The top 25 movies about exploring space, ranked

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Aug 24, 2016, 1:33 PM EDT

The exploration of space is not only one of the great scientific ambitions of humankind -- sadly only modestly realized at this stage -- but a cornerstone of science fiction, with so much of the genre both on the page and the screen given over to stories set amidst the stars. As we continue to celebrate Space Month here at Blastr, below are some 25 films dealing with our ongoing desire to push out into the universe and discover what waits for us out there.

Some are masterpieces, while others are a level or two above schlock. A number are based in plausible science, while some are outright fantasies, but all deal primarily with the notion of exploration. So you won't find space operas like Star Wars or Serenity on the list, nor will survival dramas like Gravity or Apollo 13 turn up (with one exception). You may not agree with all the choices and you might have some we've missed. Let's hope that the common thread of all of them -- humanity getting off the Earth and finding its way to the stars and beyond -- someday comes true.


25. Conquest of Space (1955)

Early space travel films tended naturally to stay local: the Moon and Mars were favored destinations. So when producer George Pal wanted to follow up his groundbreaking Destination Moon (1950), he decided to head for Mars as well. Like Destination Moon, this has great effects (for its time) and creates a striking portrait of what a voyage to an alien world might look like. But the poor attempts at humor and out-of-nowhere religious subtext (the captain abruptly decides the mission is against God's will!) hamper a true sense of wonder and excitement. 


24. Journey to the 7th Planet (1962)

A full 10 years before Solaris hit screens (but not before the original book came out), this tiny little Danish production actually spent a miniscule $75,000 to tackle some of the same themes, about a planet manifesting the innermost wishes of the astronauts who explore there. In this case the planet is Uranus and what gets manifested is a bevy of buxom Scandinavian babes in a bucolic village, although those soon give way to monsters of all shapes and sizes generated by a giant one-eyed brain creature. It's cheap and schlocky but on the other hand, who doesn't want to watch that?


23. Mission to Mars/Red Planet (2000)

The mapping of Mars is the most scientifically plausible option available to humanity these days, and with actual (unmanned) spacecraft finally getting there in the last couple of decade, Hollywood abandoned the old tropes of Martian invaders for more realistic stories. We got two in 2000: Mission to Mars is an underrated work of scientific suspense from director Brian de Palma that keeps things gritty and real until it blows its encounter with the remnants of an ancient Martian race in the third act. It's still worth a look though. Red Planet, on the other hand, starts off in similar fashion but overloads its voyage to Mars with a killer robot, alien insects and more plot contrivances. Both films offer a flawed glimpse at what a hard-science movie about a trip to a new planet might look like -- a vision that was fulfilled 15 years later.


22. Lost in Space (1998)

The original Lost in Space TV series was bad, bad, bad -- campy nonsense that gave sci-fi a bad name at roughly the same time Star Trek was attempting to approach the genre with dignity and intelligence. So in many ways it was almost a relief to see that this movie was a true re-imagining -- the family dynamics and basic plot were still there, but the dreadful camp tone was replaced by something a bit more sober. The cast is decent, the effects are solid and until its overwrought time travel reveal in the last act, Lost in Space is better than people remember it.


21. The Black Hole (1979)

The first Disney movie to be rated something other than "G" (it was given a "PG" by the MPAA ratings board), The Black Hole was the Mouse House's first conscious effort to break out of the "family film" box and create more adult fare. The Black Hole is not exactly successful on that front: despite some language and a couple of violent deaths, the movie still has a kiddie mentality, especially in its silly script and ludicrous robots. The special effects and sets are good though, even dazzling, and the climactic trip through the black hole is a surreal, ambiguous oddity that hints at what a better film might have done with this subject.


20. Explorers (1985)

A box office bust when it first came out, this sci-fantasy from director Joe Dante (Gremlins) is a Spielberg-lite story of three young friends who are mysteriously compelled by the same dream to build a spacecraft and launch it, eventually getting into space and meeting the aliens who planted the dream in their heads in the first place. Explorers feels like an Amblin movie in everything but name, with a lot of charm, decent effects and winning performances from a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix.


19. Pandorum (2009)

With the highly-touted Passengers due out this fall, this earlier take on the "interstellar ark" film is worth a look. Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster star as two inhabitants of a ship sent on a 123-year voyage to another planet, who wake up to discover that many of the 60,000 others have devolved into a mutated form of human life. The movie suffers from budgetary and script problems, but it has some effective twists and the idea of the effects of deep space travel on human beings is a compelling one. Not a great movie by any means, but I could think of worse ways to pass some time.


18. First Men in the Moon (1964)

H.G. Wells' 1901 novel gets a lavish screen treatment from stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen, screenwriter deluxe Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass films) and director Nathan Juran (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) as a trio of Victorian-era explorers find an underground alien civilization on our little satellite. It's a fantasy that doesn't have a whole lot to do with the more sober themes of Wells' novel, but the imaginative sets of the Selenite city on the moon are striking and Harryhausen's work is always a nostalgic delight. 


17. A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Go watch this now. I'll wait. In fact, it's right above. It's only 13 - 18 minutes long (depending on the frame rate) and is, after all, the first science fiction film in cinema history, not to mention a milestone in the evolution of film itself. Loosely inspired by Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, it is the most famous work by the legendary French filmmaker Georges Melies, whose pioneering work with visual effect and fantastical images has had an incalculable influence on genre movies to this day. The rocket that is launched to the Moon is the first of its kind in a movie, and does anyone not know the iconic image of the ship lodged in the Man in the Moon's eye? It's all pure fantasy, of course, but it is our first cinematic voyage off this rock, and a movie we should all love dearly. 


16. Destination Moon (1950)

George Pal's pioneering film -- which is quaint by today's standards if a vast leap forward from Melies' work -- doesn't go very far in its exploration of space. But it is the first major American motion picture to grapple specifically with the question of space travel, along with the dangers and possibilities it represents for the human race. The special effects are impressive for their time and do their best to summon up what the journey might be like and how it might feel to walk on the Moon. Destination Moon sort of opened the door for more movies about charting the unknown reaches of the cosmos.


15. Dark Star (1974)

The legendary debut of director John Carpenter, Dark Star started out as a student film by Carpenter and writer Dan O'Bannon (who later penned Alien and stars here as Pinback). It was expanded for feature distribution and has since become a cult classic. The movie follows the four crew members of the Dark Star, a ship searching deep space for unstable planets to destroy so that human colonists don't land on them. Alone in space for 20 years, the ship falling apart around them, our would-be heroes are all going nuts. Carpenter and O'Bannon stretch their reported $60,000 budget as far as they can, and the result is an absurdist black comedy that is all kinds of weird fun, even if these guys get the nod as "worst space explorers ever."


14. Stargate (1994)

I've always loved the idea of Stargate -- using an ancient alien portal to leap across the galaxy in seconds -- and it put a different spin on the concept of space exploration (namely, no ship necessary). Roland Emmerich's feature film is pretty good, with great lead work from Kurt Russell and James Spader, some terrific visuals and a solid first half in which passage through the portal leads to the investigation of an alien world. But the villainous tyrant Ra and his enslavement of the race on the planet -- which may have ties to ancient humanity in some sub-Chariots of the Gods tripe -- is a cliche that the movie can't overcome as it rumbles toward its overloaded finale. The TV show arguably handled the whole concept in better fashion.


13. Planet of the Vampires (1965)

A lot of people cite this Italian shocker from the great director Mario Bava is a direct influence on Alien and Prometheus -- and they wouldn't be wrong. Two exploratory ships are lured to an uncharted planet by a distress signal, where an unknown force causes them to crash land and possesses the corpses of one crew, reanimating them. The force turns out to be the disembodied inhabitants of the planet, who need the human bodies in order to escape their dying world. Bava made the movie for an incredibly low budget but manages to make it look surreal and nightmarish, with Gothic touches like lots of swirling mist and eerie, pulsating colors. It's a strange, beautiful and pulpy trip into space.


12. Contact (1997)

I've always believed in this movie (Matthew McConaughey's annoying preacher or whatever he is aside) because the way it depicts how the scientific community, the government and the world might deal with first contact feels so real. But why, you ask, is it on a list of space exploration movies? Well, Contact is about exploring space -- only not with spaceships but with radios and satellites and telescopes. Some of the best stuff in the film is the high-end detective work that Jodie Foster and her team do to pinpoint the source of the alien signal. And then there's Foster's trip aboard the craft the aliens instruct us to build -- a jawdropping cosmic roller coaster that offers us tantalizing glimpses of a larger, more populated universe than we ever imagined.


11. Solaris/Solaris (1972/2002)

Stanislaw Lem's novel provided the basis for two theatrical film adaptations; the 1972 version directed by Andrei Tarkovsky remains a landmark of Russian cinema while the 2002 American take from Steven Soderbergh was modestly ambitious but now largely forgotten. In both cases, space exploration -- in this case the discovery of a mysterious liquid planet dubbed Solaris -- is a direct metaphor for a kind of internal exploration as well, with the sentient planet causing visitors to see manifestations of their deepest desires. It's a haunting premise driven home by the loneliness and squalor of the space station in both films that orbits Solaris, suggesting that no matter how far we voyage into the cosmos, we'll never leave our psychological and emotional baggage behind.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture trailer

10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Strangely, none of the Star Trek movies are about exploring space -- the primary theme of the original series -- but the first one comes closest as the Enterprise sets off to investigate a dangerous, destructive energy cloud and determine the origins of the vast vessel that lies at its center. The space exploration aspect comes neatly back into play when we discover that the machine, V'Ger, is a souped up Voyager probe launched from Earth centuries earlier. All this is not to say that ST: TMP is a great movie, because it's not (although there's been some reappraisal of it). But it remains the only Trek movie that is actually about, to some extent, probing the final frontier.


9. Event Horizon (1997)

Like a certain recent movie that's ranked two positions higher on this list, Event Horizon had so much potential when it came out to hit that sweet spot between horror and sci-fi. And yet despite a botched post-production and a script that never comes quite into focus, the movie still manages to create a strong sense of dread in its early going, with some truly nightmarish imagery popping up along the way as well. The plot concerns a starship that accidentally opens a wormhole to another dimension which may or may not be hell -- a problem caused by the ship's gravity drive that they may want to fix next time out (not that there is one).


8. Europa Report (2013)

This indie production is a relative rarity in that it is a sci-fi story told through the "found footage" format, in this case the video logs of a six-person mission to the Jovian moon Europa in search of signs of life. The crises that the crew and ship encounter along the way are realistically handled, while the third act discovery of possible life on the moon is compelling and suspenseful. With scientists longing to explore Europa if we could ever get there, Europa Report ranks as one of the few space travel scenarios that some of us could live to see.


7. Prometheus (2012)

Ah, Prometheus. Never has so much potential been frittered away so haphazardly and with such disappointing results. But for its first half, Prometheus not only channels the vague sense of dread that also permeated director Ridley Scott's Alien, but something else -- a sense of mystery and awe as the crew of the title ship goes in search of the origins of humanity itself. That set-up goes a long way toward putting Prometheus relatively high on this list, even if the payoff is abysmal. It also scores points for being one of the most dazzling visual experiences of this decade, giving space itself a depth and texture that goes well beyond what we see in most films.


6. The Martian (2015)

On one hand, The Martian is primarily a story of survival and rescue, but it's also a celebration of the spirit of the space program and of the idea of space exploration itself. The movie draws excitement, thrills and suspense from the exploration of Mars, not from any additional elements like aliens or planetary catastrophe, making The Martian as much a movie about science as it is about plucking Matt Damon off the Red Planet. There's never a moment where any of the characters stop to think that maybe exploring space isn't such a good idea, and Ridley Scott (yes, him again) makes us feel what it might be like to actually spend time on Mars.


5. 2010 (1984)

Making a sequel under the shadow of a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey would seem like an almost impossible task, but director/screenwriter Peter Hyams managed to do a dignified and even intellectually thrilling job adapting Arthur C. Clarke's follow-up novel to the book and movie he created with Stanley Kubrick. 2010 is a genuine science fiction story -- a rarity then and now -- and it works as a logical extension of the concepts expressed in 2001 even as it over-explains some of them. But like its predecessor, 2010 captures the many moods of space travel -- tedium, fear, adrenaline-pumping excitement and awe -- while telling a story that doesn't disservice itself or disrespect the towering original.


4. Forbidden Planet (1956)

It may seem a little dated today, but Forbidden Planet was a groundbreaking science fiction film for its time. It was the first sci-fi film to show humans traveling faster than light in their own spacecraft, and it was also the first film to take place entirely on another planet, outside the Solar System, in another part of the galaxy with not a single glimpse of Earth. It was the first motion picture to follow a crew of space explorers into uncharted space as they discovered the mysteries there, predating Star Trek (of which this could be an episode with a few tweaks) by a full decade. Forbidden Planet largely bypassed the nuts and bolts of space exploration that many other films of the time focused on; this movie postulated that we could -- and would -- conquer the cosmos.


3. Alien (1979)

If our top two movies on this list reflect at least a cautious optimism about the future of humankind as it pushes out into deep space, Alien is the ultimate flipside of that outlook. The void in Ridley Scott's horror classic is indifferent, inhospitable and downright hostile to human life, its long, punishing stretches of nothingness peppered by dead planets, rotting corpses and viciously predatory forms of life. There's no comfort for the crew of the Nostromo whatsoever: they're underpaid, overworked, and detoured from their trip home on a mission that their employers know is a death sentence. Space is not welcoming to humans in Alien at all -- and neither, it appears, are the people who sign the checks back home.

Interstellar Trailer 3

2. Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan's epic is a latecomer to the list for sure, but can you think of any other recent movie that has succeeded in even partially channeling the majesty and vastness of deep space? Not to mention that this is the first film to -- according to the astrophysicist Kip Thorne who was a consultant and producer on the movie -- convey as accurate a sense as possible of what it might be like to travel through a wormhole. Whatever its flaws, and Interstellar certainly has them, the movie still delivers a plausible, somber, but still frequently electrifying depiction of a mind-bending journey across oceans of time and space. 


1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Nearly 50 years after it was released, Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece is still the gold standard against which all space movies -- all science fiction movies, in fact -- are judged. An enormous leap forward in technical prowess and cinematic wizardry, Kubrick's film was the first to capture the grandeur, mystery and awe of space travel while effortlessly showing how it could become a part of our everyday lives (sadly we haven't reached that point yet, 15 years after the title year has come and gone). And then of course there is "the infinite" -- Kubrick's argument that the future of human evolution itself lay out there amongst the stars. In the 48 years since 2001 came out, space has rarely seemed so enigmatic, so humbling -- or so beautiful.