Space, perhaps more than any other single setting or subject, encompasses everything we look for in storytelling: the mystery of the unknown, the call for adventure, humankind’s immeasurable potential for greatness; its equally unfathomable insignificance. These ideas have stirred inside us ever since our ancestors first looked to the heavens. Many of humanity’s best storytellers have used the great infinity as an allegorical setting for musings on the nature of our existence and our place in the cosmos, a tradition most recently illustrated by Claire Denis’s first English-language film High Life. What better opportunity, then, to count down cinema’s ten best deep space explorations?
Before we begin, a few rules need to be set: firstly, all of these films deal with space exploration to some degree, so that excludes Star Wars films as well as, surprisingly enough, most good Star Trek films. Secondly, as deep space designates all space beyond the Moon’s orbit, films like Gravity and Apollo 13 won’t be counted either. With all that said, let our journey begin:
Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi adventure was a box-office disappointment upon release but has since attained something of a cult reputation among genre fans. Set in a not-too distant future where life stands on the brink of extinction due to the sun’s impending death, the film follows a group of scientists on a mission to rejuvenate the dying star by detonating a nuclear bomb in it. Things get heated (no pun intended) after the crew discovers the wreckage from a previous ill-fated mission and fatal malfunctions threaten to doom them to a similar fate.
Sunshine’s primary strength lies in its subtly-detailed characters and the patient way Alex Garland’s screenplay paints their respective moral and spiritual crises, all played out by an international cast boasting such heavyweights as Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong and Chris Evans. While the third act’s swerve into action somewhat derails the slow-burning tension built up by the first two, it doesn’t detract from the well-executed balance of psychological intimacy and mythological sense of scale achieved by Boyle and Garland’s efforts.
Robert Zemeckis has handled a surprisingly wide variety of genres, often combining several at once, but science-fiction is one of those he masters best. Based on a 1985 novel by renowned astronomer Carl Sagan, Contact stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a fellow astronomer whose discovery of a possibly alien signal sends her on a journey to the stars that unexpectedly confronts her with the childhood trauma of her father’s death.
Ostensibly an exploration of the ever familiar conflict between science and faith, Contact mainly uses that theme as support for a more probing look at grief and moving on. Zemeckis directs it with his familiar command of emotion and rhythm but it’s Jodie Foster’s heartfelt performance that truly gives the film its fuel, aided by impeccable supporting turns from James Woods, David Morse and John Hurt.
8. Forbidden Planet
Without a doubt one of the most influential science-fiction films ever made, Forbidden Planet helped bring space adventures out of the kid’s serials ghetto by using its futuristic setting as a narrative stage for a morality play about power and human nature. Loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this 1956 classic stars Leslie Nielsen as J. J. Adams, the commander of a military expedition sent to retrieve a brilliant scientist (Walter Pidgeon) from a mysterious planet. Upon arrival, however, the old man proves unwilling to leave the private utopia he created for himself and his nubile daughter (Anne Francis). When an unseen force starts killing his men, Adams finds the truth may lie within the secrets of an ancient alien civilization that once ruled the galaxy.
Forbidden Planet is well-remembered for its intricate set design, its scene-stealing robot sidekick Robby and Bebe and Louis Barron’s ground-breaking fully electronic score (the first of its kind). While dated by sometimes cringe-inducing sexism, the screenplay makes intelligent use of its main conflict to oppose differing philosophies in a manner that would later inspire Gene Roddenberry for Star Trek. Like its contemporaries The Day The Earth Stood Still and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet proved to mainstream audiences there was more to sci-fi cinema than lasers, monsters and damsels in distress.
7. Silent Running
A well-known favourite of Mark Kermode’s, this 1972 environmentalist gem takes place in a future where pollution has all but destroyed Earth’s forests, the last of which are being transported on mobile space stations for maintenance. Bruce Dern stars as Freeman Lowell, a shy, socially awkward botanist who finds himself forced to take extreme measures to save his beloved plants when the US President orders the forests’ destruction. With nothing but three drones and his own conscience for company, Lowell has to survive intolerable conditions while struggling to preserve the very last of Earth’s plant life.
As with many great sci-fi films, Silent Running’s beauty comes from how perfectly it expresses the anxieties, dreams and visions of its time. Everything from the Joan Baez soundtrack to Bruce Dern’s open-hearted post-hippie idealism powers the film with an undercurrent of Vietnam-era despair that lends it considerable poignancy. But more than just a time capsule, Silent Running is above all a mythologically-inspired tale of renewal and inheritance whose unexpectedly hopeful conclusion conveys ideas about man’s relationship to technology that feel even more relevant today than they did then.
Without a doubt one of Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious films to date, Interstellar is an unbridled megalomaniacal vision the likes of which we rarely see anymore. Following Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper and his fellow astronauts search for a new home for humanity, Nolan uses an epic narrative structure to tell what is, at heart, a very personal story of filial love and communication.
Interstellar is one of those rare films that is enhanced, rather than undone, by its flaws. Its central thesis – that love is a quantifiable force that transcends space and time – may sound silly on paper, but Nolan’s audacious combination of Fordian narrative bravado with Alain Resnais-like montage elevate it into a powerfully evocative visual symphony. As exhausting, exhilarating and occasionally frustrating as all best journeys are, Interstellar is a beautifully imperfect creation held together by the sheer force of its maker’s will and confidence.
5. Solaris (1972)
Science-fiction cinema doesn’t get much more challenging than Andrei Tarkovsky’s visionary meditation on grief, humanity and the nature of love. Based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel, the film sees bereaved psychologist Kris Kelvin investigate mysterious happenings at a space station orbiting the oceanic planet Solaris, only to find that the planet is itself alive and creating replicas from memories of the station’s occupants. When one such replica takes the form of his late wife Hari, Kris must wrestle with the questions her existence implies on the nature of human existence.
Few filmmakers can claim to have pushed the boundaries of what cinema is and could be as far as Andrei Tarkovsky did. By filming his actors in long wide shots, tracking every minute shift in mood and tone within the full scope of their environment, he put audiences face-to-face with their own mortality and place in the world. Solaris exemplifies this beautifully through the way it exposes, autopsies and revives the characters’ feelings and memories with mournful deliberateness. Like a poem, it transports you to new emotional planes, allowing its meaning to gently sink inside your mind until the ending forces you to reconsider everything you thought you understood.
4. The Martian
Easily the best film Ridley Scott has made since Gladiator, The Martian is also boasts Matt Damon’s finest performance to date as Mark Watney, an astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars after a mission goes awry. With nothing but his wits, knowledge and leftover equipment to rely on, Watney must find a way to communicate with Earth and survive long enough to be rescued in the next four years.
In a media environment so saturated with negativity and confusion, The Martian’s optimism is a vital breath of fresh air. Crosscutting between Watney’s self-recorded struggle to stay alive and happy and his Earth colleagues’ coordinated efforts to bring him home, the film reflects its characters’ teamwork through the note-perfect harmony with which every shot, cut, musical note and acting beat respond to each other. The sheer joy The Martian displays towards both science and the people coming together to practice it for the common good make it one of the decade’s most humanistic works of cinema.
Ridley Scott makes the list again with what is arguably his most influential and enduring film. Who in the world isn’t familiar with the Nostromo crew’s fight for survival against the vicious monster that’s infiltrated their ship? In a single film, Scott redefined both horror and science fiction forever.
Much has been made of Scott’s perfect use of tight spaces, shadows and the alien’s constantly growing form to generate suspense, but what really gives the film its binding force is the sharply-observed texture screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and the cast give their characters. Everyone remembers Sigourney Weaver’s star-making lead performance as Ellen Ripley and Ian Holm’s eerily cold turn as Ash, but every other crew member is gifted with small touches that emphasize their working-class ordinariness – an rarity in the sci-fi genre – and informs their interactions with a dash of social realism that makes their subsequent fates all the more compelling.
Arguably the pinnacle of Pixar’s 2000s Golden Age, WALL-E’s visual poetry and emotional astuteness make it one of the most poignant cinematic achievements in recent history. Following the lovestruck robot on his quest to woo eco-bot EVE and reconnect humanity with its global heritage, the viewers are themselves invited to rediscover the basic joys that define our commonness.
What makes WALL-E such a joy to watch is the way Andrew Stanton draws from our collective cinematic subconscious to mirror our cultural evolution by drawing from silent cinema, musicals, comedies and romances of old to express his synthetic characters’ emotional arcs and consequently rouse their human counterparts out of their complacency. This subtle reminder of our shared heritage and responsibilities is just one of the many things that make WALL-E so special.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
What could possibly be said about Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing cinematic vision of the future that hasn’t been said countless times? Ever since the sun first rose above Earth to the triumphant opening notes of Also Sprach Zarathustra, cinema has never been the same again. To envision what a world without 2001: A Space Odyssey would look like is as inconceivable as imagining a world without Mona Lisa.
Like the music and dances that inspired its structure and visual language, Kubrick’s far-reaching examination of humanity’s identity, potential and limitations speaks to its audience in a way that transcends the boundaries of language, culture and belief. It continues to influence and puzzle us to this day because, like space itself, it opens up a myriad of possibilities for our cultural future all while reminding us how little we still actually know.