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Space Movies
Photograph: Time Out

The 30 best space movies

Forget Elon Musk’s SpaceX and head to infinity and beyond with these intergalactic marvels

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Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Andy Kryza
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If space is the final frontier, space movies are surely cinema’s equivalent: a genre where moviemaking imaginations can run wild and mad visions can be realised... because, well, who’s to say otherwise? A stargate to a celestial library? Sure. A planet-zapping Death Star constructed from scratch in the inky blackness? Why not. The entire plot of Event Horizon? Bring it on.

But those are just a few examples of unfettered cinematic space exploration on the big screen. We have a whole lot more to share with you. And in an era where space seems to be becoming a playground for the super-rich, they’ll take you far, far beyond the reaches of tech barons in cowboy hats, beyond the Gamma Quadrant, beyond the shoulder of Orion and the Tannhäuser Gate and into domains no film has travelled before – or since. Strap in as we take you to Ceti Alpha VI, LV-426 and through some mind-bending stargates. Pack a robot sidekick.

The Martian (2015)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: RIdley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor

After dividing audiences with Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to space was a heel-turn from his previous horrors. Thanks in huge part to a script by The Cabin in the Woods writer Drew Goddard and an endearing performance by Matt Damon as a marooned astronaut, The Martian is a bracing survivalist yarn with a reliable charm. In fact, Damon’s affability scored it an unlikely Best Comedy nod at the Golden Globes. And those laughs are vital in a film detailing a scientist slowly starving himself on a distant planet as his friends risk their lives to rocket through space to save him. 

  • Film
  • Animation

Director: Andrew Stanton

Cast: (voices) Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, Ben Burtt

Halfway through, Pixar’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece transitions to the stars and boards humanity’s last hope against extinction: an interstellar cruise ship catering to their every whims. The antics mostly take place aboard the space yacht but for one iconic, spectacular sequence in which our robot hero and his iPhone-esque love interest venture outside the airlock for a dazzling space dance amid the stardust and constellations. The set piece is an instant classic, one that ditches the typical sci-fi peril for a gloriously balletic sequence of zero-gravity bliss. 

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness

Has any film more perfectly channelled our fascination with space? It’s easy to forget how truly mesmerising A New Hope is when it ditches its fantastical planets and takes to the sky. It’s not just the dogfights of the climax, either. Much of the film plays out as an intergalactic road trip at warp speed, but it also slows down for a quick game of chess as stars drift past the window. By the end, you find yourself looking skyward, imagining the possibilities – not unlike Luke Skywalker himself, as he stares out beyond Tatooine’s twin suns and dreams of his destiny.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Stanley Kubrick 

Cast: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood

Many argue that this film is cinema’s GOAT – us, among them – and its enduring status is partly down to ideas around artificial intelligence and technology that have only become more prescient with every passing year. But few sci-fi films have embraced the look, feel and experience of space travel with this level of baked-in, world-building cool. Kubrick had three production designers on the case and got big brands like IBM, Dupont and Nikon to imagine what their products might look like in an interstellar future. Major props, too, to Douglas Trumbull’s eye candy stargate sequence, which helped ensure that late-‘60s stoners were the first audiences to take it all to their hearts.

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  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Philip Kaufman

Cast: Sam Shepherd, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn

Philip Kaufman’s boy’s own adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction classic is every bit as stirring as Top Gun, though the tale of the US Mercury’s astronauts seldom gets its due. It also begs the question: how is it that movie astronauts are so often depicted as introverted nerds when we’ve seen Sam Shepard’s wildchild Chuck Yaeger breaking the sound barrier and the other Mercury astronauts strutting like the rock stars of their day? Truly, our understanding of space – and the cocksure punks who sought to tame it – remains woefully out of touch.

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: Georges Méliès

Cast: ​​Georges Méliès

We are almost bound by law to include this pioneering silent film, lest we risk the wrath of mega-fan Martin Scorsese, who recreated its making in his 2011 movie Hugo. But the fact remains that Georges Méliès’s black-and-white fantasia is a landmark for special-effects films (and as UK comedy fans can attest, the shaving-foam-covered moon in The Mighty Boosh). What's even more curious, though, is how it actually looks better than a good number of early CGI movies that came nearly a century after.  

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Peter Hyams

Cast: Sean Connery, Peter Boyle, Clarke Peters 

Essentially High Noon in space – but with 100 percent more splattered heads, thanks to the wonders of explosive decompression – this Sean Connery-starring space western unfolds above and below one of Jupiter’s moons, where a mining operation becomes the nucleus of a drug-fuelled mystery full of violence and depravity. The film shares a lot of DNA with Alien thanks to its advanced effects and claustrophobic sets; only here, it’s humans doing the eviscerating... and a lot of it. 

Galaxy Quest (1999)
  • Film
  • Fantasy

Director: Dean Parisot

Cast: Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver

A comedy is often only as strong as its reverence toward what it’s lampooning. A love of Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry shines through in every moment of this corker about the cast of a Trek knockoff enlisted to save the denizens of a faraway planet. The plot is essentially a sci-fi version of Three Amigos!, but the game cast – particularly Alan Rickman and a young Sam Rockwell – sell every uproarious gag, while the effects work updates the ‘60s camp while keeping the cartoonish charm front and centre. 

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Duncan Jones

Cast: Sam Rockwell

While much of Duncan Jones’s (Source Code) meditative sci-fi takes place on the lunar surface, Moon spends plenty of time with Sam Rockwell’s spaceman gazing at the stars and to the distant Earth like a blue-collar Major Tom. Rockwell has never been better in this small-scale tale of space madness (or is it?) about a helium farmer on a three-year lunar stint, accompanied only by his own personal HAL. Jones’s quiet gem embraces the all-engulfing nature of space, crafting something of a desert-island movie in the cold black void. 

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Paul WS Anderson

Cast: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Kathleen Quinlan

Derided for its relentless sadism upon release, Paul ‘Not PT’ Anderson’s trippy space saga has had an overdue reassessment and is emerging from the wormhole as a certified cult film. Part ‘The Shining in space’, part ‘Interstellar in hell’, Event Horizon’s tale of misbegotten astronauts transported straight into the seventh circle isn’t for the squeamish. But for those who can stomach the viscera, it’s a wild ride through the gore-spattered corridors of an extremely haunted space station. Never has the cold vacuum of space seemed more welcoming than the supposed sanctuary of an airlock. 

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  • Film
  • Family and kids

Director: Ron Clements & John Musker

Cast: (voices) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emma Thompson, Martin Short

Disney dared to do something different with its sci-fi take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirate classic ‘Treasure Island’. Audiences didn’t respond to its hybrid of hand-drawn and CG animation, or storytelling that ditched princesses in favour of something a little more space-age and weird, but Treasure Planet is full of gorgeous celestial flair. The juxtaposition between old-school tall ships and cutting-edge interstellar animation remains dreamlike in its beauty. Plus, it beats the hell out of Mars Needs Moms

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Cast: William Shatner, Ricardo Montalbán, Leonard Nimoy

The eye-popping space battles and serene galactic imagery. The mind-controlling space eels. The introduction of the Kobayashi Maru test. The tear-soaked space funeral. The goddamn mind-controlling space eels. The Wrath of Khan stands tall above all the USS Enterprise’s cinematic adventures for many reasons, but chief among them is its deference to space itself – the franchise’s spiritual home. The reboot might have more advanced ships and shinier effects, but this was the moment Trek matched Star Wars in terms of pure awe in the abyss. 

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Cast: Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Jake Busey

For millennia, humankind has gazed to the heavens and wondered what life exists beyond the stars. Paul Verhoeven has an answer, and it’s a horde of vengeful, snot-spewing insectoids. The Total Recall director’s return to space is a feature-length satire of fascist propaganda films that also plays like a stunning action spectacle, goopy horror romp and white-knuckle actioner. Verhoeven spends considerable time above the battlefield as a fleet of space cruisers discovers rather quickly that their ships are no match for bug bogeys and the unforgiving vacuum of space in graphic detail. 

  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway

There’s a lot going on both above and below the ground in Christopher Nolan’s heady but divisive space odyssey, but this is a film that’s done its homework. And once Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut-farmer takes to the skies, all the film’s whiteboard-scribbling science lessons pay off with the most dazzling – and scientifically backed – renderings of space travel since 2001: A Space Odyssey. Say what you will about the film’s father-daughter narrative (Muuuuuurph!!!!), but even the most ardent detractor will be floored by Interstellar’s cosmic imagery.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

Director: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista

The MCU’s first proper trip to the cosmos takes its cues from Star Wars and The Ice Pirates in equal measure. But it also carves a unique impression into cinematic space lore thanks to its fantastic worlds and gleeful depiction of space travel. The sequel arguably nails the sensation of gravity-defying antics better, capping things off with a space funeral that trounces The Wrath of Khan. But director James Gunn’s original is the kind of film that knows damn well that a scene of eye-popping space psychedelics all but demands to be scored to Bowie’s ‘Moonage Daydream’ (of course), then delivers in kind.

Alien (1979)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Ian Holm

Ridley Scott’s sci-fi-horror masterpiece brilliantly realises that the neverending chasm of space can be suffocatingly claustrophobic. Using the limited budget to his advantage, Scott’s depiction of deep-space travel is a series of dark, windowless corridors – which makes it all the more spectacular when a door opens to reveal the grand scene of a long-ago disaster, infinite darkness or something much, much worse. The tagline famously stated: ‘In space, nobody can hear you scream.’ The same does not go for the audience.

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  • Film
  • Documentaries

Director: Todd Douglas Miller

Strap yourself to the side of the thundering Apollo 11 rocket as it careers into, and beyond, the Earth’s atmosphere in a spectacular doc that makes great use of hitherto unseen Nasa footage. The mission, of course, successfully plonked two Americans on to the Moon’s surface and then unplonked them again, thereby winning that bit of the space race with the Soviet Union, but there’s nothing triumphalist in director Todd Douglas Miller’s thrilling recreation – just a lot of quiet professionalism, teamwork and fearless men in helmets. When it gets into space and the 70mm footage does its thing, it makes you wish you’d actually followed up on that childhood ambition to become an astronaut.

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Though Alfonso Cuarón’s survivalist two-hander loses some of its punch on the small screen, the film remains a technical marvel thanks to its cutting-edge depiction of an unforgiving celestial minefield where even the tiniest bit of space debris could cause instant death. In what is essentially a spacebound riff on Open Water, Sandra Bullock alternates between panic and exhaustion, but Cuarón is deft enough to allow her marooned astronaut – and, by extension, the audience – occasional breaks to stop and marvel at the wonders of the galaxy in close-up. 

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  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler

A true-life astronaut drama that soars for the heavens but finds its deepest emotions at the kitchen table, this reimagining of what Neil Armstrong was contending with at the time of the Apollo 11 mission will have you ugly crying before anyone can so much as bob across that lunar surface. Ryan Gosling reunites with his La La Land director, Damien Chazelle, to humanise the now almost mythical Armstrong in his grief for his young daughter, with a just-holding-it-together Claire Foy as the moonwalker’s wife. For the majority of its runtime, First Man is earthbound. But when it finally touches down on the moon, it’s cinematic magic: a moment of wonderment, solitude and an overwhelming sense that you’re right there too.

  • Film

Director: James Gray

Cast: Brad Pitt, Ruth Negga, Tommy Lee Jones

Directed with a lust for adventure by The Lost City of Z’s, James Gray, Ad Astra (‘to the stars’) follows Brad Pitt’s spaceman across the galaxy to track down his ornery dad (Tommy Lee Jones), who may or may not be trying to wipe out humanity from a space station near Neptune (spoiler: he is). The journey sits somewhere between the old Star Trek movies in its stargazy philosophising and the rebooted ones in some of zero-g action sequences that suck the air from your lungs. There’s also an awesome space-buggy chase across the moon and a bit with psychotic space baboons. We are here for them both.   

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Forbidden Planet (1956)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Fred M Wilcox

Cast: Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis

It’s Shakespeare in space – this iconic sci-fi is an intergalactic take on The Tempest – as a group of galactic travellers led by a straight-shooting Leslie Nielsen fall into the lap of megalomaniac boffin (Walter Pidgeon) on the remote planet of Altair 4. Cutting-edge effects presented in widescreen CinemaScope – the flying saucer remains cool AF – make this a true landmark not just in space flicks, but sci-fi genre as a whole. Don’t take our word for it: Gene Roddenberry cites it as a major influence on Star Trek.

Silent Running (1972)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Douglas Trumbull

Cast: Bruce Dern, Cliff Potts

A direct inspiration for WALL-E and about as eco-conscious as science-fiction can get, this enduring classic shows that 2001: A Space Odyssey SFX maestro Trumbull could tell his own stories too. And this one follows a single astronaut (Bruce Dern) and his three adorbs robot pals, Louie, Huey and Dewey, as they drift through space, doing a spot of gardening and trying to stay sane in the face of mankind’s extinction. Heavy themes, sure, but treated with loads of heart and a philosophical spirit that echoes especially loudly in an era of climate crisis. 

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Solaris (1972)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk

Since remade by Steven Soderbergh, the original Tarkovsky Solaris is definitely the place to start when it comes to enigmatic, brainy affairs set in the far reaches of the universe. A cosmonaut (Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis) is haunted by his dead wife as his spaceship orbits a mysterious planet. But is the planet creating embodiments of the ghosts haunting the poor man’s subsconscious, a bit like when Ray Stantz accidentally summons the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters? With its eerie visuals, it makes for a dreamlike journey to the far reaches of the human psyche.

  • Film
  • Fantasy

Director: Nathan Juran

Cast: Edward Judd, Martha Hyer, Lionel Jeffries

This monster-filled space adventure came out five years before man actually set foot on the moon and you can only hope Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong weren’t watching, because the moon landing itself is a trainwreck. The ‘in’ part of the title is key: this is a Journey to the Centre of the Earth-style caper that has a crew of heroically under-prepared Brits discovering all sorts of things that don’t want to be discovered beneath the lunar crust. You will learn nothing at all about space but the giant stop-motion critters, animated by the great Ray Harryhausen, are a lot of fun.

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  • Film

Director: Al Reinert

Six moon landings are ticked off in Al Reinert’s iconic doc, all accompanied by Brian Eno’s cosmic score (if space had sound, it’d definitely sound like Brian Eno). It makes the perfect non-fiction double bill with the more recent Apollo 11 – a window into the experience of being on the moon and looking back at earth. ‘A spiritual presence was there,’ says one NASA astronaut of those lunar vibes. ‘We were not alone.’ Haunting and hard to shake, this is proof that sometimes real life can be as spectacular as science fiction.

Sunshine (2007)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh

Director Danny Boyle positions his mindtrip space flick as a midway point between 2001: A Space Oydssey and Alien – a fusion of thrills and thinky bits that culminates in a third act that gets close to melting down as it draws close to the sun. You could probably throw Armageddon into that mix – a self-sacrificing crew of astronauts heads into space to save humanity from annihilation – although it’s a lot more believable (Boyle put his cast through astronaut training) and a lot less tub-thumping. The vast planetary vistas glimpsed from the decks of the Icarus II make a suitably awe-inspiring backdrop from its stellar cast (Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans et al) to come apart at the seams.

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  • Film
  • Drama

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinese

So much more than its famous ‘Houston, we have a problem’ catchphrase, Apollo 13 harkens back to the glory days of white-knuckle, PG-rated entertainment. An ensemble tribute to the power of group problem-solving, it has Howard fully embracing a ‘70s aesthetic and the storytelling of the era to craft a timeless middlebrow crowd-pleaser with an almost surgical focus on the imperiled mission at hand. 

Contact (1997)
  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Robert Zemeckis 

Cast: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, John Hurt

We’d have loved to include Denis Villeneuve’s magical, melancholy Arrival on this list but it takes place entirely within Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, try this big, ambitious drama from Back to the Future’s Robert Zemeckis based on a book by sci-fi seer Carl Sagan. Contact’s heart is in a similar place, and like Arrival’s protagonist played by Amy Adams, it is female-led, steers clear of macho ideas of hostile aliens and cocks an ear to new voices from far beyond our solar system. Zemeckis, who loves to push visual boundaries, images space travel as a dizzying acid trip full of wormholes, whirlpools and mind-bending geometries. It’s one of those rare movies that should come with motion sickness tablets.

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  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Dan O'Bannon, Dre Pahich, Brain Narelle

There’s no film version of The Muppet’s ‘Pigs in Space’ sketch, but John Carpenter’s debut, set during the 22nd century, delivers the next best thing: A hippie movie hopped up on its own counter-cultural sense of the absurd (there’s a talking bomb) and a pisstake-y irreverence. It’s the perfect antidote to bombastic science-fictions that get lost in their own self-importance – a lo-fi whoopie cushion that invites you aboard its titular spacecraft to hang out with four fargone astronauts and indulge in a little space surfing.

  • Film
  • Science fiction

Director: Claire Denis

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin

Myriad mysteries abound in this deliriously bonkers space oddity from French auteur Claire Denis (White Material) that co-stars Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche as an interstellar inmate and his scientist jailer. The human body and its function gets a rare exploration in this context – space flicks rarely spend this much time over their characters’ sexual needs in zero gravity (2001: A Space Odyssey does not have a Fuckbox) – and its themes of reproduction, incarceration and experimentation play out in a space with its own realities. Go with it, in other words, and be rewarded with a space journey unlike any other.

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