If you haven’t been lucky enough to go to space yet — something everyone and their mother seems to want to do these days — never fear. Hollywood has been churning out quality space films for years, many of which offer the sensation of traveling to space without requiring you to even leave your couch. Whether you’re in the mood for an edge-of-your-seat thriller or an action-packed adventure on a strange new planet, these stories have expanded our imaginations and encouraged us to wonder what other worlds might exist beyond our own.
No one should have to strap themselves to a rocket or drain their life savings just to see outer space. Here are some of the best movies that can take you there right now.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
The film that would launch one of the most successful franchises of all time, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope was our first introduction to Luke Skywalker, stormtroopers, the Force, and all of George Lucas’s other iconic creations. It transported us to new pockets of space we’d never been to before, birthing storylines that would span over a dozen films, television spin-offs, and theme park rides.
A good space film doesn’t just take place in a galaxy far, far away — it builds its world thoroughly and gives us characters we can relate to, even if they happen to be Wookiees or lovable droids. Sure, the lightsaber fights and starship battles make our hearts race, but it’s the colorful cast of characters that have kept us coming back to Star Wars since 1977, inviting us to find out what will happen next in the intergalactic saga.
Star Trek (2009)
When you create a successful film series that garners fans all over the globe, it’s easier to get those same viewers back in theaters to see subsequent sequels. Rebooting an already-popular franchise in an attempt to gain new fans is considerably harder, but J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot managed to do just that. With Chris Pine taking over the captain’s chair and Zachary Quinto playing Spock, new life was breathed into the material and updated CGI better illustrated the characters’ sci-fi world.
The contemporary spin on this established world might have made Star Trek feel a little more “Hollywood” than previous films in the franchise, but it brought the classic characters even more into the mainstream and led to two additional sequels with a fourth currently in the works. The combination of top-notch acting, writing, directing, and visual effects in the first three films means that audiences should prepare for the fourth to be a treat as well.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Often hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey examines the possibility that alien forces have been watching Earth longer than we ever thought possible. After unearthing a series of black monoliths, the astronauts on board the Discovery One are sent on a mission to Jupiter to uncover who might be behind the phenomenon.
The ensuing adventure explores the relationship between mankind and technology, as illustrated by Dr. Bowman’s interactions with the supercomputer HAL. Kubrick’s creative vision for the film might have been ahead of its time, but it didn’t stop him from winning an Academy Award for Special Visual Effects in 1969. His groundbreaking visual storytelling has made Odyssey an enduring work by which all other sci-fi films will forever be measured.
The Right Stuff
Based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name, The Right Stuff chronicles the journey of the astronauts chosen to take part in America’s space program. The film mainly follows the Mercury Seven as they prepare for Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the United States. Historical inaccuracies aside, the film examines what it means to have the “right stuff” in order to travel into space, AKA the physical, mental, and emotional fortitude.
Even though the film wasn’t a box office hit, critics agree that it’s in a league of its own and a story worth revisiting if only to witness Sam Shepard‘s performance as Chuck Yeager. The story is so inspiring that it was recently adapted into a brand new television series on Disney Plus. Preparing to go to space might be anything but easy, but both adaptations of The Right Stuff prove that in the end, the journey to get there is worth it.
“Houston, we have a problem.” Ron Howard’s docudrama follows the true story of the terrifying 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission that found three astronauts with less oxygen and electrical power after experiencing an on-board explosion. NASA then had to abort the intended moon landing and bring the men safely home. Adding only a few minor dialogue changes, Howard stayed true to the official Apollo 13 transcript and had stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton train with NASA in an effort to deliver the truest translation of events possible.
In an age when even ordinary people are getting the chance to travel to space, Apollo 13 serves as a touching reminder of what NASA did when faced with the most dangerous of circumstances. Anyone can send a group of astronauts to the moon (right?), but bringing them back when the odds are stacked against them? That’s worth celebrating.
Before the Apollo 13 mission could happen, Neil Armstrong had to be the first man to walk on the moon. Damien Chazelle’s historical drama shines a heavy light on the emotional effects that a mission of Apollo 11’s magnitude can have on an astronaut like Armstrong, not to mention his family. We tend to think of successful space missions as causes for global celebration, but Chazelle endeavored to show the side of the mission we didn’t get to witness in 1969, putting us right inside Armstrong’s capsule so we could see what things looked like from his vantage point.
The film won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and both Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy were praised for their performances. In addition to being a rich character study, Chazelle is a genius filmmaker with the ability to transport you into the lives of his subjects. If you want to take a walk on the moon without actually going there, First Man offers you your most realistic opportunity to do so.
What would you do if you were trapped on Mars and the only people who could help you were 140 million miles away? That’s the question at the center of The Martian, Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. The odds seem impossible, which is why it would have made sense for Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney to give up and accept that he would probably die on the red planet.
Instead, he does ingenious things like turn an abandoned outpost into his new home, learn how to grow potatoes to keep himself alive, and send communications to NASA all the way back on Earth. You can’t help but root for the guy, especially when he’s able to have a sense of humor about his situation. Matt Damon won a Golden Globe for his performance as Watney and was nominated for an Oscar as well. The Martian succeeds in both offering a glimpse of life on another planet and making us thankful for the one we have on Earth.
Mankind was born on Earth, but Interstellar argues that it was never meant to die here. That is why, in the not-too-distant future when humanity is threatened by incessant natural disasters, it’s up to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his team of explorers to travel to a distant wormhole in an attempt to find another habitable planet. Doing so means leaving his children behind with no guarantee that he’ll actually be able to see them again.
As the visionary filmmaker at the helm, Christopher Nolan packs his film with visual splendor that transports the audience to eye-popping new landscapes while also keeping the story partially grounded on Earth, where we can’t help but wonder if Murph (Jessica Chastain) will ever see her father again. Interstellar won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and has often been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey for its visual and intellectual ambition.
372 miles above the Earth might not sound like a lot, but when your simple mission is thwarted by an onslaught of unexpected space debris — resulting in the destruction of your shuttle — the black of space can suddenly become a whole lot scarier. This is exactly what Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, goes through over the course of Alfonso Cuarón’s 91-minute suspense flick.
There’s a reason Gravity won seven Oscars, including Best Director, Cinematography, and Visual Effects. It pulls you into the story and leaves you on the edge of your seat the entire time, gasping at its twists and ever-increasing sense of despair. There is no shortage of disastrous space movies out there, but this one is so well-made that you’ll feel like you were there with Bullock during every moment of her nightmarish experience.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Not every sci-fi flick introduces us to a cast of alien characters that we fall instantly in love with, but Guardians of the Galaxy does that and more. It’s the film that catapulted the Marvel Cinematic Universe into space and brought all kinds of zany beings to the forefront, including a talking raccoon and everyone’s favorite tree-like humanoid. Against visually stunning backdrops and underscored by a soundtrack of hits from the 60s and 70s, Guardians gives us an origin story, character study, and rousing space opera all in one.
The fact that it was able to carve out its own unique style in the preexisting MCU and make us love it just as much as (if not more than) other MCU films is a testament to the film’s ingenuity and inventiveness. It’s a story that doesn’t take itself too seriously but that delivers plenty of laughs, engaging characters, and the promise that any adventure with Star-Lord and the gang is going to be an entertaining one.
One of the best space films in recent years, Hidden Figures tells the previously untold true story of three Black women who made major contributions to NASA’s space program. Loosely based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book of the same name, the story follows mathematician Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and NASA engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), all of whom were dismissed for being women of color but who powered through the prejudice and were instrumental in getting astronaut John Glenn to space.
The film is packed with powerhouse performances from all three leads and features new songs from Pharrell Williams that provide additional insight into what the women endured in their predominantly white workplaces. A few historical tweaks were made in order to tell all three stories together, resulting in an enjoyable film about important historical figures that are no longer hidden.
After exploring automobiles, superheroes, underwater quests, and the secret lives of toys, it was only natural for Pixar to boldly go where it hadn’t gone before: outer space. 700 years in the future, there is no one left on Earth except for one little robot named WALL-E, who is tasked with cleaning up all the trash that humans have left behind. WALL-E isn’t upset about his unfortunate job description, but he is lonely.
So when a space probe lands on Earth and presents him with a futuristic robot named EVE, the big-eyed robot is ready to follow her to the ends of the universe. WALL-E is at turns a heartwarming romance and a cautionary tale about mankind’s propensity for being wasteful and gluttonous. Pixar succeeds in giving us even more characters to love in its already packed canon (and plenty to be ashamed of) as well as a sense of hope that no matter how bad things get for our planet, there’s always an opportunity for humans to turn things around—even if it takes a sentient robot for us to see that potential in ourselves.