Since its earliest days, cinema has been fascinated by the idea of space travel. Some 67 years before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, George Méliès took audiences there with 1902’s Le Voyage dans la lune. Considered cinema’s first sci-fi, Méliès’ film sees explorers crash into Earth’s closest neighbour in a rocket shot out of a cannon, and then proceed to do battle with the insectoid inhabitants.
Today, with the benefit of another century-plus of scientific understanding, the space film looks very different. Space travel in the movies is constantly evolving. In the space race era, space movies looked forward to a utopian future. In the 70s, a murkier vision reflective of growing real-world social and political distress took hold. And then, post-Star Wars, a more fantastical and action-packed take on life in space became the norm.
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In the last decade, cinema’s view of space travel has shifted again. While the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and reboots of the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises have emphasised the adventure, many others, including Gravity (2013) and The Martian (2015), have addressed the potential perils of space travel becoming more commonplace in an age of renewed exploration. Meanwhile, an increasing number of films, among them Interstellar (2014) and this year’s upcoming Voyagers, are asking whether, if humankind exhausts the Earth, we might find a new home on a planet B.
The same basic curiosity, however, endures from the days of Méliès: what are we going to find out there among the stars? And how might the answers change the way we see the world – or ourselves?
Ikarie XB-1 (1963)
Director: Jindrich Polák
Made in a period when a limitless future was typically imagined for extraterrestrial travel, one in which food would be magically plentiful and no star system would be too distant, Ikarie XB-1 injected some scientific and psychological realism into the space film. Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Magellanic Cloud, Czech director Jindrich Polák’s film finds a crew travelling at light speed to a potentially life-harbouring white planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.
Although resources and leisure time are ample aboard the Ikarie, the journey is not without consequence. The trip will seem like 28 months to the crew, but the nature of relativity means their loved ones will be 15 years older when they return to Earth. Meanwhile, cabin fever (and a heavy dose of space radiation) brings some crew members to the edge of sanity. Ikarie XB-1 was a clear influence on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with Stanley Kubrick calling it “a half step up from your average science fiction film” – which amounts to a ringing endorsement from the perfectionist filmmaker.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
A film that showed what was possible in sci-fi cinema, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 continues to be a touchstone for any picture that deals in space exploration. The story was a result of almost two years of intensive discussions between Kubrick and his co-writer, sci-fi novelist Arthur C. Clarke, and it took even longer to execute, with the director beginning filming in December 1965 and only finalising the film’s effects in March 1968.
Whether it’s a commercial flight to the moon or a classified long-range mission to Jupiter, 2001 luxuriates in its space sequences, majestic ballets of sound and movement set to classical music. Stanley Kubrick might famously never have won a best director Oscar, but he did take home one Academy Award, for 2001’s visual effects – and rightfully so. More than half a century on, the film’s depiction of space travel – realised practically through a combination of model work, huge sets and precise photographic projection – remains flawless.
Silent Running (1972)
Director: Douglas Trumbull
Some time in the future, Earth has become a climate-controlled utopia, free of disease and poverty. But it’s one which apparently has so little use left for nature that its last forests are now kept in geodesic domes orbiting Saturn. On the ship Valley Forge, botanist Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) obsessively tends to three of these vast gardens when the order comes in to destroy them – an order Lowell disobeys by murdering the rest of the crew and piloting the ship out into deep space.
There’s a hangover of 1960s idealism to Silent Running. 2001 effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut includes flower-power interludes featuring music by Joan Baez, while a multicoloured trip through Saturn’s rings has shades of an acid experience. The overriding tone, though, is one of new 1970s pessimism. Ultimately, Lowell‘s environmentalist dream sours, the peace he initially finds out in the cosmos soon giving way to loneliness and guilt over his killing for a fruitless ‘greater good’.
Star Wars (1977)
Director: George Lucas
Although sci-fi cinema generally went in a more mature direction in the 1970s, George Lucas’s empire-building third feature took a refreshingly opposite approach. Opening on an epic battle among the stars and climaxing with an even bigger one, Star Wars would present a universe where man (and Wookiee) has mastered space travel, with a quick leap from one habitable planet to the next possible at the mere push of a button.
Taking inspiration from pre-space race pulp sci-fi comics and film serials, Star Wars pays no mind to real physical or existential concerns about space travel. “Star Wars is a fantasy, much closer to the Brothers Grimm than it is to 2001…The word for this movie is fun,” said Lucas at the time. Still, not even this proto-blockbuster could totally escape the influence of the 70s, with its beat-up freighters and junky ship interiors suggesting a more hardscrabble life in space than Flash Gordon ever knew.
Director: Ridley Scott
By the time Ridley Scott made this landmark sci-fi horror, space travel had become so routine in the movies it seemed almost anyone could do it. In Alien, the astronauts are blue-collar types complaining about bonuses and food. Their latest job is towing 20 million tonnes of mineral ore back to Earth. It’s only the threat of suspension of wages that convinces the crew of the Nostromo to make their fateful detour to a nearby ‘primordial’ moon, from which they unwittingly bring back to the ship the universe’s deadliest apex predator.
From there, Scott’s film becomes a spacebound haunted house picture, as H.R. Giger’s nightmarish xenomorph eliminates the crew one by one. Alien would be followed by a number of sequels, prequels and regrettable franchise crossovers, with all but one of them set primarily on terra firma. What makes the original so uniquely frightening is how impossible escape seems for its protagonists: what awaits the crew beyond the confines of the ship is no less hostile to them than their ravenous intruder.
Apollo 13 (1995)
Director: Ron Howard
Released in a fallow period for the space movie, Apollo 13 is itself about a period in which, post-Neil Armstrong, space travel had suddenly become passé to a world preoccupied with problems on the ground. In Ron Howard’s telling of 1970’s doomed Apollo 13 adventure, it isn’t until astronauts Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) find themselves in mortal danger on their way home from an aborted moon landing that the TV networks even start giving the mission any airtime.
Made just years before CGI would become de rigueur for the space movie, Apollo 13 is an impressively practical spectacle. Bolstered by digital effects, the film makes extensive use of spacecraft miniatures and replica sets. Most impressively, to achieve scenes of weightlessness, Howard shot aboard the so-called ‘Vomit Comet’, a modified NASA training aircraft that – for 20 seconds at a time – would place the actors in a simulated zero-G environment.
Director: Danny Boyle
To save Earth from the chill of a solar winter, a crack team of scientists are despatched to the heart of our solar system on a flying bomb named Icarus II (the first Icarus having become lost after it flew literally too close to the sun). Their mission: to nuke our dying star back to life. Sunshine may have the absurd premise of a Michael Bay movie, but it also has the combined scientific and philosophical imagination of screenwriter Alex Garland and science advisor Brian Cox.
What happens when a crew of diverse credos and fallibilities embarks on a long-distance space voyage? A clash of passion and pragmatism leads to regular fights between sensitive physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) and surly engineer Mace (Chris Evans). A miscalculation by navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) destroys biologist Corazon’s (Michelle Yeoh) precious oxygen garden, leaving him suicidal and her bereft. Faced with the desolate blackness of endless space, some crew members fall under the spell of the blazing sun. But where one sees a merciless, overwhelming celestial body, another finds God.
First Man (2018)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Following Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his days as a test pilot through NASA training to his historic walk on the moon, First Man is a twofer: a dramatisation of the space race from the American side as well as a revisionist biopic of a mythical figure. Here the Apollo astronauts are portrayed as everyday suburban joes – husbands and fathers whose unique attributes allowed them to do remarkable things in their time, with Armstrong the most ordinary of the bunch.
Similarly deglamorised are the recreations of historic NASA space flights, which situate the viewer inside the cockpit from Armstrong’s point-of-view and depict early spacecraft as shockingly primitive, all creaking metal and analogue tech. The docu-style brings verisimilitude, but Justin Hurwitz’s ghostly score and some fluid space scenes see there’s also a musical grace to La La Land filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature. It’s a poetic film about unpoetic men.
Directors: Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja
Released the same year as Claire Denis’ unsettling space oddity High Life, Aniara is that film’s somehow even more despairing cousin. Adapted from Harry Martinson’s epic poem, Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja’s film traps the viewer inside a luxurious civilian transport meant for Mars but which – following an accident – is left cruising through space, rudderless and without any way to turn around.
In time, the micro-society on board the Aniara disintegrates, High-Rise-style, with passengers first embracing hedonism and cultish new religions. Then, as resources and hope of salvation both dwindle, they succumb to despair. This is one of a number of sci-fi films this century to depict mass space transportation gone horribly awry, but where Aniara differs from the likes of Pandorum (2009) or Alien: Covenant (2017) is that its horror is entirely existential. So many films about space travel end with characters triumphing over harsh odds and ultimately finding meaning in the void. Not this one.
Ad Astra (2019)
Director: James Gray
Ad Astra is a sci-fi Heart of Darkness that is, in essence, another contemplative drama about one of director James Gray’s trademark troubled men. In this case, the customary angst and father issues go to an astronaut in the shape of a never-more-fragile Brad Pitt. On a mission from US Space Command, Pitt’s Major Roy McBride planet-hops through a solar system in the early stages of colonisation to track down daddy Tommy Lee Jones, a brilliant scientist last heard from 16 years prior, circling Neptune.
Gray’s lonely, cynical vision of late 21st-century space as a commercialised wild west makes for a spectacular backdrop to a tale of familial discord. In this future, you’ll find a branch of Subway on the moon and audiovisual displays made to simulate the wonder of Earth inside Mars’ underground bunkers. You’ll also find warring tribes figuring out new ways to kill each other in a low-gravity environment. On Earth or in space, in Ad Astra humans continue to be stubbornly human.