23 of the best space and sci-fi movies: new and old favourites
23 of the best space and sci-fi movies: new and old favourites
Our pick of the best space and sci-fi movies of all time, from newly-released blockbusters to all-time classics.
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There’s nothing like a good space or sci-fi movie to take you away from earthly troubles. Science fiction cinema has the benefit of allowing the human imagination to run away with itself, imagining distant galaxies of the past or future, or alternate realities of the present.
Perhaps that’s why it has attracted some of the biggest names in filmmaking over past decades,: directors like Ridley Scott, Paul Verhoeven, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick and Ron Howard.
Arguably, sci-fi is also one of the most accessible film genres, with a back catalogue to suit most cinematic tastes.
Here, in no particular order, is our pick of some of our favourite space-based sci-fi movies, young and old.
Best recent space movies
Director Ridley Scott Year of release 2015
Matt Damon plays an astronaut stranded on Mars and presumed dead. With years to wait until he is rescued, can he work out how to produce his own food and rocket fuel to become a self-sustaining Martian?
As humanity makes serious steps towards setting foot on the Red Planet, The Martian is a film that’s set to become even more relevant.
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Credit: Universal Pictures
Director Damien Chazelle Year of release 2018
Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this retelling of the Apollo 11 mission to land on the Moon. Contrasting the enormity of the achievement with the resulting strain on the astronauts’ family lives, this is a film very much about what it took to be an astronaut in the late 1960s, but also what it took to be related to one.
Rattling sound effects and beautiful POV shots of the lunar landscape make this one of the most realistic moonlanding depictions on film.
Sandra Bullock plays an International Space Station astronaut who gets caught in a debris storm during a spacewalk. Fans of the ISS will love the detail paid to recreating its interior, as Bullock’s character floats around the abandoned space station while all hell breaks loose around her.
Epic cinematography and an atmospheric score make Gravity a true rollercoaster ride. If you have a home cinema set-up with a good sound system, this is one film that needs to be played loudly.
Sam Rockwell plays Sam, a lone mining operative stationed on the Moon. A freak accident causes Sam to make a discovery that will place his mission – indeed his very existence – into doubt.
Many of the modern space films on our list are epic, blockbuster affairs but Moon has much more of an indie feel to it, focussing on the central character’s sense of isolation and distrust. See if you can pre-empt the film’s final twist.
OK, so this one is more about getting to space rather than travelling through it, but it’s an inspiring film with an important message.
Set at NASA in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures is an account of the African American women – in particular Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson – who carried out the calculations that put men into space and, eventually, on the surface of the Moon. Hidden Figures is perhaps the most tear-jerkingly inspirational film on our list.
George Clooney plays Chris Kelvin, a psychiatrist who travels to investigate a crewed space station orbiting the fictional planet Solaris. When he arrives, Kelvin discovers many of the crew have committed suicide, while the survivors appear to be losing their minds.
In this trippy, poignant story, the astronauts must ultimately struggle against dark memories from their past that have come back to haunt them in physical form. If you’re already a fan of the film, be sure to also check out Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 version.
It was a toss-up between Alien and James Cameron’s sequel Aliens, but the first instalment just about pipped the post. A commercial space crew are returning to Earth when they receive a distress call from a nearby moon.
What follows is a thrilling blend of sci-fi and horror as the crew attempt to survive the wrath of a hostile intruder on board their ship. Space never felt more claustrophobic.
While pretty much single-handedly kicking off the Italian horror boom that would continue into the late 1970s and early ’80s, Mario Bava also tried his hand at sci-fi. This dark, misty yet typically colourful offering is the result.
With its plot about a crew receiving a distress signal and landing on a planet inhabited by parasitic hostiles, many have come to look at Planet of the Vampires as a precursor to Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)
Director Stanley Kubrick Year of release 1968
This Stanley Kubrick classic needs little introduction. A strange alien monolith appears throughout human history, speeding up our species’ evolution. A crewed mission to Jupiter attempts to solve the mystery, that is, if the astronauts can survive the wrath of their mentally-deteriorating sentient computer HAL.
2001: A Space Odyssey has possibly one of the most famous film scores of all time, and an ending ripe for multiple interpretations for decades to come.
Everyone has their favourite of the original trilogy, but it’s hard to beat Empire. Starting with the famous Hoth battle and culminating in a Luke-Vader lightsaber duel, The Empire Strikes Back builds the tension early on and sets the scene for the final instalment.
It’s difficult to choose between the first three of the original Star Wars films, but perhaps it’s the unfinished business at the film’s close that makes Episode V really stand out.
Star Trek: First Contact, 1996. Credit: Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
Director Jonathan Frakes Year of release 1996
In what is arguably the best of the Star Trek film franchise, First Contact follows Picard and the rest of the Next Generation crew as they travel back in time to keep their old nemesis the Borg from conquering planet Earth.
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays construction worker Quaid, who visits Rekall, a company that implants artificial memories of holidays into the minds of its customers. When things go awry, Quaid finds himself on a mission to Mars to find out what’s really going on, and who he really is.
This oft-quoted and incredibly violent film has become an absolute cult classic since its release. Watch out for stellar performances from Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside.
Silent Running, 1972. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
Director Douglas Trumbull Year of release 1972
Undoubtedly a product of the ‘green’ movement that began to find its feet in the early 1970s, Silent Running is an environmentally-conscious sci-fi classic that follows Freeman Lowell, a space botanist charged with taking care of Earth’s last forest, which just happens to be housed beneath a glass dome orbiting Saturn.
This is a film about life in space, but Silent Running ultimately asks its audience to take a closer look at our home planet and appreciate the fragility of its majestic beauty.
A star-studded account of the real-life Apollo 13 mission to the Moon, this epic historical movie is Hollywood drama at its finest, as three NASA astronauts fight a race against time to avoid disaster and make it back to Earth in one piece.
Tom Hanks is brilliant as astronaut Jim Lovell, but Ed Harris’s turn as Apollo flight director Gene Kranz is eerily accurate.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Director Steven Spielberg Year of release 1977
This Spielberg classic starring Richard Dreyfuss follows the effect of a series of UFO encounters on ordinary people in a small town in the United States.
This is epic Spielberg cinema at its finest, and a film that manages to make the UFO encounter scenario entirely family friendly. What’s more, Close Encounters culminates in one of the most iconic visual sequences in film history.
In terms of Cold War era ‘can’t we all just get along?’ movies, it doesn’t come much more clear cut than Enemy Mine.
Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr. play cosmic fighter pilots from opposing species and opposing militaries who become stranded on a rocky planet, and must learn to work together to ensure their own survival. What at first appears like a sci-fi survival thriller quickly develops into a heartwarming, life-affirming drama among the stars.
Event Horizon, 1997. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)
Director Paul W. S. Anderson Year of release 1997
Alien might just be the best horror/sci-fi movie ever made, but Event Horizon comes close.
Sam Neil and Lawrence Fishburne star in this creepy tale of a crew who investigate the lost spacecraft Event Horizon, which has miraculously reappeared. They soon discover that, wherever the Event Horizon has been, it’s brought something back with it, and it isn’t friendly.