It’s impossible to say when, exactly, mankind first dreamed of traveling into outer space, but ever since we got the idea in our heads we never let it go. We’ve been telling stories about alien worlds for longer than anyone has been alive, and we’ve been making movies about flying to the moon since practically the dawn of cinema.
As visual effects expanded and space travel itself became a reality, movies have become more and more obsessed with sci-fi stories about star treks, star wars, and just about anything star-related. In the 21st century, those films are often big, giant blockbusters but visual effects technology has also reached the point where small, independent comedies and dramas can also realistically take place on space ships, space stations, and other planets.
When it came time to curate a list of the best space movies of the century (so far), we knew that we had to limit ourselves somewhere. What’s the point of a “Top 20” list if most of the entries are sequels or prequels to Star Trek and Star Wars? How many Guardians of the Galaxy films do we really need to write about before you get the general idea that they’re good?
So, to free up space (all puns intended) for underrated and underappreciated films, we’re limiting ourselves to one film per franchise and spreading the love in our list of the best space movies of the 21st century, so far! Put on your helmets, strap in, and get ready to venture into the farthest reaches of the galaxy in pursuit of action, adventure… and ennui.
Titan A.E. (2000)
The last feature film, so far, from animation icon Don Bluth, co-directed by Gary Goldman, the ambitious Titan A.E. sought to build a massive Star Wars-esque universe in the world of feature animation. Audiences balked, but the results are exciting, with sparkling dialogue and unexpected turns courtesy of writers Ben Edlund (The Tick), John August (Go) and Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore lend their voice talents to an imaginative outer space adventure, set in a future where humans have been displaced throughout the galaxy and no longer have a homeworld. When our heroes discover the key to locating a second Earth, it’s up to them to save their species. Clever and unusual, Titan A.E. warrants rediscovery.
Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris might not stand up to the sprawling original, but for a condensed version of a trippy, thoughtful sci-fi narrative, it’s impressively complete. George Clooney stars as a grieving psychologist sent to investigate a faraway space station, in which the crew members all refuse to come home. When he gets there he finds all but two of the crew are dead, but the space station isn’t empty… it’s filled with the dead loved ones they left behind.
Using the furthest reaches of space to examine figurative and literal concepts of the infinite has been the ambition of many great science fiction stories, and Soderbergh’s Solaris is an excellent example. Clooney abandons his superstar halo and gives one of his most humane performances, and Soderbergh’s insistence on keeping this high-concept sci-fi story grounded in character is noble, and affecting.
Treasure Planet (2002)
It’s bizarre to imagine that Treasure Planet, one of Disney animation’s last great 2D masterpieces, was such a monumental flop on its original release. Perhaps people still had/have trouble accepting animation as an action-packed thrill ride. Perhaps “steampunk” was still too esoteric back in 2002 to be understood by the mainstream. But whatever the reason, audiences missed out.
Treasure Planet is a futuristic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, about a boy who finds a treasure map, only to bond with and later make an enemy of a bloodthirsty pirate. The relationship between Jim (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the cyborg John Silver (Brian Murray) is as rich and complicated as any in the Disney canon, and the animation is jaw-droppingly stunning. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Moana) reimagine space flight as romantically soaring on solar sails, and successfully ignite the sense of awe and wonder than many sci-fi tales are missing.
Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Jon Favreau’s first foray into pop filmmaking, and the film that got him the gig directing Iron Man, is this wonderfully creative adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura. Ostensibly a companion piece to Jumanji, the story once again revolves around bored children playing a board game that unexpectedly flings into larger-than-life adventure. Except this time, it literally shoots their suburban house into the farthest reaches of space.
Zathura is full of offbeat sci-fi imagery, and Favreau wisely pulls his VFX way back, and lets much of the film appear handmade. The alien monsters are impressively scary creations, the sets believably practical. It doesn’t send the protagonist careening into a virtual reality world, it brings a very real world of spacemen and space aliens into their house, where the unknown is just as tangible as anything else in their living room. It’s a breathlessly creative motion picture.
The sun is dying, and the only way to reignite it is to send a team into space and hurl a nuclear bomb into it. In the hands of a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, Sunshine would probably have been dumb as hell, but director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and writer Alex Garland (Ex Machina) aren’t nearly that boring. They fill Sunshine with big ideas, rich characters and a sense of existential menace that beautifully amplifies this story of outer space survivalism.
And what a cast: Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, the list goes on, and they’re all trapped in a powder keg together, waiting to go off. It’s a piercing sci-fi adventure, and although some might argue that the film’s third act goes off the rails, maybe – just maybe – it’s what the movie was really about all along.
In the distant future mankind has abandoned the planet Earth, leaving behind only trash compactor robots to clean up their mess and make the environment inhabitable again. It may not have worked. There’s only one robot left, his name is WALL-E, and all he really cares about is that he’s very, very alone.
Until one day, another robot lands on Earth, and all that changes. Directed by Andrew Stanton, WALL-E successfully spans the whole galaxy, taking an unlikely hero on a seemingly impossible adventure, and throwing a vital chaos element into a drudging society that has all but given up on improving its circumstances. It’s cynically apocalyptic but argues, successfully, that hope eventually wins out. Inventively presented, adorably designed, with a great sense of humor and a visceral sense of awe, WALL-E doesn’t feel like just another a major studio product. It was an instant classic right out of the gate.
Star Trek (2009)
The Star Trek universe got even bigger with J.J. Abrams’ impressive 2009 reboot, which smartly created an alternate reality, preserving all the precious continuity from the original shows and movies while striking out in an all-new direction. A perfectly cast crew – featuring Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, John Cho and Anton Yelchin – find themselves thrust into a life-or-death mission with a vengeful Romulan travel into the past to take his revenge on the planet Vulcan.
Die-hard Trekkies may quibble about the film’s approach to production design (and sure enough, Abrams’ signature lens flares are everywhere), but this first rebooted outing successfully marries spot-on character work with an exciting storyline, and manages to tell that rare prequel story in which literally nothing is preordained. Anything can happen, and although not everyone likes where the series went from here, 2009’s Star Trek quickly cemented itself as one of the best films in a beloved franchise.
The debut feature from Duncan Jones is a quirky, lonely sci-fi story about Sam (Sam Rockwell), a miner who’s running a space station on the moon all by himself, with only an artificially intelligent smiley face to keep him company. The ennui is overpowering and vaguely funny, until he makes a shocking discovery that puts everything about his mission into question.
Jones demonstrates a canny sense of tone in his directorial debut, crafting a tale that’s vaguely absurdist but frustratingly plausible. But the glue holding Moon together is Rockwell’s astounding performance as a man whose routine gets thrown into utterly unexpected disarray and is forced to confront the tragedy of his own existence in a nearly unthinkable way.
Christian Alvari’s Pandorum is one of the most criminally underseen and underappreciated sci-fi thrillers of the century (so far). The film stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster as astronauts who wake up in the middle of hypersleep, in a cavernous spaceship that needs fixing. The sudden removal from hibernation leaves them without memories and possibly suffering from serious psychosis, and when they run across man-eating creatures on the ship it seems like their situation can’t get any worse. (Spoiler alert: it can.)
Pandorum mines the isolation and infinite void of space for an almost Lovecraftian atmosphere, kind of like Event Horizon if the filmmakers weren’t trying to impress you with how cool the ship looks, and instead focused all their energy on freaking you out. The surprising storyline keeps the suspense shifting throughout the film, and the ending is a real stunner.
It’s hard to make deeply personal films on a gigantic budget, but that’s just what Gravity is. Sandra Bullock stars Ryan Stone, as a rookie astronaut who gets sent soaring into space when a debris field obliterates her ship and her co-pilot, played by George Clooney. Breathtakingly realized by director Alfonso Cuaron (who won an Oscar for this), much of the film appears to take place in long takes that emphasize just how completely screwed our hero is. Maybe more than any other movie character in history.
With no villains to face and already suffering from an overwhelming sense of despair, it falls to Stone to try to save herself for the sake of saving herself, because life is worth it no matter how desperate the situation seems. Cuaron’s masterful, handsomely realized VFX masterpiece gradually reveals itself to be not just a thrill ride but an exhilaration intervention, a call to everyone in the audience to keep striving against the desire to give up and let life end. It’s one of the ultimate examples of cinematic inspiration, and it’s teeth-shatteringly exciting to boot.
Space Station 76 (2014)
It’s hard to imagine why, exactly, people thought all of our problems might be solved by going into space. In Jack Plotnick’s deliciously droll Space Station 76, we’ve brought all our suburban plights with us, and transformed a fantastical sci-fi environment into a depressing non-stop social call with friends we don’t like, and spouses who are all sleeping together behind each other’s back.
The dry humor of Space Station 76 stems from the wonderfully unhappy characters, played by the likes of Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer and Jerry O’Connell, and the way that all our scientific progress has done absolutely nothing to save them from their own pathetic choices. It’s a classic 1970s character-drama that just happens to look like an offshoot of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the clash between tones is always hilarious.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe was always a little kooky, but it took a turn towards the monumentally bizarre with Guardians of the Galaxy. A ragtag group of bounty hunters and thieves band together to steal an all-powerful space rock, and along the way they get in all kinds of action-packed adventures. But that’s just the window-dressing. The plot isn’t what’s great about James Gunn’s film, it’s the off-the-wall characters, like a raccoon with a mean sense of humor, a tree who only knows one sentence, and a human who tries to act like Han Solo without realizing he’s the dude Ice Pirates at best.
Gunn presents it with all the visual wonder of a Star Wars movie, but with all the acerbic wit of a low-budget indie comedy. And in a medium practically defined by the majesty of a John Williams soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy reimagines an outer space defined by Bowie tunes, and songs about piña coladas. But the music isn’t just for fun, it’s the most important character of all, messages from a mother who can’t be there to support her son but who helps tell his story anyway. Guardians of the Galaxy tugs at your heartstrings, when it’s not making you chortle.
High Moon (2014)
Nobody said the best space movies of the 21st century had to debut in theaters. The failed pilot for an ambitious TV series, High Moon, debuted on SyFy Channel as a standalone movie, and it’s a bizarre oddity, as inspired by half-forgotten 1960s sci-fi westerns like Moon Zero Two as it is by its source novel, The Lotus Caves, by John Christopher.
Half a century into the future, the moon has been colonized by corporations and governments all over the world, and the old rivalries are alive and, sadly, well. When a flower is discovered on the lunar surface it leads to a massive cover-up and mind-blowing revelations. High Moon doesn’t get to resolve every thread but the world it establishes is gorgeous and hyper-stylized, just the kind of sci-fi kitsch you’d expect from producer Bryan Fuller, who also gave you Hannibal and Pushing Daisies.
Cinematic wunderkind Christopher Nolan is an intellectual filmmaker, whose films tend to rely on big ideas more than interpersonal emotional drama. So although the big emotional beats often fall flat in his ambitious space epic Interstellar they are rescued by the film’s astounding realization of space flight, conflicting timelines, black holes, and bizarre robots.
The future of mankind is looking grim and traveling into outer space is the only viable option for humanity. But only a few planets within range have the capacity to sustain life, and it’s up scientists and astronauts played by Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, David Oyelowo and Wes Bentley to travel to the stars and back in time to save the species, while Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine struggle to solve the mathematical problems of our survival back on Earth. The suspense is dense, the imagery absolutely incredible. The intellect is undeniably palpable. Ironically, it’s the film’s heart that’s academic.
Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Absolutely bonkers but absolutely on purpose, The Wachowski’s directed a gleefully subversive would-be blockbuster with Jupiter Ascending. The film stars Mila Kunis as a housemaid who discovers that, due to a quirk of genetics, she’s just inherited the planet Earth. But the Earth is so valuable that her fellow royals will stop at nothing to get it, whether that means destroying her or, worse, marrying her.
Jupiter Ascending smartly transforms the old-fashioned princess fantasy of discovering you were born special, inherited great wealth and power, and then undermines it at every turn. By achieving greatness, Jupiter enters into a complex and disturbing world of capitalistic excess and fascistic control, and only with the aid of her loyal dogman with flying sneakers, played by a bemused Channing Tatum, will she be able to save herself from becoming a cog in the machine. Fantastical imagery and a wonderfully camp performance from Eddie Redmayne make Jupiter Ascending one of the most underrated sci-fi films of the last two decades.
The Martian (2015)
“In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option… I’m gonna have to science the @#$% out of this.” That’s Mark Watney for you. Ridley Scott’s wonderfully hopeful sci-fi epic The Martian stars Matt Damon as an astronaut marooned on Mars, applying logic and good humor to every impossible problem that arises, and somehow transforming radically complicated scientific ideas into clear, exciting problem-solving strategies.
The Martian, not unlike Gravity, is about perseverance in the face of astounding odds. But unlike Gravity it’s a film about unerring positivity and the confidence that sheer, unbridled logic has the power to overcome any problem. The surface of Mars may be unable to support life but it’s home to one of the most wonderfully vibrant and inspiring characters in sci-fi movie history.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is, with no hyperbole, the most visually stunning science fiction film so far this decade. It’s a fabulously gorgeous spectacle, set in a future where alien societies have merged their space stations together into one incredible mega colony, and where political intrigue attracts dashing intergalactic heroes Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne).
Along the way, they force their heads into deadly psychic squids, race for their lives from enemies chasing them in a parallel dimension, and plow through multiple worlds on foot. There’s no shortage of eye-popping wonders in Valerian, and although Dane Dehaan is almost indisputably miscast as a charming ladies man, the rest of the movie is so charmingly bizarre that it compensates. We don’t go to other worlds to see the same old aliens and action sequences over and over again, and Valerian has more daring and wonder than any of the modern Star Wars movies (which is pretty ironic, since it was based on a comic that inspired Star Wars in the first place).
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
That’s no sleight to Star Wars, of course. The motion picture series that made sci-fi action stories mainstream has been going strong throughout the last two decades, to the extent that picking only one film to represent the franchise was very difficult. But in the end, the narrative innovation and stunning locales won out: Star Wars: The Last Jedi expands on the Star Wars universe in every conceivable way, breaking out of old conventions and visualizing strange new worlds filled with strange creatures and incredible new developments.
It’s actually strange just how different The Last Jedi feels, since on paper Rian Johnson’s film rigidly follows the original formula. The cast splits up, with the novice Jedi getting trained by the master Jedi who fled from the fight years ago, and the pair with romantic chemistry traveling to a society where moral compromise has led to dangerous dealings with the Empire. There’s even a big twist that sends the whole saga into a new, unexpected direction. But The Last Jedi doesn’t feel as beholden to the past as every other Star Wars film since the prequels began, and that sense of extempore – that anything can and will happen – makes it more faithful to the original, unpredictable spirit of George Lucas’s first, classic film than practically any of the other follow-ups.
First Man (2018)
Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle seems obsessed with the idea of exceptionalism, as all the characters in his movies push themselves beyond reason to accomplish incredible deeds. Unlike the protagonists of Whiplash and La La Land, Neil Armstrong’s pursuits aren’t artistic, they’re scientific and exploratory. But his incredible journey to become the first human being to step foot on the moon has just as much intense focus and vision.
First Man refreshingly portrays the space program not as a heroic endeavor that changed the course of history, but as the accomplishment of people who put themselves at unbelievable risk. Most of the space flights are shown from inside the cockpit, reminding us that as cool as space travel looks from the outside, from the inside you’re just stuck in a rattling canister with only a thin sheet of metal between you and certain death. The change of perspective is exhilarating, and the impeccable sound design puts you right in the middle of the shuttle, holding on for dear life.
High Life (2019)
What kind of sci-fi epic would the director of the disturbing dramas White Material and Trouble Every Day direct? It’s as unexpected as you’d expect. Robert Pattinson stars as a convict shot into space with other felons, never to return, on a mission towards a black hole. Along the way, a scientist played by Juliette Binoche performs acts of mad science in an attempt to impregnate the crew and create life in outer space.
Bitterly desperate and yet, in the scenes with Robert Pattinson caring for a baby in outer space, all by his lonesome, utterly beautiful, Claire Denis’ High Life imagines a future of space travel led not by our best and brightest, but by the people Earth can most afford to lose, who are forced to justify their existence to a computer every single day just to keep the life support on. That path leads to madness, usually, but possibly a form of enlightenment we cannot understand.
Joe Dante’s film is the superior version of Gary Brandner’s novel thanks to everything it leaves out.
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