Who didn’t want to be an astronaut growing up? We’re not sure about this whole Space Force thing, but it’s undeniable that we all, at some point, looked up to the sky and thought, “What would it be like to be up there?” Movies are uniquely skilled at capturing this sensation, with their ability not just to take us into the cosmos but to keep us there: to make our own stories even more human when they’re in the stars.
Thus, today, we look at the best astronaut movies. Now, obviously, there are plenty of movies with astronauts in them: 2001: A Space Odyssey, for crying out loud. We’re focusing specifically on movies about astronauts, doing astronaut things, in space. Your mileage, we grant, may vary.
Drawing on everything from Solaris to Das Boot to Apocalypse Now, Danny Boyle’s underrated thriller is among the bleakest of sci-fi movies: In the near future, a group of scientists and astronauts must journey to the sun to reignite it, lest everyone on Earth perish. (Either way, the crew of the Icarus II ain’t coming home — their mission is a one-way trip.) Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland (who would go on to make Ex Machina and Annihilation) craft a psychological study that doubles as a tense interstellar adventure, one with a go-for-broke ending that’s as ludicrous as it is straight-up amazing.
A terrific international cast that includes Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, and a pre-Captain America Chris Evans brings heft and emotion to a film that taps into the loneliness and terror of outer space — and, in a beautiful way, expresses something ineffable about what it means to be alive.
The Martian (2015)
A while back, we argued that The Martian is one of the most patriotic genre films of all time, and we meant it. This is a movie that makes you believe that if you get enough smart, ingenious people together to try to solve an unsolvable problem, you can do it … through science!
Matt Damon’s Mark Watney is, like so many astronauts before him, just an ordinary guy, but also an extraordinary one, who’s put in an impossible situation that he fights to get himself out of, using logic, reason, and persistence. Again: Astronauts being like the rest of us, but representing the best of us.
“Life in space is impossible.”
Gravity’s opening text sets up its story’s brutal life-or-death stakes, and director Alfonso Cuarón spends the rest of his film’s 90 minutes demonstrating just how terrifying and exhilarating that proposition is. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, who’s never been in space, and George Clooney is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut who’s her mission commander. A catastrophic accident later, they’re in a tense struggle to stay alive and somehow get home, their oxygen running low and their ability to communicate with NASA extremely limited.
Gravity turns the occupational hazards of working in space into a white-knuckle thriller that’s also technically stunning. (Steven Price’s Oscar-winning score is also incredible, amplifying every heart-racing moment.) Don’t try any of this at home — or, for that matter, while hovering high above Earth.
The Right Stuff (1983)
It can be difficult sometimes, looking around the country as it currently stands, to remember that this can be a truly wonderful place that can do some truly remarkable things. If you need a reminder, watch The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, about the absolute best of America doing things that no human had ever done … and how astoundingly unlikely it really was.
While the most charismatic role here might belong to a pilot rather than an astronaut (Sam Shepard’s immortal turn as Chuck Yeager), Ed Harris as John Glenn is iconic as well, a mere mortal sent into the heavens to stand in for all of us.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning drama about three NASA astronauts whose ship is badly damaged on its way to the moon, forcing them to think quickly, is an excellent example of how to make a true story utterly electric — even if everybody knows the ending. (Truth is, that’s part of Apollo 13’s appeal: We look forward to seeing our boys triumph over such incredible adversity.) Tom Hanks is perfection as the cool-under-pressure Jim Lovell, embodying the kind of quiet heroism we’d like to imagine is the standard operating procedure for astronauts. And Ed Harris is equally great as Gene Kranz, who’s determined to figure out a way to save this aborted mission.
We’re always a little surprised that Apollo 13 doesn’t play more during the Fourth of July: It’s a superb portrait of America’s can-do spirit.