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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2001: A Space Odyssey. Credit: Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

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.

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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

1

The Martian

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.

Where to watch 

2

Interstellar

Director Christopher Nolan
Year of release 2014

Set in a dystopian future and starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain, Interstellar follows humanity’s attempt to pass through a wormhole in space in search of a new Earth.

Between the hunt for an Earth-like planet beyond our Solar System and the dangers of climate change, Interstellar is a film that tackles some of the biggest issues facing contemporary science.

Where to watch

3

First Man

Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong in First Man. Credit: Universal Pictures
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.

Where to watch

4

Gravity

Director Alfonso Cuarón
Year of release 2013

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.

Where to watch

5

Moon

Director Duncan Jones
Year of release 2009

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.

Where to watch

6

Ad Astra

Director James Gray
Year of release 2019

Amid mysterious power surges occurring throughout the Solar System, astronaut Roy McBride, played by Brad Pitt, travels into space in search of his father.

Pitt’s character’s epic journey will take him to the outer reaches of our Solar System, and along the way he’ll discover secrets that get to the heart of human existence and its place in the Universe.

Where to watch

 

7

Hidden Figures

Director Theodore Melfi
Year of release 2016

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.

Where to watch

8

Solaris

Director Steve Soderbergh
Year of release 2002

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.

Where to watch

Best space movies of all time

9

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet, 1956. Credit: Archive Photos / Stringer / Getty Images
Forbidden Planet, 1956. Credit: Archive Photos / Stringer / Getty Images

Director Fred M Wilcox
Year of release 1956

A team of space travellers visit a planetary colony, only to discover just two survivors, one of whom his harbouring a deadly secret, in this undisputed sci-fi classic.

If you’re on the hunt for genre-defining cinema, this might be your best bet.

Where to watch

10

The Day The Earth Stood Still

The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951. Credit: John Springer Collection / Contributor
The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951. Credit: John Springer Collection / Contributor

Director Robert Wise
Year of release 1951

Alien visitors land on Earth and quickly learn of the destructive nature of the blue planet’s inhabitants in this timeless critique on human society.

Ultimately, humanity must choose: learn to live in peace and harmony, or face oblivion. Sadly, the film’s message is still remarkably relevant 50 years later.

Where to watch

11

Alien

'In space no-one can hear you scream'. Alien, 1979. Credit: Sunset Boulevard / Contributor

Director Ridley Scott
Year of release 1979

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.

Where to watch

12

Planet of the Vampires

Director Mario Bava
Year of release 1965

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.

Where to watch

13

Dark Star

John Carpenter's Dark Star, 1974. Credit: Movie Poster Image Art / Contributor
John Carpenter’s Dark Star, 1974. Credit: Movie Poster Image Art / Contributor

Director John Carpenter
Year of release 1974

John Carpenter would find fame with 1978’s slasher classic Halloween, but a university sci-fi comedy project produced with Alien writer Dan O’Bannon formed the basis of his first feature film.

Dark Star follows the antics of a colonial space crew as they attempt to stay sane amidst challenges such as engaging in existential debate with a talking bomb and chasing a beachball-shaped alien.

Where to watch

14

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick's groundbreaking film has led some to believe he helped NASA fake the Moon landing. (Photo by Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)
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.

Where to watch

15

The Empire Strikes Back

Director Irvin Kershner
Year of release 1980

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.

Where to watch

16

Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek: First Contact, 1996. Credit: Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)
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.

Where to watch

17

Total Recall

Director Paul Verhoeven
Year of release 1990

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.

Where to watch

18

Silent Running

Silent Running, 1972. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)
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.

Where to watch

19

Apollo 13

Director Ron Howard
Year of release 1995

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.

Where to watch

20

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
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.

Where to watch

21

Enemy Mine

Director Wolfgang Petersen
Year of release 1985

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.

Where to watch

22

Contact

Contact, 1996. (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Sygma via Getty Images)
Contact, 1996. (Photo by Francois Duhamel/Sygma via Getty Images)

Director Robert Zemeckis
Year of release 1997

Contact may not be set in space, but a film about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence based on a novel by Carl Sagan just had to make this list.

Contact’s credentials are topped off with a brilliant performance by Jodie Foster as Dr Ellie Arroway, a character reportedly based on real-life planetary scientist Carolyn Porco.

Where to watch

23

Event Horizon

Event Horizon, 1997. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)
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.

Where to watch

What did we miss? What are your favourites? Do you disagree with any of our inclusions? Let us know via email or get in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine’s Staff Writer and someone who has watched far too many sci-fi movies for his own good.