To help commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, SpaceNews asked readers to weigh in on the must-see realistic space movies for anyone serious about space. Grab the popcorn and let the countdown begin.
11. Arrival (2016)
When a dozen of the most mysterious monoliths since 2001: A Space Odyssey drop anchor around the globe, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are recruited by the military to make contact with the seven-limbed ‘heptapods’ and find out what they want. Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and rated 94% fresh by review-aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Arrival has been described as “a language lesson masquerading as a blockbuster” and a “movie about aliens for people who don’t like movies about aliens.”
10. October Sky (1999)
To a small town of West Virginia coal miners, Sputnik was either a harbinger of Soviet doom or a pointless science experiment, depending on who you asked. For Homer Hickam Jr. and his friends, the first artificial satellite instilled hope that they could do more with their lives than hold shovels. Between scavenging railroads for rocket parts, launching DIY rockets on sometimes frightening trajectories, and striking up a pen-pal relationship with legendary rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, Hickam and his band of misfit friends inspired a dying town to look upward to space instead of down at their dwindling coal reserves. Based on the true story of how Hickam went to work for NASA, October Sky is just as revered for its portrayal of Homer’s rise to space notoriety as it is for the challenging yet far from monolithic relationship between him and his intractable coal-miner father. Nominated for the American Film Institute’s top 100 list of most inspiring American movies released before 2005, October Sky remains a favorite of space enthusiasts.
9. Gravity (2013)
The Kessler Syndrome gets the Hollywood treatment in this low-Earth-orbit thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as Hubble repair astronauts left stranded in space when a Russian anti-satellite missile test sets off a thrilling but unrealistically swift sequence of orbital debris strikes that cripple the duo’s space shuttle and leaves LEO looking like a 20-car pileup. Despite Gravity‘s sometimes flimsy physics and technical goofs, it also manages to get enough details right to make it a SpaceNews reader favorite. Critics loved it, too, which helps explain how this visually stunning drama about isolation, fear and survival won seven Oscars, the most of any movie that year.
8. Contact (1997)
For decades, astronomers have been scanning the skies for radio signals from other civilizations. What happens when they find something? That’s the tale of Contact, which stars Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer compelled since childhood to look for signals from alien worlds even as others warn that she is throwing away a promising scientific career. When that search does find an extraterrestrial signal, she’s thrust into decidedly terrestrial conflicts about deciphering the message and using it to make contact with whoever, or whatever, sent it from the star Vega. The film is based on a novel by Carl Sagan, who modeled Arroway after real-life SETI astronomer Jill Tarter.
7. Hidden Figures (2016)
Capturing, as the name suggests, the story of those not seen, this retelling of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson’s work at NASA spotlights their vital contribution as mathematicians to getting John Glenn to space and back in one piece. These three African American women, and many of their colleagues, calculated trajectories and other critical numbers for the Mercury program while overcoming segregation and sexism in the early 1960s. Though not as famous as the astronauts they helped reach orbit, the mathematicians gained belated notoriety through the Oscar-nominated film. Among its champions is NASA, whose headquarters now lies on Hidden Figures Way, and whose software validation facility in West Virginia bears Katherine Johnson’s name.
6. First Man (2019)
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in this 2018 biographical drama based on the book “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. The film, which won an Academy Award for best visual effects, follows Armstrong from a 1961 test flight of the X-15 spaceplane to the conclusion of the Apollo 11 mission.
While focusing on Armstrong’s spaceflight career, First Man depicts the astronaut’s grief after the death of his two-year-old daughter Karen and close friends Elliot See and Ed White. First Man also explores the toll the inherent danger of early space program took on the astronauts, their wives and families.
5. Interstellar (2014)
This mind-bending, dystopian thriller from Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) stars Matthew McConaughey as an astronaut turned farmer recruited to find a new home planet for a dwindling population struggling to survive global crop failures and freaky dust storms. Nothing is quite what it seems in this not-too-distant future where humankind has beaten its spaceships into plowshares, NASA has gone underground and children are taught the Apollo moon landings were faked. Stunning visual effects won an Oscar for this sci-fi epic praised by notoriously nitpicky Neil de Grasse Tyson for its scientifically sound depiction of wormhole travel, black holes and relativity.
4. The Right Stuff (1983)
This 1983 historical drama, based on Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, contrasts the exploits of Chuck Yeager and other test pilots flying rocket-powered planes over the California desert in relative obscurity with the national celebrity of the Project Mercury astronauts. The Right Stuff shows the grueling medical and physical tests the Mercury Seven endured to qualify for spaceflight and highlights the dangers they faced in the early space program.
The film was criticized by some Mercury Seven astronauts for historical inaccuracy but praised by film critics who were at a loss to explain its lackluster box office returns. The Right Stuff was nominated for eight Academy Awards including best picture. It won four Oscars for sound, original score, sound-effects editing and film editing.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
An epic, if at times enigmatic, saga that took director Stanley Kubrick years to complete, 2001: A Space Odyssey goes from humanity’s origins in Africa to a “Starchild” at the end. It’s best known, though, for its time in what was then a near future with rotating space stations visited by Pan Am space shuttles, a moon base, and a mission to Jupiter — as well as a mysterious black monolith and a murderous computer. (According to Michael Benson’s recent book Space Odyssey, Kubrick originally wanted the monolith to be clear, but the resulting Plexiglass design had a greenish tint. At a designer’s suggestion, Kubrick decided to make the monolith black.) Although some aspects of the film seem dated now — like those Pan Am shuttles — the film remains a cinematic masterpieces more than a half-century after its debut.
2. The Martian (2015)
Waking up stranded from everyone you know and forced to plant potatoes in your own feces to survive would be a bad day on Earth, let alone Mars. But that’s what happens to NASA astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) in The Martian when a massive dust storm forces his team of scientists to leave him behind on the Red Planet. Based on Andy Weir’s bestselling book of the same name, Watney elects to “science the sh*t” out of his situation, literally and figuratively, to survive in an abandoned outpost until rescue. Recognized for its gripping storytelling and a dedication to getting its scientific details (mostly) right, The Martian was nominated for seven Oscars and listed among the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of 2015.
1. Apollo 13 (1995)
“Houston, we have a problem.” That’s not exactly what Jim Lovell said after an explosion rocked his Apollo 13 spacecraft en route to the moon in 1970 (“Houston, we’ve had a problem,” is what he actually said) but that version, uttered by Lovell (Tom Hanks) in the movie, became an instant catchphrase that lives on in the public consciousness to this day. (Similarly, “Failure is not an option” was invented for the movie and remains popular today, although flight director Gene Kranz liked the phrase so much he used it several years later as the title of his autobiography.) Those dialogue inaccuracies aside, Apollo 13 hews closely to the real-life events of that mission as Lovell, Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) fight to bring their crippled spacecraft back to Earth with the support and ingenuity of the Mission Control team led by Kranz (Ed Harris, who also played John Glenn in The Right Stuff.) The gripping drama showed that, while Apollo 11 may have achieved the goal of landing humans on the moon, the rescue of Apollo 13 may have been, as Kranz says in the movie, NASA’s finest hour.