The Top Ten Space Films Not Named Interstellar

Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back

After seeing Interstellar this last weekend, I can safely say that it is the definitive Science Fiction film of the Twenty-First Century: a film that’s not quite Inception and not quite 2001: A Space Odyssey, but finds itself somewhere uniquely in-between the two.  Possessing the best qualities of its genre – an ambitious scope, stunning visuals and more than a working knowledge of the scientific principles that form its core premise – it deftly navigates its interstellar narrative in a way that never feels derivative of the celebrated films that have come before it.

With that in mind, I felt it prudent to take critical stock of this type of film – not just Science Fiction films, but more specifically Space films: films that “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”  And although I cannot claim to have seen every film that falls into this classification – I notably have not seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 classic Solaris – I have seen more than my fair share of them, enough to present an informed list that is in tune with their comparative merit and worth.

10) Serenity (2005) – It’s hard to find somebody who dislikes Firefly, and it’s really not surprising why: the enthusiastic audience that the show generated was drawn to the exceptional writing, outstanding direction, engaging characters and engrossingly imaginative setting.  And, given that it weighs in at only one season, it is not only short enough to easily watch in one or two sittings, but never really got the chance to screw up.  The problem is that for as enthusiastic as Firefly’s audience was, it was always exceptionally niche, leading to its oft-criticized cancelation.

The film plays out like a weird mix between Captain America and Star Wars, set in an interstellar Old West, following the glib, Han Solo-esque Malcolm Reynolds and his dysfunctional crew of outlaws.  New viewers will be drawn to the remixed Space Western setting while fans of the preceding series are drawn to the now fully realized mystery of River Tam’s abduction and the eventual pairings of the Serenity’s crew.

Serenity essentially amounts to an abridged version of the series’ nonexistent second season: boiling its sprawling and ambitious narrative down to an intelligent, funny and all-around action-packed highlight reel.  And although the film is shockingly easy for the uninitiated to pick up and watch – this was actually my introduction to the franchise – it ultimately falters due to the fact that two hours is simply not enough time to tell the story that it wanted to.  It does a tremendous job at trying, but the narrative is undoubtedly rushed and not afforded the nuance that the series was known for.


9) Apollo 13 (1995) – America’s nascent space program was fraught with perilous disasters and devastating missteps.  Even after the Apollo 11 moon landing showed what impossible feats mankind was capable of with nothing more than unyielding courage and carefully calculated mathematics, space travel – even to something as relatively terrestrial as the moon – was an impossibly dangerous enterprise.

Apollo 13 is the real life story of the disaster that befell the crew of the title spacecraft and their against-the-odds safe return to Earth.  Coupled with Ron Howard’s riveting direction and photo-realistic special effects that bring the tragedy to life as it never before could have been, it is the perfect union of technology and the human imagination.

The film is a monolithic testament to the possibilities of the human mind to think its way out of devastating tragedy and reason its way back to safety.  In a genre where the correct answer to any problem is usually to set your phasers to kill, this is a refreshing reminder that a tightly wrought plan is more often than not the best way to survive in extreme situations.

Apollo 13

8) Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) – While NASA might be the ultimate embodiment of the public’s insatiable lust for exploration, Star Wars is the ultimate embodiment of what might await for us in the fringes of the unknown.  It struck a chord in the public imagination of what an interstellar society might look, feel and sound like – so much so that even decades removed franchises like Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy owe an overbearing debt to this one forbearer.

Set amidst a war between a tyrannical empire and a fledgling rebel alliance, Star Wars combines the best features of both Fantasy and Science Fiction into the ultimate space-faring adventure: laser swords, mystical forces, fearsome space monsters, lovable rogues, predestined heroes and surprisingly capable damsels in distress.  Even its iconic opening words – “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” – directly invoke the “once upon a times” of childhood faerie tales.

Despite its stilted, unnatural dialog – which even the cast was quick to point out during filming – and a textbook Joseph Campbell plot, the film is exciting, the characters are fun and engaging and the destruction of the Death Star is one of the most memorable cinematic climaxes of the Twentieth Century.  The fact that is spawned a highly successful cross-generational, cross-medium franchise should come as a surprise to nobody.

A New Hope3

7) Sunshine (2007) – If Interstellar put scientific plausibility at the forefront of its being – meticulously researching the scientific realism of its premise to ensure that it was beyond intellectual reproach – then Sunshine is the opposite.  It uses its self-supposed science, that the Sun is dying and that a quantum bomb could be used to rekindle the smoldering star, as a launching point for its narrative rather, rather than as its narrative end game.

Without a doubt, Sunshine is more concerned with character interaction than scientific realism.  The scientific absurdity of its premise goes entirely without saying: this is not how stars die, nor how one could be feasibly restarted if it was.  But as the film progresses, science takes an obvious back seat to examining how a people  – beset with the near certainty of their mission’s failure and the philosophical question of whether or not they should even attempt to change their fate – behave in the isolated depths of space.

Despite its shaky science and a problematic – if enjoyable – third act, Sunshine is a visually and narratively memorable experience.  Although it might lack both the finesse and visceral execution of their earlier films, Sunshine is an excellent lesser collaboration between director Danny Boyle, scribe Alex Garland and actor Cillian Murphy.


6) WALL-E (2008) – Despite presenting a dystopic vision of an Earth abandoned by humanity, WALL-E is more indebted to the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin than it is to those of George Lucas.  Focusing more on physical humor, silent visuals and wordless endearment than on slick and expository dialog, the best parts of the film unquestionably happen on Earth – divorced from humanity and its parody of the complacency brought on by modern convenience.

And, like the films of the 1910’s and 20’s, WALL-E has more to say visually than most other films do verbally.  Strangely enough, the same could be said for itself: that it’s mostly silent first half makes a more poignant statement for environmentalism and natural conservation than its second half, which verbally explains the same thing.

Once aboard the human space ship, WALL-E becomes a very different type of movie.  It’s not a bad movie at all, especially since it largely continues the first half’s style of physical humor and silent romance.  In fact, it shows us the other half of the WALL-E’s terrestrial story: what happened to the people who chose to leave Earth rather than clean it up.  It simply becomes more conventional and more forgettable one than it charmingly began as.


5) Alien (1979) – Most of the entries thus far have been very “loud” films – with stunning special effects, grandiose plots and spectacle as the forefront of their being.  Sunshine had its image of the Sun increasingly dominating the space around the Icarus II.  Star Wars had the Death Star completely obliterating Alderaan.  Even WALL-E had the broken shell of the now decrepit Earth.

Alien, however, is a near perfect answer to that particular aesthetic.  It is quiet, dark and meditative, dominated by industrial set pieces that are as forgettable as they are utilitarian.  Space is not shown to be a new frontier to be conquered, but a dull, listless trade route to be navigated by latter day cargo freighters.  The infinite majesty of the cosmos is not aggrandized as one has grown accustomed to, but is rather downplayed as nothing more than a means to a decidedly economic end.

In fact, the only notable visual in the entire film is the titular alien: a serpentine creature that forces itself onto its victim and impregnates him or her – whose progeny burst from their victims’ chests in a grotesque mockery of childbirth.  Alien is both a chilling portrayal of the dangers of the unknown and clinical dissection of corporate greed and the lengths that companies will go to in order to turn a profit.


4) Gravity (2013)Gravity, of course, is everything that Alien’s aesthetic of the mundane was struggling against.  It is a marvel of visual spectacle and probably the main reason why anybody bought 3D tickets for the movies last year.  Combining Apollo 13’s realism with the technical perfection of contemporary CG, Gravity is a landmark marriage of cinematic visuals and auteur vision.

Like Drive, Gravity’s sparse script is often mistaken for poorly written, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Every scrap of dialog and verbal exchange is carefully chosen for maximum impact.  The film prefers to let the strength of its director, visuals and leading lady carry the film when that will suffice, rather than breaking into monolog as its solo protagonist attempts to navigate home amidst an orbiting cloud of shrapnel.

If not for a more highly-ranked entry, I would happily call this the best directed film on this list.  It is technically perfect: from the realization of the Earth viewed from orbit to the omnipresent countdown to the debris cloud’s next pass around the planet.  Although it might not quite reach some of the highs of the films that follow, it really is as close to a flawless movie as has ever been made.


3) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – This really should come as a surprise to nobody.  Guardians of the Galaxy is the break-out success story of the year: a film that was far too weird and based on far too obscure of a comic to ever possibly find mainstream success.  And yet here we are, three months later, still listing it as a highlight of the year.

Guardians of the Galaxy is a testament of Marvel’s uncanny ability to pick the right talent for the right task at exactly the right time.  Who would have thought that the writer of the two live action Scooby-Doo movies would turn out such a fresh and energetic script?  Who would have thought that the fat guy from Parks and Recreation would be the perfect lead for a space-faring action flick?  Who would have paid out money for Vin Diesel or Bradley Cooper knowing that they would be nothing but CG from head to toe?

This feels like the movie that Serenity was trying to be.  Granted, they both have vastly different socio-political end games and Serenity was trying to cram an entire season’s worth of plot into one film, but they both ultimately seem to be coming from the same place.  Both are ensemble-driven space adventures about a dysfunctional band of outlaws that come together for the good of the ‘verse.  Both seamlessly mix action and comedy in an intelligently written and smartly conceived script.  And both share the honor of being the most exciting Space film since The Empire Strikes Back.

Speaking of which…

Guardians of the Galaxy

2) Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – While the original may have started it all, the second instalment to the series was where the franchise really found its footing.  This is supremely ironic, since George Lucas neither wrote the screenplay nor directed the film himself.  Content to sit back and oversee the production as its producer, the resulting film was better written, directed and conceived than its predecessor by incredible margins.

In A New Hope, Luke is swept up into the rebellion by pure circumstance.  Sure, there’s always the Force, but nothing was ever really Luke’s choice.  Even his decision to tag along with Obi Wan only came after his aunt and uncle – the only family that he had ever known – were slaughtered by Storm Troopers.  He only stopped the Death Star because it was the right thing to do, which was reason enough – don’t get me wrong – but he was only ever invested in his own narrative so far as abstract concepts of morality were concerned.

The Empire Strikes Back, however, changes everything.  On the run from Darth Vader after the discovery of their Yavin base, Luke eventually makes his way to Degoba, where he seeks to be trained in the way of the Jedi – the fallen order to which his spectral mentor belongs.  If A New Hope just had him along for the ride, The Empire Strikes Back has Luke firmly invested in his own narrative, trying to discover who he really is and what his purpose in life should be (beyond bulls-eyeing Womp Rats with his T16 back home).  Featuring one of the greatest twists in cinematic history, and a decidedly dour ending, it remains one of the best and most memorable films of its kind.

Star Wars the Empire Strikes Back

1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – I have a complicated relationship with this film (akin to The Big Picture host Bob Chipman’s feelings toward Kevin Smith).  It is simultaneously one of the most brilliant, boring and ultimately frustrating films I have ever seen.  The portions set in space with the Hal-9000 are dexterously shot and chillingly written.  The extended portions of monkeys and monoliths, however, are not.

Despite this, the end product is a crowning achievement of Kubrick’s career and science fiction as a whole.  It is as meditative as Alien, as visually stunning as Interstellar and as technically perfect as Gravity.  Every line of dialog and every individual shot exists for the sole purpose of furthering its narrative.  Monkeys aside, not one second of its nearly three hour run-time is wasted.

And more than any film that came before it, Interstellar owes its existence to this film.  Both draw on the same aesthetic principles of realism.  Both attempt to unravel the mysteries of the higher powers which propel mankind forward into the future.  Both have the same pensive assurance of their own strength and worth, never finding it necessary to convince the audience of them.  Both films, for all their forward thinking brilliance, are content simply to be.

2001 a Space Odyssey

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  1. I enjoyed each one of these films and Sunshine would be my least favorite only because of that third act you mentioned.

    Gravity and Wall-E would be my top 2.

    1. Don’t know I really like Danny Boyle films and Sunshine holds a special place for me. But I agree the third act is the weakest and the film felt (at least to me) that it emotionally peaked way too early with Kaneda’s death..

      I honestly think Kaneda’s sacrifice is just beautifully constructed, with Capa’s pleading, Searle’s haunting whispers “what do you see!”, the attractive visuals, and a music score that’s spot on. I mean the whole music score by John Murphy is excellent in this film, but in that scene it really carries the emotion well.

      But I also agree Moon should be on this list.

  2. Moon should have been on here, and Serenity should have been higher up. 2001 was incredibly well made, and I could understand how it became a classic, it was more art than cinema, but I agree with you that the end needed work. The minimal dialogue was an excellent idea, but it still could have explained more at the end, or gone into more detail about why HAL went crazy.

  3. Actually, looking back at it, the dialogue for 2001 can’t be considered a highlight. Sparse dialogue is a great choice, but only when the dialogue is memorable or important. In 2001 everything was mundane and bland, and they could have cut out most of the little dialogue that was their without it really affecting anything.

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