10 great space opera films

With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in cinemas, we count down 10 bright, bold and often enjoyably silly tales of intergalactic adventure.

4 May 2023

By Wang Sum Luk

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023)

Once upon a time, the term ‘space opera’ was an insult. Intended to evoke the formulaic nature of soap operas, it was a derogatory description of the sci-fi stories published in cheap pulp magazines and comic strips of the early 20th century. These were cliché-laden tales of bold heroes on interplanetary adventures, usually with an emphasis on portraying fast-paced action and fantastical alien worlds.

But over the last half century this genre has inspired some of Hollywood’s most popular and profitable franchises. In making the Guardians of the Galaxy films – the latest instalment of which, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, is now in cinemas – director James Gunn took inspiration from the midcentury pulp sci-fi stories and movies in which space opera thrived. These stories similarly inspired Star Wars and Star Trek, space-opera franchises so (rightfully) beloved that this list won’t belabour the point of recommending them.

As a genre that began as popular entertainment, space opera has long been tied to a silly, over-the-top approach to storytelling. Not for nothing did writer Susan Sontag describe the Flash Gordon space-adventure comics as being representative of camp, the aesthetic of sincere, flamboyant spectacle. Emphasising style over substance, space opera, at its best, is at least a little ridiculous.

From comedic films to surprisingly serious ones, this list showcases the subgenre’s most colourful and imaginative offerings.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Science fiction has always been a genre that looks to the future and the past simultaneously, and this 1950s CinemaScope classic is an excellent case in point. Its plot is a loose parallel to Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a starship on an investigative mission stands in for shipwrecked sailors, the secretive scientist Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) for the wizard Prospero, and the mysterious threat of alien technology for magic and spirits.

But the movie is much more than a retelling of a familiar story. It was the first major film to have a soundtrack composed completely of electronic music, contains an early example of a helpful robot in its genial manservant Robby the Robot, and features Oscar-nominated special effects which remain impressive even after nearly seven decades. And in exploring how humanity’s darker impulses persist even in the far future, the plot deals with a theme of perennial resonance.

Barbarella (1968)

Director: Roger Vadim

Barbarella (1968)

Whereas Forbidden Planet is a serious parable about hubris and human folly, Barbarella delights in its own gaudy ridiculousness. Adapted from a French comic series, it portrays the eponymous heroine (Jane Fonda) on a quest to stop the mad scientist Durand Durand (Milo O’Shea) – whose name later inspired a certain 1980s band.

The movie shines in its dazzling, psychedelic production design, with plot intended as a secondary consideration. It follows Barbarella as she quests around a variety of colourful planets, repeatedly becoming endangered as a damsel in distress – a dated characterisation, especially considering how Barbarella is also costumed in a litany of objectifying outfits. Yet, the film’s visuals were undeniably influential, inspiring music videos by Kylie Minogue and Ariana Grande. It remains a fascinating time capsule of swinging 60s style.

Fantastic Planet (1973)

Director: René Laloux

Fantastic Planet (1973)

The French animator René Laloux directed only three feature-length films in his career, but left an important mark on fantasy cinema. Adapted from the novel Oms en série by Stefan Wul, his debut feature is set on a planet where gigantic blue aliens, the Traags, treat humans as pets or as vermin. Fantastic Planet follows Terr, a human who escapes captivity and joins a rebel human tribe. It’s a dystopian universe, brought to life by painterly animation and a jazzy soundtrack influenced by psychedelia and funk.

Beyond its stylish production, the movie is also startlingly brutal, with humans being exterminated like pests by the Traags and retaliating in equally gory fashion. The result is a disquieting exploration of violence in all its forms, from our treatment of animals to the intolerance and racism within our own societies.

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

Likely made to cash in on Star Wars’ success, Battle Beyond the Stars found famed B-movie producer Roger Corman working with a much bigger budget than usual, which is put to use with a strong cast and inventive visual effects, which a young James Cameron helped design. Borrowing its plot from Akira Kurosawa’s action classic Seven Samurai (1954), Battle Beyond the Stars sees the peaceful planet Akir menaced by the warlord Sador (John Saxon). A young farmer (Richard Thomas), dispatched to assemble a team of mercenaries, rustles up a colourful supporting cast, including Robert Vaughn (essentially reprising his role from the 1960 cowboy remake of Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven) and B-movie stalwart Sybil Danning.

This is a film that never takes itself too seriously: the movie features a spaceship shaped like a pair of breasts (an idea supposedly suggested by Cameron). But, as a reimagining of sci-fi and western tropes, it has an offbeat charm of its own.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Director: Mike Hodges

Flash Gordon (1980)

Another post-Star Wars project, this big-budget revamp of the old sci-fi serials is an uncomplicated tale of heroes versus villains. Sam J. Jones plays Flash as a peroxide-blond all-American champ, while Ingmar Bergman regular Max von Sydow is the sinister Ming the Merciless, Timothy Dalton (seven years before he played Bond) is a swashbuckling alien prince, and Brian Blessed is Prince Vultan, the sort of over-the-top barbarian he was born to play. Putting a modern 1980s spin on things is the energetic rock soundtrack, composed by Queen and with an earworm theme song (“Flash! Ah-ah! Saviour of the universe!”). 

Directed by Get Carter (1971) director Mike Hodges after Nicolas Roeg left the project, it’s a perfect piece of light entertainment: sincere, bright and irresistibly silly.

Les Maîtres du temps (1982)

Director: René Laloux

Les Maîtres du temps (1982)

For his second feature, following Fantastic Planet, René Laloux collaborated with famed French cartoonist Mœbius, whose richly detailed drawings have influenced movies including Alien (1979), Tron (1982) and The Fifth Element (1997). As such, Les Maîtres du temps is full of hallucinatory images, not least the eerie armies of faceless angels who serve as the film’s antagonists.

In notable contrast to the often fairytale-like simplicity typical of this subgenre’s plots, Laloux’s movie offers a more esoteric narrative. It begins with the story of Piel (Frédéric Legros), an orphaned boy stranded on an alien planet, and the ragtag team of space travellers who head out to rescue him. The ensuing drama involves exiled royalty, monstrous aliens and time travel, with religious and philosophical subtext woven throughout the narrative.

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Director: Nick Castle

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Remembered as an early adopter of digital effects, The Last Starfighter features 27 minutes of computer-generated imagery – a revolutionary achievement for its time, and the effects still have plenty of retro charm today. Its premise is, initially, a wish-fulfilment tale: teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), stuck living in a dull trailer park, finds that the video game he excels at playing is a means of recruiting him into an interstellar war. However, the film also delves into Alex’s qualms about being press-ganged into a deadly conflict, a twist of realism which adds nuance to an initially escapist fantasy. Add to this a strong supporting performance by veteran actor Robert Preston (playing a character modelled on his role in the Broadway musical and 1962 film The Music Man) and you have an entertaining coming-of-age movie with an effective emotional core.

The Fifth Element (1997)

Director: Luc Besson

The Fifth Element (1997)

With intricately designed futuristic worlds (created with input from cartoonist Mœbius) and costumes designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, every frame of Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element fizzes with boldness and detail and style. It’s a throwback to how movies like Barbarella were almost solely aimed at providing visual spectacle, with sequences such as a performance by an alien opera singer demonstrating sheer imaginative flair.

Other elements may be more divisive: Milla Jovovich’s character Leeloo has been criticised for being written as passive and heavily sexualised, and – over the top, even by the standards of this highly theatrical movie – Chris Tucker’s turn as radio show host Ruby Rhod is either hysterical or hideously annoying, depending on your temperament. But with its combination of practical effects, big sets and CGI, this cosmos-spanning tale of the 23rd century is difficult to resist.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Director: Dean Parisot

Galaxy Quest (1999)

The appeal of a good space opera often goes hand in hand with its cheesiness, a fact which Galaxy Quest takes as its theme. About the washed-up stars of a Star Trek-style show who get dragged into a real alien conflict, the movie pokes fun at this genre’s clichés, from objectifying depictions of women to formulaic plots, while also satirising the obsessive fandoms that surround sci-fi media.

But Galaxy Quest is a loving parody, demonstrating why these stories matter so much to their fans, with multiple Star Trek actors praising the film for how well it captures their experiences with the franchise. No discussion of Galaxy Quest would be complete without mentioning Alan Rickman’s scene-stealing turn as a jaded Shakespearian actor, a character who gets the film’s funniest lines and most moving scene. This combination of humour and heart makes Galaxy Quest a vital comment on the genre’s history and enduring appeal.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Directors: Lana and Lilly Wachowski

Jupiter Ascending (2015)

Yes, Jupiter Ascending was a box-office failure and received mixed reviews. But in an age when blockbusters constantly get criticised for being cookie-cutter productions, the Wackowskis’ film stands out for its offbeat style and sincere tone. The plot centres on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a young woman working as a housekeeper who learns that she is descended from galactic royalty. The evil emperor she finds herself facing off against is played by Eddie Redmayne, whose performance is appropriately absurd for a movie where a main character is a canine-human hybrid.

The Wachowskis combine elaborate visual effects with practical stunts, with some of its high-flying fight scenes achieved by dangling actors and stunt doubles from helicopters above the Chicago skyline. Despite the clichés of the story and some stiff performances, Jupiter Ascending is proof that the space opera remains a format for directors with ambitious ideas to reach for the stars.

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