Space has a way of enhancing the most mundane of things. For instance, astronauts are often asked how they go to the bathroom up there. But if you tell someone you pooped in Cleveland, there tend to be no follow-up questions.
That’s why directors love setting every type of film genre in space. A regular horror movie becomes a space horror with no oxygen, a romantic comedy becomes a space romance where there’s no alternative to commitment, and a Western becomes a movie about an advanced planet-killing weapon that can be disabled by blowing up an old wooden shack in a field.
One can almost hear the screenwriter adapting their previously rejected pitches to a studio head. “What about a remake of When Harry Met Sally, but in space?” So while space is often used as a backdrop for telling regular Earth stories, a few films seem to endeavor to make space the focus and wind up with films that are the closest any of us will get to going there.
Let’s take a look at a few less mainstream films that attempt this, and not obvious choices like Contact, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Interstellar, or that one where the rocket crashes into the moon’s eyeball.
We tend to assume the sun will blowup one of these days (a Wednesday, probably), but what if just went out? That’d be quite the pickle, which is why in Sunshine a very good-looking crew is sent to administer CPR to the dying sun so the Earth doesn’t turn into a giant spherical ice cube, the kind they put in cocktails at fancy hotel bars.
Most space movies involve heading away from the sun, so it’s a bit fascinating to watch a kamikaze-like mission where the goal is to head into a fiery ball of plasma. Sunshine features stunning visuals, with exterior action scenes that lend a tangible reality to space, and just enough pseudo-science to get by.
One warning though: the last 20 minutes of this otherwise enthralling film are awful, as it makes the mistake that many space movies make by devolving into horror and cheap thrills. But it’s good up until the ending, like most of my relationships.
Since historical time travel tourism isn’t a thing yet (pretty sure this ticket to the Civil War I bought from that guy under a bridge isn’t valid), we have to make do with documentaries. What Apollo 11 accomplishes more than other docs is recreating the experience of living during the moon landing, including what it may have felt like as a regular person watching from outside, as well as all the small moments the crew and Mission Control endured that ultimately led to the landing itself.
There is no narration or heavy-handed messages. Using unseen footage accompanied by audio clips from the past, director Todd Douglas Miller takes a minimalistic approach that’s both awe-inspiring and shows the unappreciated work that went into making the landing possible. One feels like they’re watching this on television in 1969, without all the commercials for Geritol. Though my blood does feel tired at the moment.
Titan A.E. didn’t do well with audiences when it came out, and mentioning it here isn’t going to change that. But in a vast field of space operas, this imaginative, animated film is a bit overlooked. It takes place in 3028, just as the Earth is destroyed by the evil Drej, leaving humanity marooned in space, looking for another home. I once tried to get a hotel room in Vegas on a Friday at midnight, so I’ve been there.
The film has elements of Star Wars and a bit of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and succeeds in building an elaborate, adventurous world that a kid might dream of. Even though the territory is obviously familiar, it features remarkable visuals, clever plot twists, and bad guys that look like if Tron had aliens in it. Just because we all love Star Wars, doesn’t mean this echo of it isn’t worth a gander. In both films, the main character sure whines a lot.
The Right Stuff
Granted, The Right Stuff is pretty mainstream, but I know too many clearly uneducated people who haven’t seen it. When I think of Americana, this gem comes to mind. Covering the trajectory of the space program from the breaking of the sound barrier to the selection of the Mercury 7 astronauts, this film is ridiculously comprehensive while maintaining a steady stream of wit and excitement.
We see the amusing conflict between test pilots and engineers, a real sense of the training process, and the great sacrifices made along the way, not least of which was all the public relations nonsense the astronauts had to endure.
A friend once told me this film inspired him to become a pilot, and even though I responded with, “You didn’t see Alive?,” it’s likely inspired thousands to do the same, even with all the puking.
Two documentaries on a list of five movies is pushing it. But like a good fictional space film, The Farthest causes viewers to wonder about the vastness of the universe and what may be out there, though your microwave popcorn going off may take you out of the moment. It tells the tale of NASA’s Voyager mission, the ultimate Hail Mary when it comes to trying to get someone to call you back.
We see what went into the production of the so-called golden record that’s hurtling through space with images and greetings from Earth (I wasn’t asked, unfortunately), and watch as it sails past Jupiter and Neptune and on into the great dark void several decades later. More than a mission to any planet, the story of Voyager is the story of humanity’s reach into the universe, the hope of something beyond cold empty space.
It’s fun to imagine Voyager 1 still floating farther into space than anything we’ve sent up there, maybe one day bumping into a new world or an alien’s toe, who will kick it back to us merely with a 👍.