James Gray’s “Ad Astra,” another zero G space epic, has been getting rave reviews following its premiere yesterday at the Venice Film Festival. An 83 score on Metacritic and 79% on Rotten Tomatoes (based on 14 reviews) bode very well for its expected released in theaters on September 27th. The Brad Pitt-starring sci-fi epic is said to be a mix of “Gravity” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
With all that being said, we started to wonder; what are some of the essential films set amongst the stars? Space movies are a dime a dozen but only a handful have actually captured the zeitgeist and become cinematic landmarks.
Simply the most recognisable horror movie of all time. Ridley Scott’s 1979 timeless masterpiece in suspense, drama, and ground-breaking visual effects not only still carries the same weight in 2019, it’s 40th year, but still operates as a blue-print for horror movies. One group of people, one space-ship, one-villain hunting them all. And in its villain, the captivatingly creepy Xenomorph, comes one of cinema’s all-time great antagonists, up there with Darth Vader and The Joker, whilst the legendary John Hurt’s ‘chestburster’ scene no doubt still makes top ten lists of cinema’s greatest scenes. Just remember in space, no one can hear you scream…
Certainly, one of the most important Sci-fi films ever made, and probably one that not enough know about. Made in 1972, Andrei Tarhkovsky’s Grand Jury prize winning film revolved around Psychologist Kris Kelvin, played by Donatas Banionis, a man tasked with visiting a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, to find out why its crew are experiencing strange hallucinations and to study their behaviour. What follows (spoiler free here) is an incredibly detailed character study on grief, loss, love, and how far one might go to remember those that are no longer with us. The run time of close to three hours may be off putting but the film certainly doesn’t feel as long, and as much as the great Steven Soderbergh tries to pack the emotional weight into his 90-minute, 2002 Hollywood remake, nothing can quite capture the pacing of the original.
The Right Stuff
Starring the likes of Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard, Phillip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel is more about the fight to get to space rather than being set amongst the stars. Almost feeling like one half ‘Top Gun’ and another half ‘First Man’ the film depicts the famed ‘Mercury 7’, a team of military pilots who were selected to be amongst the first men to leave the planet, and their battle, along with NASA, to beat the Russians into space. Although having some incredible flight sequences, the 1983 classic is no doubt at its best when it relies on the talent on screen, with the interactions between Quaid, Harris, and Shephard the films highlights.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Arguably Kubrick’s masterpiece. ‘2001’ has landed a top many ‘greatest films of all time’ rankings and no doubt stands as an inspiration for many of the films on this list. Lorded for its giant leap forward in special and visual effects, and billed as an epic drama of exploration and adventure, the main story, following two almost prologue type acts, sees scientists David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) embarking on a mission of discovery to Jupiter, but all is not as it seems. The film’s most interesting character, Artificial Intelligence HAL-9000 still some 50 years later stands as Cinema’s greatest AI, with actor Douglas Rain giving the character not only personality, but also, in the film’s final moments, an innate humanity, offering one of Cinema’s first connections between man and machine. Meanwhile, the ending the of film stays with you like no other.
One of the two films on this list most directly influenced by Kubrick’s classic above. Christopher Nolan generated waves of noise when announcing this 2014 film would take place amongst the stars. Starring a freshly Oscar minted Matthew McConaughey alongside fellow Oscar winner Anne Hathaway, Nolan’s space epic revolved around the fight to save humanity. With the Planet running out of food, a newly found wormhole gives a glimmer of hope to those on Earth as McConaughey’s ‘Cooper’ and Hathaway’s ‘Dr.Brand’, alongside AI units CASE and TARS (Nolan’s nod to 2001’) leave behind their families for the greater good of the human race. Still slightly polarizing to some, with the film’s final act still a sticky landing spot for some audiences, however what can’t be denied is the sheer audacity, bravery, and execution of this film. Having consulted leading theoretical physicist Dr. Kip Thorne throughout the entirety of production, Nolan was able to (with a smattering of creative license of course) deliver an as authentic as could be outer worldly experience to audiences. A film built for the biggest screen possible, with standout performances from not only its two top billed stars but also Mackenzie Foy and then Jessica Chastain as ‘Murph’, the daughter Cooper leaves behind. With Chastain’s entrance the movie certainly one of the all-time great Nolan moments.
Failure is not an option. Ron Howard’s re-telling of the famed Apollo 13 mission in which three astronauts fought to make it back to Earth following an explosion on their ship, also takes many notes from Kubrick’s film. Howard’s own acute attention to detail being almost reminiscent of the great director, as he took his actors, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and the late, great Bill Paxton aboard a reduced gravity aircraft to film scenes. The tension is brilliantly crafted by Howard, but massive credit must go to James Horner’s eerily fantastic score. The film went on to win two of its nine Oscars it was nominated for. A worthy successor to ‘2001’ if one was needed.
Never has the tagline to ‘Alien’’ been more appropriate. Arguably one of the greatest cinematic achievements in the last decade. One quick search on Youtube will show you the lengths that director Alfonso Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki, and star Sandra Bullock went to in order to pull off this enormous yet somehow subtle blockbuster. From the opening shot that lasts over 12 minutes, this epic takes chance after chance as Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is stranded in space following an accident during a spacewalk. On her own on screen for almost the entirety of the film, Bullock’s part in the films wonder is often overlooked due to the mass spectacle on show, but she delivers a career best performance as the solid yet scared Stone, not knowing minute to minute whether she has taken her final breath. Suspenseful, thrilling and technically superb, this 2013 space thriller walked away with seven Oscars, including best director and best cinematography. If the film ever rolls back around into an IMAX or 4DX screen near you, it is a must.
Sam Rockwell may now be better known to the world as the Oscar winning star of ‘Three Billboards’, but ten years ago he starred in one of the most underrated films of recent times. A film impossible to talk about without spoiling the wonderful twists and turns for new audiences. Rockwell (fittingly) played Sam, a one-man team operating a mining facility on one side of the Moon. Accompanied only by Artificial intelligence GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam enters an inner crisis just weeks before he is meant to fly home. What starts with hallucinations takes all sorts of mind-bending twists as this first-time feature from Duncan Jones (‘Source Code’ 2011) is a must for any sci-fi/Space movie fan.
The only animated film on the list. Pixar’s 2008 classic is the second highest rated film (95 Metascore) Pixar have ever produced (after ‘Ratatouille’), as the world fell in love with waste-collecting robot turned hero Wall-E. The unlikely and accidental hero, following his interaction with a robot sent to discover if the Earth is now inhabitable, EVE, finds himself transported into space, only to find the human race living what could kindly be described as an ‘all-inclusive’ life amongst the stars. Not a Pixar film that relies on its script to tug at the heartstrings of audiences, as the little dialogue in the film makes the emotional weight of the piece all the more impressive. Wall-E’s loveable, almost animalistic nature endears him to the viewer as you settle in for possibly Pixar’s most intimate offering.
We started with it, so it’s only fair to finish with it. Following Ridley Scott’s original was always going to be tough. The intimate setting of the first film could not be copied and sent out again, something had to be different. And what James Cameron delivered was almost a polar opposite of the first film, and to tremendous effect. A plethora of rich characters, from Sigourney Weaver’s lone survivor from the original, ‘Ripley’, to the A-team esque group of colonial marines, led by Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein. Cameron expertly knows when to press down and when to ease off the gas pedal of action, as this films army of Xenomorph’s wreak havoc upon Ripley and her new team. Carrie Henn’s young Newt, a survivor of the Xenomorph attack on the space colony that Ripley and the band of marines have come to save, adds an interesting tangent to and already intriguing story. Gone are Scott’s subtleties, replaced with Cameron’s expert eye for action Cinema, as from the moment the marines land on the Xenomorph infested planet, it’s go time. The film also delivers some of sci-fi Cinema’s most famous lines. From Paxton’s improvised ‘it’s Game Over man’ to the endlessly re-used (even in Scott’s own Alien Prequel’s) ‘get away from her you bitch’. Without question the height of sci-fi.