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From 'Apollo 13' to 'Gravity,' these are the most realistic space movies
Space exploration can take us to some amazing places even when stories hew to the realities of astrophysics.
There are a lot of movies out there focused on outer space. Not all of them, however, hew to the realities of physics and the associated challenges of keeping a human being alive off of our home planet. (Sorry, Star Wars. We love you but you're not a space movie.)
Some movies like Apollo 13, however, are well-grounded even though events in the films take place outside of Earth’s atmosphere. To celebrate the fact that Apollo 13 is now streaming on Peacock, here is a list of the most realistic movies that either take place off-planet or focus on extraterrestrial events.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 is arguably the most realistic movie about space out there. The Ron Howard-directed film chronicles the challenges that the real-life crew of NASA’s Apollo 13 mission faced when they had to turn around from their lunar destination after one of their oxygen tanks malfunctioned. The movie’s all-star cast, which includes Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, and Gary Sinise, hammer home both how tenuous it is to keep humans alive off-planet and also how human ingenuity can come up with miraculous solutions when faced with what seem like impossible circumstances.
Apollo 13 is now streaming on Peacock.
The Martian (2015)
Like Apollo 13, The Martian focuses on the immense challenge it is to keep human beings alive anywhere outside Earth. This Ridley Scott movie, based on the book by Andy Weir, follows Mark Watney (Matt Damon) as he becomes accidentally stranded on Mars and is forced to keep himself alive until a rescue mission comes. One of Mark’s biggest problems is getting a food supply going, a significant difficulty for any type of expedition into outer space. The film, like the book, lays out these challenges plainly, and the audience watches Mark try to problem-solve himself out of death numerous times before the movie is done.
The Martian is currently not streaming anywhere but is available via video on demand.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar might not seem all that realistic at first blush, given that it involves Matthew McConaughey’s character ultimately warping space and time (via a wormhole, of course) to get another glimpse of his daughter. Nolan, however, wanted the far-out space stuff we see in Interstellar to be grounded in what we currently know about astrophysics. The director definitely pushes the envelope of what could be, but almost everything was based on what best available science said would work.
Interstellar is now streaming on Paramount+.
Jodie Foster’s character in Contact has an intimate relationship with the cosmos, in no small part because of her father. The movie, from director Robert Zemeckis, is intimate in scope because of it's emotional focus on Foster's Dr. Ellie Arroway, but like the eponymous book by Carl Sagan the film is based on, it also explores what first contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence might look like. In the film, Dr. Arroway is involved with the Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence program, which is best known by its acronym, SETI. The film’s portrayal of SETI is based on science, and gives a very plausible scenario about how other intelligent life out there might come to know of our existence and subsequently reach out to communicate.
Contact is now streaming on Tubi and AMC+.
Space is not the safest place to live if you’re human. We get a nail-biting experience of this in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, which has Sandra Bullock playing an astronaut who, along with her co-astronaut played by George Clooney, find themselves thrown into space after their shuttle is destroyed in mid-orbit around Earth. The bulk of the movie has us following Bullock’s efforts to stay alive and get planetside safely. Getting there was no small feat, and the dangers she faces keep you at the edge of your seat as she tries to survive.
Gravity is now streaming on HBO Max and Prime Video.
Hidden Figures (2017)
The events in Hidden Figures take place planetside, but this movie about the real-life Black women who served as “human computers” in the early days of NASA has a lot to do with space. The biographical drama highlights how important mathematics is to keep astronauts alive during their missions and also highlights how the women — Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan — excel at their jobs despite the systemic racism that works against them succeeding.
Hidden Figures is now streaming on Disney+.
Looking for more sci-fi films to watch? Peacock has Apollo 13 as well as a slew of titles available for your viewing pleasure here.