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). Because of that, movies about space exploration can serve the valuable purpose of inspiring the average non-astronaut to learn more about the history and future of space travel. From documentaries, to dramas based on real-life space missions, to sci-fi thrillers set deep in the final frontier, these space movies force us to grapple with complex issues relating to the human experience, while simultaneously presenting us with the best visual effects out there. What’s not to love?
If you're craving a movie that will make you marvel at the mysteries of the universe — and the brave, brilliant humans striving to unlock those secrets — here are 13 of the best space movies that are either set in space or depict the real-life struggle to help astronauts get there. From classic movies to more contemporary films, each of these deserves a watch.
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.)
Starring Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell, Bill Paxton as Fred Haise, and Kevin Bacon as Jack Swigert, Apollo 13 was acclaimed by critics following its 1995 release. Howard's movie went on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards. The film was a technical triumph at the time, in part thanks to NASA; the agency assisted Howard by allowing him to film seconds of reduced gravity on multiple KC-135 airplane flights.
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.
The film stars Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut with a tragic past. Its Stone's first mission, and compared to Matt Kowalski (Clooney), commander of the space shuttle Explorer, she's struggling to adjust to the challenges of life in space. But when a missile strike on Earth creates debris which damage the Explorer and Hubble Space Telescope, she must quickly learn to fend for herself if she wants to survive long enough to see Earth again.
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.
The screenplay was inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story, and written by Clarke and Kubrick. Clarke would go on to write four novels set in the world of the Space Odyssey series.
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. Like many other titles on this list, Moon's aesthetic and tone are reminiscent of 2001, and the direction Sam's story evolves towards is just as unsettling as anything in Kubrick's masterpiece.
Moon was the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, who went on to direct other genre titles like the Warcraft film adaptation and the Netflix original cyberpunk film Mute.
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 tense and trippy.
This was the third adaptation of Lem's iconic novel; previously it inspired a 60s made-for-TV movie and a 1972 film from acclaimed Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. Soderbergh's goal was for his adaptation to be more faithful to Lem's novel than the previous movies were.
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 as so-called 'human computers'. It stars Taraji P. Henson as future Presidential Medal of Freedom-Winner Katherine Johnson; Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, a NASA supervisor who made pivotal strides at the space agency during her 28-year-career; and singer Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, the first black female engineer.
Being an astronaut is pretty awesome and heroic, but Hidden Figures show what it took to excel in a STEM field as a Black woman in the segregated America of the ‘60s. The movie was based on Margot Lee Shetterley's nonfiction novel of the same name.
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.
Cernan passed away in 2017, three years after the release of the documentary, which makes the film even more poignant. The movie is a no-holds-barred exploration of how astronaut life influenced Cernan's relationships (as his former wife says in the documentary, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home"), and of how Cernan himself influenced our path to the stars.
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.”
Since she was a young girl staring out through a telescope with her late dad, Ellie has been obsessed with exploring the potential of extraterrestrial life. Now a researcher at SETI, her challenge is to make potential donors as passionate about the stars as she is. Her determination is rewarded when she intercepts a message she believes to be alien in nature. When the message is decrypted, it causes an international uproar: the message from outer space is a series of instructions for constructing a ship which will transport one human to the source of the transmission. Ellie's entire existence has led up to this moment, but despite her her role in the discovery, she may not be the human appointed for this historic voyage.
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.
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You know what really sucks? When your crew leaves you for dead on Mars. The year is 2035. A NASA crew on a Mars mission are surprised by a deadly dust storm while on the surface of the planet. Believing astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to have died in the storm, the Ares crew abandons him on the red planet. Luckily, Watney is able to survive 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. Based on the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, it went on to win the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, long form, and received multiple Academy Award nominations. A fresh and funny hard sci-fi story, The Martin is a nice reprieve from the relentless drama of Gravity and some of the other titles on this list.
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. Directed by Phil Kaufman, it stars Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, a veteran pilot unafraid to test the newest — and most dangerous – technology on Edwards Air Force base. Like many of the movies about the space race on this list, The Right Stuff acknowledges both the bravery of our space explorers, and the cost the voyages had on their families.
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.
McConaughey stars as Joseph Cooper, a NASA-astronaut-turned-farmer. Joseph struggles to protect his two children even as increasing climate disasters threaten humanity's survival. When Joseph decodes a message which leads him to a secret laboratory run by his former NASA supervisor Professor Brand (Michael Caine), he is recruited to join the mission of a last-ditch effort that will take him across space and time to save humanity. Cooper knows his participation is necessary if he wants his children to survive — but saving their lives means accepting that he may never see them again.
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