For most of us, watching movies about space is the closest we’ll ever get to the astronaut experience (not talking to you, lucky space camp nerds). From documentaries, to dramas based on real-life space missions, to sci-fi thrillers, these space movies force us to grapple with deep issues relating to the human experience, while simultaneously presenting us with the best visual effects out there. What’s not to love? For your viewing pleasure, here are 13 of the best movies that are either set in space or depict the real-life struggle to help astronauts get there.
This iconic Ron Howard film tells the story of the real-life Apollo 13 mission. Originally intended to land on the Moon, difficulties with the craft following an oxygen tank explosion drastically changed the course of the operation, as well as the three-man crew’s chances of getting back to Earth. If you’ve ever used the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” without knowing its origins, it’s time for an Apollo 13 viewing session ASAP (fun fact: the actual line spoken by the astronauts aboard the real Apollo 13 was “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Read more about it here).
Those who saw Gravity in theaters complained of serious motion sickness. It’s a bit more bearable on a small screen, but, viewers beware: Alfonso Cuarón’s Academy Award-winning hit will, indeed, make you feel as though you are trapped in deep space alongside Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. That being said, Gravity is a visual masterpiece for which it is well worth braving the discomfort.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Perhaps the single most influential movie on this list, the impact of 2001: A Space Odyssey on the sci-fi genre cannot be overstated. This 1968 space epic, directed by the iconic Stanley Kubrick, follows a voyage to Jupiter after the discovery of a giant monolith that may be playing a role in the evolution of humanity. With minimal dialogue, an impressive soundtrack, groundbreaking special effects, and, of course, one of the most infamous villains of all time, in the form of HAL, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an essential part of the space movie canon, and of film history in general.
Reiterating the “hanging out in space alone is a bad idea” theme that runs through most of these flicks, Moon tells the story of Sam Bell. Sam works at a fuel-harvesting station on the Moon, with only GERTY, a form of AI, for company. Nearing the end of his three-year shift, Sam gets into an accident that may jeopardize his chances of getting home on time. Of course, there are larger forces at play here, which Sam has yet to fully realize.
Stephen Soderbergh’s 2002 drama, based on the novel by Stanisław Lem, is similar to Moon in terms of using space as a platform for an existential brainstorming session about the nature of humanity. When a clinical psychologist, played by George Clooney, receives a mysterious message from his friend at a space station on the planet Solaris, he makes a solo journey to the planet to see what’s really going on. Suffice it to say there is a lot going on, most of it seriously trippy.
In one of the most incredible based-on-real-events space movies ever, Hidden Figures tells the true story of three Black female mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s. Being an astronaut is pretty awesome and heroic, but imagine what it must have taken to excel in a STEM field as a Black woman in the segregated America of the ‘60s. Damn.
The Last Man on the Moon
If you thought journeying into space was easy ... well, there’s no way you thought that, but The Last Man on the Moon will show you just how arduous, mentally and physically, the life of an astronaut can be. The 2014 documentary uses a combination of archival footage, interviews, and visual effects to allow astronaut Eugene Cernan to relay the story of his 1972 trip to the Moon.
Based on the 1985 novel of the same name by Carl Sagan, Contact follows Dr. Ellie Arroway, who, after finding evidence of extraterrestrial life in a distant solar system, is chosen to make the journey there. Contact stars Jodie Foster in the title role, but also features Matthew McConaughey, making it perfect for those who enjoy the “Matthew McConaughey in Space Movies” canon–I'm personally also a fan of “George Clooney in Space Movies” and “Jessica Chastain in Space Movies.”
In the Shadow of the Moon
This excellent documentary focuses on the “Space Race” days of the 1960s and ‘70s, when the United States finally achieved the feat of putting a man–or in this case, men–on the the Moon. Featuring never-before-seen NASA footage from the Apollo missions, as well as interviews with the surviving astronauts of the era, In the Shadow of the Moon is fantastic in its own right, but also provides important scientific and real life context for many of the fictional sci-fi dramas on this list.
You know what really sucks? When your crew leaves you for dead on Mars. Luckily, astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is able to survive on the Red Planet by growing his own food, while desperately trying to make contact with ground control to let them know he is still alive. Directed by Ridley Scott, The Martian also features Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain (!), and Sean Bean, among many others.
The Right Stuff
This 1983 historical drama, based on the book by Tom Wolfe, tells the true story of the Navy, Marine, and Air Force pilots who tested the technology that would lead to the U.S.’s first crewed spaceflight program, Project Mercury, beginning in 1953.
In this Christopher Nolan film which Neil deGrasse Tyson himself claimed allows viewers to “Experience Einstein’s Relativity of Time as no other feature film has shown,” farmer-astronaut Joseph Cooper must travel through a wormhole to find hope for saving humanity, as Earth is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Aside from the mind-bending scientific accuracy and visual effects, Interstellar features both Matthew McConaughey and Jessica Chastain together. Mind officially blown.
Found footage is a genre usually reserved for the likes of horror movies–and Europa Report, though technically a sci-fi thriller, is indeed horrifying on many levels. Told entirely through footage “recovered” from the Europa One mission, we learn the story of its crew: six astronauts who journeyed to one of Jupiter’s moons looking for sources of life, only to find themselves in dangerously over their heads.
Featured still of "2001: A Space Odyssey" via Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer