To celebrate the release of First Man, which immortalises Neil Armstrong’s pursuit of the moon in film, here is a run-down of the greatest movies set in space. Some offered predictions, others provided caution and most importantly, all carried the message.
The earliest movie on this list is 2001: A Space Odyssey, written, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick. A year before Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon, 1968 was a memorable year in astronomy and this film brought the wonder of NASA’s aerospace engineering breakthroughs to a mass audience. If the moon wasn’t enough, the film follows a space station’s voyage to Jupiter- an astronomical triumph in science-fiction cinema, as discussed by Brian Cox and fellow scientists.
The Right Stuff (1983), is hailed by critics as the most accurate representation of NASA to grace the silver screen. The protagonists are the Mercury 7 team who were the pioneers of space flight. This production was ahead of its time, as a jaw-dropping historical drama re-enacting the first 15 years of NASA. The film is aptly named, as Philip Kaufman aimed to do the astronauts, as well as astronomy, justice.
The first three attempts to fly man to the moon failed, but all of them ended in spacecraft landing safely back to earth. Apollo 13 (1995) is a portrayal of that unsuccessful but heroic effort to return home despite an almost catastrophic issue with oxygen tanks. What it lacks in entertainment it makes up for in scientific accuracy. This one is for the boffins who want to trace NASA’s journey to completing their lunar mission.
Gravity (2013) is a tragic drama which tells the tale of a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission with a veteran astronaut. The shuttle is damaged while they venture out into space, leaving them with no hope of returning to earth. The film is highly rated for its screenplay, as well as the direction from Alfonso Cuarón – who was lauded for excellent kinetic cinematography. The cosmic vacuum depicted in Gravity isn’t an aspirational destination, but a lonely and detached other world. Rarely are space movies as emotive or visually thrilling as Gravity.
Hollywood’s on-going love-affair with NASA returned to screens in heroic adventure, Interstellar, from 2014. This film spins the traditional space mission narrative on its head, as a team of astronauts must go into a wormhole in search of another planet that is fit to sustain human life away from an uninhabitable earth. Less a film about astronomy then, more an adventure story.
But Hollywood doesn’t always do science injustices. Adapted from Andy Weir’s hard sci-fi novel of the same name, The Martian (2015) is about an astronaut (brilliantly played by Matt Damon) who is stranded alone on his space shuttle en route to Mars. He learns to become self-sufficient with the use of real-life science such as botany. It may be fiction, but this film shows the true spirit of human resilience against all odds in a totally alien environment.