Must-See Films About Space Travel

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2001: A Space Odyssey, via tiff

The first published depiction of a manned artificial satellite was in a work of speculative fiction that appeared in The Atlantic (then known as The Atlantic Monthly) in 1868. “The Brick Moon” by Edward Everett Hale imagined the construction of a giant sphere constructed of bricks that could serve as a navigational aide. In the fantastical tale, the brick moon is accidentally launched into space with people on it. While this is the first documented concept of a space station, the idea of space travel precedes it by a great many years.  Indian poetry in the 5th to 4th centuries BCE refer to space flight, as do ancient Greek plays. 

This is all to say that the concept of space has captivated imaginations for almost as long as humans have looked up to the stars. It’s not hard to see why, and fascination accelerated when the concept of space travel went from far-flung fantasy to tangible reality in the 20th century. Well before Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight into space in 1961 or the flight crew of Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969, early films sought to capture the wonder of space travel at the turn of the 20th century.

The most notable of the early films was Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip To The Moon), a highly stylized short film that depicts a rocket carrying explorers who discover small anthropomorphic aliens living on the moon. The 1902 film includes the iconic scene in which the rocket crashes into the moon, which is envisioned as a face. Since then, there have been countless science fiction films exploring the idea of space travel, as well as movies depicting real events. Here are a few must-see films for fans of space travel.

First Man (2018)

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A great deal of First Man consists of shaky shots of Ryan Gosling in planes, test vehicles, and of course, space shuttles. Director Damien Chazelle’s personal mission was clearly to create an intensely visceral film, replete with extreme close-ups and incredible cinematography that capture the feeling of space travel. The claustrophobia is palpable when Gosling, in an impressive turn playing Neil Armstrong, is buckled into the shuttle’s cockpit. While the narrative of the film at times feels stiff, it’s still a must-see for how it depicts the intensity of Apollo 1’s journey onto The Moon.

Solaris (1972)

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Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal masterpiece Solaris deals with the imagined psychological impacts of living on a space station orbiting the fictitious planet Solaris. While not as well known as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris has also had a tremendous impact on the science fiction genre. Like some of Tarkovsky’s other films, Solaris is deeply philosophical, thought-provoking, and beautifully filmed.  

Gravity (2013)

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Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013’s film Gravity specifically focuses on the feeling of isolation in space. The feeling of loneliness is inescapable because Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are the only two actors to appear on screen. The other actors appear only in the form of Mission Control and other remote communications, and the film focuses primarily on the Bullock, who spends most of the movie alone. Like First Man, it captures the visceral feeling of surviving in space, albeit this time in fiction form (so fictional that it was criticized by NASA for its inaccuracies. That said, it feels very real).

Moon (2009)

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Moon, like other films on this list, focuses on the isolation endemic to being in space. Duncan Jones’ 2009 film follows Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell, who is on a solitary mission on a lunar mining mission. It primarily takes place on the space station itself, but there are elements of space travel as well. Moon embodies some of the same meditative, psychological, and philosophical themes of Solaris

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

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No list of science fiction films is complete without Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, a film that echoes through every space-based science fiction film that followed it. Nominally, it’s a film about an increasingly malicious machine, HAL 9000, that threatens the crew of a spaceship it was designed to assist. But the film is about much more than that; it explores themes like origin of life and the possibility of extraterrestrial beings. The power of the film lies not only in its story, but how it tells it; 50 years later, it has some of the most groundbreaking and impressive visuals of any film.

For more science fiction, check out our article on the artists who made sci-fi’s greatest films possible.