Looking for a quick and affordable summer escape? Somewhere exotic, sparsely populated and adored by celebrities like Sigourney Weaver?
Well, we have it on good authority that this summer, outer space is the place. After all, there’s no better way beat the summertime heat than by sitting back to watch an engaging, action-packed movie about people hurtling through the cold, dark atmosphere in some sort of intergalactic craft.
Once strictly relegated to kitschy B-movie status, films centered around interplanetary travel are a truly motley bunch, touching down on pretty much every genre under the sun: adventure, horror, drama, Western, romance, comedy and, of course, classic space operas and science fiction epics in the ilk of the “Star Wars” franchise.
Below we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite space films along with a couple notable duds — and we mean duds — for good measure. And keep in mind that we’re not tackling just general sci-fi a la “Blade Runner” or any film that takes place in the future and/or prominently features alien life forms. The focus is on memorable movies, historical dramas included, that primarily take place or concern travel outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
To start our list, here’s a culturally significant science-fiction epic that needs little to no introduction. If you’ve never experienced “2001: A Space Odyssey,” set aside your iPad — or Samsung Galaxy tablet — for 149 minutes (you can do it!) and immerse yourself in a profound, haunting — and profoundly haunting — film that fans have often described as a religious experience. A bit hyperbolic, sure, but there’s no arguing that with “2001,” Stanley Kubrick created one of the most influential films of all time, a film that made most all of the other films on this list possible, a film that stays with you.
The relentlessly terrifying
'Alien' (1979, Ridley Scott)
Dripping with slime, oozing with dread and paranoia, and blessed with a genius tagline — “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream” — “Alien” scared the holy bejesus out of moviegoers when first released and continues to do so to this day. The highly influential horror film concerning the doomed crew of an interstellar craft being hunted by a terrifying, oozing extraterrestrial beast birthed a franchise and made a star out of Sigourney Weaver. However, it’s Veronica Cartwright as the film’s blood-splattered scream queen that really gets under your skin.
'Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back' (1980, Irvin Kirschner)
Wampas! AT-AT walkers! Boba Fett! Billy Dee Williams! Shocking paternity revelations! The debut of the world’s most famous green-skinned clause rearranger! Regarded by many as the best entry in George Lucas’ space opera franchise, “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” — or, as it was known until 1999, “the second one” — features family melodrama, a romantic subplot, ample light-saber play and one of cinema’s most (mis)quoted quotables: “No, I am your father.”
The franchise topper
'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' (1982, Nicholas Meyer)
Widely regarded as the best entry in the "Star Trek" franchise, we can think of a couple of fantastic reasons to beam up “The Wrath of Khan” off the top of our heads: Kirstie Alley, in her feature film debut, donning a pair of ravishing Vulcan ears. Also, the intergalactic henchmen employed by the film’s villain, a bronzed superhuman with a serious mullet and rather impressive décolletage, were played mainly by Chippendales dancers.
The patriotic epic
'The Right Stuff' (1983, Philip Kaufman)
At over three hours long and without a single space alien in sight, this drama/adventure chronicling the formation of the American space program may not be everyone’s cup of cinematic tea. Still, the film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling book has aged remarkably well, carried by strong performances (Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Ed Harris, and Sam Shepard as legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager), sharp humor and exciting action sequences. Wrote Roger Ebert: “‘The Right Stuff’ is an adventure film, a special effects film, a social commentary and a satire. That the writer-director, Philip Kaufman, is able to get so much into a little more than three hours is impressive. That he also has organized this material into one of the best recent American movies is astonishing.”
The guilty pleasure
'Lifeforce' (1985, Tobe Hopper)
Silly, scary, sexy and ultimately very satisfying, this mid-1980s treasure from Tobe Hopper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” "Poltergeist”) has a plot that’s just begging for a remake: “London is overrun by rampaging, energy-sucking zombies after a trio of humanoids in a state of suspended animation are brought to Earth after being discovered in the hold of an abandoned European space shuttle.” Certainly not short on gratuitous nudity or gore and starring a pre-Enterprise Patrick Stewart, “Lifeforce” opened the same weekend, and went head-to-head with, a space alien movie of a decidedly gentler variety: Ron Howard’s “Cocoon.”
The supremely cheesy
'SpaceCamp' (1986, Harry Winer)
While it hasn’t aged well and was widely panned upon its release (appearing in theaters just a few months after the Challenger disaster didn’t help), “SpaceCamp” is a family-friendly Betamax staple worth revisiting if only for the questionable '80s hairstyles and its cast: A “Howard the Duck”-era Lea Thompson, a pre-John Travolta Kelly Preston, a young Joaquin Phoenix (credited as Leaf Phoenix) and last but not least, Larry B. Scott, or as he’s better known, Lamar Latrell.
'Spaceballs' (1987, Mel Brooks)
If anything, Mel Brooks’ completely ridiculous — and highly quotable — sci-fi send-up (“Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Planet of the Apes” and in one of the film’s most snicker-worthy scenes, “Alien,” are all skewered) really makes us miss the long-retired Rick Moranis (not to mention John Candy). Also starring Bill Pullman as intergalactic mercenary Lone Starr, Daphne Zuniga as a bratty “Druish” princess-in-peril and the vocals talents of Joan Rivers as Dot Matrix and the late Dom DeLuise as the villainous Pizza the Hut. Ludicrous speed, go!
'The Fifth Element' (1997, Luc Besson)
In which John McClane meets John-Paul Gaultier in outer space … Fun, frisky and featuring some commendable scenery chewing from Gary Oldman as villainous, intriguingly coiffed industrialist Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, this English-language French production — the most expensive European film ever made at the time of its release — stars Bruce Willis as a gruff taxi driver who falls for a bandage-clad, acrobatic humanoid (Milla Jovovich) while also trying to save the world from imminent destruction at the hands of the evil Mangalores. Or something like that.
The (mostly) historically accurate
'Apollo 13' (1995, Ron Howard)
Five words that best sum up the well-known plot of this Oscar-nominated nail-biter of a period piece: “Houston, we have a problem.” While best known for heavy handed, sometimes cloyingly sentimental fare and urban mermaid rom-coms, director Ron Howard delivers a taut, and appropriately intense historical drama detailing the true story of a 1970 NASA lunar mission that went famously, terribly wrong. With Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton and Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise (aka Forrest and Lt. Dan).
'Starship Troopers' (1997, Paul Verhoeven)
Say what you will about Paul Verhoeven, there’s no denying that when the Dutch-born schlock-master does sci-fi he really goes balls to the wall. After taking a gratuitous nudity-filled sabbatical (“Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls”) from the genre that earned him cult-fandom with American audiences (“Robocop,” "Total Recall”), “Starship Troopers” is an exceedingly gory camp epic featuring terrifying giant insect monsters, wooden acting and titillating coed shower scenes.
'Leprechaun 4: In Space' (1997, Brian Trenchard-Smith)
Please, just watch the trailer.
'Galaxy Quest' (1999, Dean Parisot)
You needn’t be a Trekkie or slavishly dedicated sci-fi dork to get plenty of chuckles from this beloved space adventure send-up that, in the words of The Globe and Mail, “boldly goes where few parodies have gone before.” The plot in a nutshell: A washed-up troupe of actors from “Galaxy Quest,” a long-canceled 1960s sci-fi TV show, really do go to battle with a reptilian alien warlord after being recruited for the task at a fan convention by the leader of an in-need-of-help extraterrestrial race. Starring Tim Allen, Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver, who is an absolute hoot as Gwen DeMarco/Lt. Tawny Madison.
'Solaris' (2002, Steven Soderbergh)
In addition to George Clooney’s bare backside, the main reasons to watch this brooding, little-seen space drama helmed by genre-bouncing auteur Steven Soderbergh (“Magic Mike,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Behind the Candelabra”) are for the moody atmospherics, intelligent script and totally ambiguous nature. Alas, at nearly three hours long, “Solaris” often gets the unfortunate “like watching paint dry” comparisons. Did we mention George Clooney’s butt?
The fanboy favorite
'Serenity' (2005, Joss Whedon)
In 2002, Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”) acolytes positively freaked when Fox cancelled “Firefly” before the first season of the space cowboy TV series had even run its course. Thanks to brisk DVD sales and an active cult fan base, however, Whedon sold “Firefly” as a feature-length film, “Serenity,” shortly after the cancellation. While critics mostly embraced the highly anticipated film, its box office returns were lukewarm. Whedon’s next directorial effort, “The Avengers” (2012), went on to become the third highest-grossing film ever behind “Titanic” and “Avatar.”
'Sunshine' (2007, Danny Boyle)
In between gruesome zombie contagion flicks (“28 Days Later”) and Academy Award-sweeping feel-good sleeper hits set in the slums of Mumbai (“Slumdog Millionaire”), British virtuoso Danny Boyle helmed this relentlessly claustrophobic and visually stunning psychological thriller set during the solar winter of 2057 when a spaceship crew is given a most daunting task: to save humanity from eternal darkness by reigniting the dying sun with a massive nuclear bomb. You know, no biggie.
'WALL-E' (2008, Andrew Stanton)
Unchecked consumerism, waste management and the American obesity epidemic may seem like heady stuff for a G-rated Disney Pixar film about a lovestruck, trash-collecting robot with fully developed sentience (and some hoarder tendencies). And it is. But that’s what makes “WALL-E,” a sharp social critique and environmental parable dressed up like an animated family film, so great. Universally adored by audiences and critics alike, “WALL-E” was considered by some, Time magazine included, as not just the best film of 2008, but the best film of the decade. Featuring the vocal talents of Ben Burrt, Fred Willard, Jeff Garlin and, naturally, Sigourney Weaver.
'Moon' (2009, Duncan Jones)
An intelligent and deeply evocative directorial debut by the son of “The Man Who Fell to Earth” himself, David Bowie, the psychological sci-fi drama “Moon” features the vocal talents of Kevin Spacey as the robot GERTY (a distant relative of HAL perhaps?), a stirring score by Clint Mansell, mesmerizing visual effects (done on the cheap) and a brilliant performance by Sam Rockwell that’s considered one of the biggest Oscar snubs in recent memory. Just see it.
10 more awesome outer space films:
"Destination Moon" (1950, Irving Pichel)
"Forbidden Planet" (1956, Fred M. Wilcox)
"Silent Running" (1972, Douglas Trumball)
"Dark Star" (1974, John Carpenter)
"Outland" (1981, Peter Hyams)
"Explorers" (1985, Joe Dante)
"Aliens" (1986, James Cameron)
"Event Horizon" (1997, Paul W.S. Anderson)
"Space Cowboys" (2000, Clint Eastwood)
"Star Trek Into Darkness" (2013, J.J. Abrams)