The greatest sci-fi, space travel movies of them all
Seal the airlock, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for liftoff. Ahead of Interstellar's long-awaited release this week, Doug Whelan presents the greatest galactic journeys on the big screen...
When you think about it, the term 'science fiction' is hard to actually put a definition on. Countless books and films exist on the subject though, and author Damon Knight's comment sums it up nicely. "Science fiction is what we point to when we say it," he wrote in 1967.
That said, it's one of the most important (not to mention profitable) genres of cinema, and in the past 100 years, space travel has been used as a metaphor for everything from heartbreak to boredom to imprisonment, madness and beyond.
This week sees the release of the ambitious and highly anticipated Interstellar, which already is being praised for its logical and believable approach to the idea of space travel. To mark the occasion, we decided to compile our favourite space movies; some dramatic, some farcical, but all united in their celebration of the unknown...
The Right Stuff (1983)
Where better to begin than where it all began? This drama about the USA's first attempts to launch a man into space in the 1950s and 1960s boasts an impressive cast and takes a surprisingly thoughtful and dramatic approach to what is essentially a gung-ho, flag-waving tale. It even has a satirical undertone at points. But, in the spirit of all those military-themed movies of the 80s, it takes plenty of time to celebrate the spirit of adventure and how the seven men chosen by NASA to bring the USA in to the future (in fact, they were playing catch up with the Soviets) had the titular "right stuff". And when the 1961 Mercury missions finally take place, we share a sense of wonder and awe with those first astronauts, despite their trips to space only lasting a matter of minutes at a time.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It's almost redundant to go in to ways in which 2001 is a peerless work. Put it this way: the space age had only just begun when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke were predicting what commercial space travel would look like, and they may still be proved right. But that's a minor aside with the philosophical and existential ideas propounded here, including that breathtaking match-cut from a prehistoric bone flung through the air to a spacecraft drifting among the stars… four million years of evolution and advancement summed up in the blink of an eye. 2001 opens for a limited time in Dublin's Light House cinema from November 28. You know what to do.
This little-known sequel to 2001 may seem like sacrilege, but 2010 manages to stand on its own and do its predecessor justice. It also had Stanley Kubrick's blessing. Being the 21st Century through 1980's eyes, in 2010 the Cold War is still hot, leading to tensions when a joint Soviet-American crew is sent to Jupiter to find HAL and investigate the mysterious goings-on 10 years before. 2010 doesn't try to hit the same notes as 2001; instead it's a mix of exploration and intrigue, with a satisfying and optimistic ending.
Silent Running (1972)
Hippy science fiction, that's what this little-known but influential drama can be described as. In the distant future, all forest and plant life on Earth has become extinct, and the last surviving forests are housed in vast biodomes aboard cargo ships orbiting Saturn. When sensitive space-gardener Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) receives orders to destroy the domes and return to Earth, he instead hijacks one of the ships and heads in to the unknown with his plant and animal friends. It's a cautionary tale with a riveting performance by Dern and - get this - a prog-folk soundtrack by Joan Baez that acts as a kind of musical chorus to the events on screen. If you fancy a different kind of sci-fi, seek it out.
Sam Rockwell was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for his role in Moon, which may well be reappraised later as the beginning of a newer, more realist approach to science fiction (along with Gravity and Interstellar). But for now, it's a loving throwback to the likes of Silent Running above and retro 70's TV sci-fi. Sam Bell (Rockwell) has been living alone on the moon for almost three years, the lonely caretaker of a vital mining operation. But when an accident causes him to come face to face with a double of himself, he begins to unravel and question whether his entire existence is a lie. It's emotional, heady stuff and a stunning debut from Duncan Jones. More of this, please.
Writer Dan O'Bannon actually developed the idea for Alien from a throwaway scene in John Carpenter's 1974 farce Dark Star. But there is nothing funny about this haunted house in space which, 35 years later, is still a benchmark of science fiction and horror. The fact that the franchise is still ticking along (Prometheus though…what happened there?) is also a testament to the staying power of H.R. Giger's creature. Whether or not these heights are reached again (doubtful), Alien will remain an untouchable cornerstone of 1970's cinema. Sigourney Weaver recently lent her vocal talents to the video game Alien: Isolation, and we would not be surprised if she reprised her role as Ripley on the big screen one last time. You never know.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff go hand-in-hand here as the only true space stories on our list. That may be, but the real science fiction here was behind the scenes, it being the only film to date shot in true zero gravity. They didn't launch in to space though, the effect was achieved by building the lunar module sets aboard a KC-135 cargo plane and filming with the plane in a nosedive for 25 seconds at a time. Remember, pain is temporary, film is forever.
Two decades on from Apollo 13, film-making technology had advanced sufficiently that such ambitious and complicated film-making techniques had made way for, er, even more ambitious and complicated ones. Gravity is, basically, as close to the experience of being in outer space than most of us will ever get. The sense of the vast nothingness beyond the stratosphere took audiences' collective breaths away, to the tune of $700m at the box office and seven Oscars. In production for four years, director Alfonso Cuarón stated that he did look in to the possibility of shooting his film in space for real, but eventually decided that his $100m would be better invested simulating the environment - to great success, as it turned out. And just think, India's space agency recently put a satellite in orbit around Mars for a mere $72m.
Which brings us neatly to the sci-fi movie of the year, in which Christopher Nolan follows up his Batman trilogy with an emotionally charged and breathtaking trip beyond the stars. Like Moon and Gravity, Interstellar's lofty ideas about space travel and interdimensional what-have-you are presented in a very matter-of-fact way. The spirit of exploration from films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 is present and correct here, but with that unmistakeable Nolan shine. And it's not just wacky sci-fi conjecture either - Nolan worked closely with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne to ensure that the theories of space travel in Interstellar are logical. In Thorne's words, the scenario revolves around the premise of "the most exotic events in the universe suddenly becoming accessible to humans". Turns out, those humans are not only Matthew McConaughey and his crew mates, but us.
Galaxy Quest (1997)
If Interstellar presents galactic travel in as realistic a way as possible, Galaxy Quest is right at the other end of the spectrum. Despite this, it's a highly entertaining space story that works off the premise that friendly aliens have been watching our TV for decades; they believe the cast of hit TV series Galaxy Quest (among them Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman) are in fact Earth's mightiest heroes, and whisk them away in the hope the crew will win their war for them. A loving spoof of Star Trek and the cultural mores surrounding it, Galaxy Quest is a worthy addition to any sci-fi roundup.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Science fiction didn't begin with 2001 and Star Wars. 1902's La Voyage dans la Lune is generally credited as the world's first sci-fi movie, and Forbidden Planet is an early example of what we know and recognise the genre to be capable of today. Containing elements of Shakespeare's The Tempest, Forbidden Planet contains several firsts: it was the first film to have a completely electronic score; the first film to feature a robotic character that was an actual element of the story with its own distinct personality (Robbie the Robot); and it was also the first science fiction film set on a completely alien world distinctive to our own. Phew.
Pretty much all the films on our list do bang-up jobs of conjuring entire fantastical worlds on screen (it's a prerequisite of the genre, after all), but Serenity takes the ambitious step of creating an entire galaxy to play with, complete with its own history, mythology, political system, society, laws and more. And that's all in the first 20 minutes or so. And there are few crews you would want to be a member of more than that of the free-wheeling cargo ship Serenity. Hopes are fading for a sequel, but you never know.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
How could we compile a list about space travel and not include one of the 12 big screen outings for Gene Roddenberry's space opera, one of the defining cultural commodities of our, or anybody else's, time? It would be like not inviting your granny to the wedding. There are debates about which is the best Star Trek film, usually settled when someone shouts "Khaaaan!!" at the top of their lungs. It's the most rounded dramatically, with some wonderful visuals; not least of all the touching scene in which Spock sacrifices himself in order to save the Enterprise; to honour "the needs of the many" as he puts it himself. But, most of all, it's the scenery-chewing performance by Ricardo Montalban the title role that makes Star Trek II. He puts even Benedict Cumberbatch to shame.
Four years after 2001, the much-celebrated Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky gave the world Solaris, a film that juxtaposed the heartbreaking vastness of space with the tragedy of the human condition in a way that no director had before or has since, Kubrick included. Kris Kelvin (played in the 2002 remake by George Clooney) arrives on a space station above the titular planet to find most of the crew dead, and the survivors emotionally devastated. It's not long before he starts to suffer a similar fate, leading him to suspect the planet has some mysterious power over them all. It's ambitious, ambiguous stuff that's not for everyone but is a rich and unique film experience.
The Empire Strikes Back (1981)
Like Star Trek, there's just no way we were going to leave Star Wars out. How could we neglect the film series that the likes of Nolan, Cuaron and JJ Abrams grew up watching, and that probably introduced to us the notion of battle and travels beyond the stars? Of the six (so far) movies out there, Empire is roundly agreed to be the best of them, and when it comes to space-vistas on the big screen there are few as memorable as that closing shot of Luke and Leia gazing out the window in to the uncertain future that lay before them. Hopes are high for Episode VII; Abrams just needs to stick to the formula.