven modicum of actual suspense. — J. Hoberman
9. Forbidden Planet (1956)
A dutiful robot named Robby speaks 188 languages. An underground lair provides astonishing evidence of a populace a million years more advanced than earthlings. There are many wonders on Altair-4, but none is greater or more deadly than the human mind. Forbidden Planet is the granddaddy of tomorrow, a pioneering work whose ideas and style would be reverse-engineered into many cinematic space voyages to come. Leslie Nielsen portrays the commander who brings his spacecruiser crew to the green-skied Altair-4 world that’s home to Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter (Anne Francis), the remarkable Robby…and to a mysterious terror.
11. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
All of Washington, D.C., is thrown into a panic when an extraterrestrial spacecraft lands near the White House. Out steps Klaatu (Michael Rennie, in a role intended for Claude Rains), a handsome and soft-spoken interplanetary traveler, whose bodyguard is Gort (Lock Martin), a huge robot who spews forth laser-like death rays when danger threatens. After being wounded by an overzealous soldier, Klaatu announces that he has a message of the gravest importance for all humankind, which he will deliver only when all the leaders of all nations will agree to meet with him. World politics being what they are in 1951, Klaatu’s demands are turned down and he is ordered to remain in the hospital, where his wounds are being tended. Klaatu escapes, taking refuge in a boarding house, where he poses as one Mr. Carpenter (one of the film’s many parallels between Klaatu and Christ). There the benign alien gains the confidence of a lovely widow (Patricia Neal) and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray), neither of whom tumble to his other-worldly origins, and seeks out the gentleman whom Bobby regards as the smartest man in the world — an Einstein-like scientist, Dr. Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe). The next day, at precisely 12 o’clock, Klaatu arranges for the world to stand still — he shuts down all electrical power in the world, with the exception of essentials like hospitals and planes in flight. Directed by Robert Wise, who edited Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for director Orson Welles before going on to direct such major 1960s musicals as West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), The Day the Earth Stood Still was based on the story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. — Hal Erickson
12. Sunshine (2007)
It is the year 2057. Approximately 5 billion years ahead of schedule, the sun is beginning to die. In a desperate attempt to keep the lights on, global resources have been directed toward a solution, presumably with input from Al Gore and the writers of Armageddon. A team of experts will deposit a bomb the size of Manhattan inside the fading light, thus — theoretically — giving birth to a vigorous new star. Given its ominous name (was Fat Chance already taken?), it comes as no surprise that the first Icarus expedition failed and then vanished. Enter Icarus II, a fresh crew, and the convolutions of Sunshine, a heady science fiction written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle. — Nathan Lee
13. Flash Gordon (1980)
Heroic earthling Flash Gordon saves the world from the nefarious Ming the Merciless in this lavish, intentionally campy adaptation of the famous sci-fi comic strip. The story is as basic as space operas get: Ming (Max von Sydow) has developed a plan to destroy the Earth, and Flash (Sam J. Jones) and his attractive companion, Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), are called upon to stop him. Along the way, Flash must battle Ming’s goons and the temptations of a luscious space princess. Previously the basis for a more straight-faced 1930s adventure serial, Flash’s story is mined here for exaggerated, cartoon humor by screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., a central figure in the similarly campy ’60s Batman television series. The simplistic plot mainly serves as an excuse for spectacular sets and cartoonish action sequences, all set to an appropriately over-the-top rock score by Queen. Certainly not a film to turn to for serious excitement, fine performances, or character development, Flash Gordon has nevertheless developed an appreciative cult of fans who admire the film’s humorous approach and the detailed, colorful production design. — Judd Blaise
14. Serenity (2005)
In Serenity, Joss Whedon finds the old West in outer space, where noble outlaws struggle to stay ahead of the corrupt Alliance (think Star Trek‘s Federation with the whole “boldly go” aspect replaced by pure, autocratic evil). — Matt Singer
17. Wall-E (2008)
A technological tour de force and an aesthetic triumph. The first 20 minutes, transporting us back to the world of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, are sublime but the real miracle is that the standard Disney tropes — adorable critters, rampant sentimentality, asexual eroticism — have been burnt to a crisp and redeployed as beacons of hope in a vision of almost unbearable bleakness. — J. Hoberman
16. Moon (2009)
It is the near future. Astronaut Sam Bell is living on the far side of the moon, completing a three-year contract with Lunar Industries to mine Earth’s primary source of energy, helium-3. It is a lonely job, made harder by a broken satellite that allows no live communications home. Thankfully, his time on the moon is nearly over, and Sam will be reunited with his wife, Tess, and their three-year-old daughter, Eve, in only a few short weeks. Suddenly, Sam’s health starts to deteriorate. Painful headaches, hallucinations, and a lack of focus lead to an almost fatal accident on a routine drive in a lunar rover. While recuperating back at the base (with no memory of how he got there), Sam meets a younger, angrier version of himself, who claims to be there to fulfill the same three-year contract Sam started all those years ago. Confined with what appears to be a clone of his earlier self, and with a “support crew” on its way to help put the base back into productive order, Sam is fighting the clock to discover what’s going on and where he fits in to company plans.
15. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s daft, daring, surrealist, possibly impossible adaptation of Dune, Frank Herbert’s spice-mining science-fiction novel that later proved unadaptable for David Lynch, enjoys the rare benefit of the doubt shared by Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope and Kubrick’s Napoleon. It screens only in the warmest theater of them all: the minds of the faithful who dream of it. — Alan Scherstuhl
8. Alien (1979)
Few films have ever captured the thrill and terror of slowly exploring an alien environment. Of course, back in the day, our critic Tom Allen didn’t feel that way: “[D]espite the elaborate futuristic verismo, Alien falls short of investigative projections like 2001. Alien, indeed, is sloppy science fiction; it is not intellectually concerned with how the future will work.”
7. Galaxy Quest (1999)
For four years, the courageous crew of the NSEA Protector donned their uniforms and set out on thrilling and often dangerous missions in space — then their series was canceled. Twenty years later, the five stars of the classic ’70s series Galaxy Quest are still in costume, making appearances at sci-fi conventions for legions of diehard fans — but some of those fans are a little more far out than the actors could have ever imagined. A group of aliens who have mistaken intercepted television transmissions for “historical documents” arrive at a convention and whisk “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and his crew into space to help them in their all-too-real war against a deadly adversary. With no script, no director, and no clue about real space travel, the actors have to turn in the performance of their lives to become the heroes the aliens believe them to be.
6. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Two words: Mashed potatoes.
5. Gravity (2013)
Some movies are so tense and deeply affecting that they shave years off your life as you’re watching, only to give back that lost time, and more, at the end. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is one of those movies. — Stephanie Zacharek
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
As much a part of American history as the moon landing it presaged, Kubrick’s ultimate head trip is now his most extravagant period piece — a superb, never-repeated exercise in visceral abstraction. — J. Hoberman
3. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The second entry in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the green-as-grass hero from the first film, now a seasoned space warrior. Luke’s Star Wars cohorts Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) are likewise more experienced in the ways and means of battling the insidious Empire, as represented by the brooding Darth Vader (body of David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones). And, of course, The Force, personified by the ghost of Luke’s mentor Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), is with them all. Retreating from Vader’s minions, Luke ends up, at first, on the Ice Planet Hoth, and then the tropical Dagobah. Here he makes the acquaintance of the gnomish Yoda (voice of Frank Oz), whose all-encompassing wisdom comes in handy during the serial-like perils of the rest of the film. Before the film’s open-ended climax, we are introduced to the apparently duplicitous Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and are let in on a secret that profoundly affects both Luke and his arch-enemy, Vader. Many viewers consider this award-winning film the best of the Star Wars movies, and its special-effects bonanza was pure gold at the box office. — Hal Erickson
2. The Right Stuff (1983)
Covering some 15 years, The Right Stuff recounts the formation of America’s space program, concentrating on the original Mercury astronauts. Scott Glenn plays Alan Shepard, the first American in space; Fred Ward is Gus Grissom, the benighted astronaut for whom nothing works out as planned; and Ed Harris is John Glenn, the straight-arrow Boy Scout of the bunch who was the first American to orbit the Earth. The remaining four Mercury boys are Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin), Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank), Wally Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid). Tom Wolfe’s original book related in straightforward fashion the dangers and frustrations facing the astronauts (including Glenn’s oft-repeated complaint that it’s hard to be confident when you know that the missile you’re sitting on has been built by the lowest bidder), the various personal crises involving their families (Glenn’s wife, Annie, a stutterer, dreads being interviewed on television, while Grissom’s wife, Betty, angered that her husband is not regarded as a hero because his mission was a failure, bitterly declares, “I want my parade!”), and the schism between the squeaky-clean public image of the Mercury pilots and their sometimes raunchy earthbound shenanigans. — Hal Erickson
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
You need only the barest sense of the Star Trek mythology to enjoy the myriad layers that make up Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in which William Shatner’s aging James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s eternally youthful Spock take the Starship Enterprise out for another spin. The movie’s special effects are lovely, even if by current standards they look extremely understated: A shot of the Enterprise glowing like a nightlight and gliding through soft black-ink space will remind you why you ever loved special effects in the first place. The Wrath of Khan is magnetically entertaining and sometimes surprisingly touching. Be forewarned that Spock makes a Vulcan-style sacrifice that’s nonetheless so human, you shouldn’t be embarrassed if your eyes water a bit. — Stephanie Zacharek
From our 1982 review: Though it can’t escape its ultimate mission as a TV-dinner version of the Star Wars banquet, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is an immensely entertaining reunion of Kirk, Bones, Spock, Scotty, Uhura, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. A more appropriate title might be Captain Kirk’s Midlife Crisis. Now a Starfleet admiral, Kirk is ensconced in a galactic suburban high-rise not unlike George Jetson’s while pining for the mobile life of “Space — the final frontier.” For Kirk’s birthday, Bones gives him a bottle of wine, vintage 2283, roughly the color of Signal mouthwash. As they toast to the good old days, Kirk sighs, “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” — Carrie Rickey
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