Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar wears many of its influences proudly. The director has openly said that his film is inspired by such acclaimed pieces of cinema as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, as well as the human warmth of Steven Spielberg’s 80s output. Interstellar depicts a near future where life on Earth teeters on the brink of extinction. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot turned farmer, joins a last-ditch mission to enter a wormhole in space and find a new home for humanity; he realizes that the only way to save his family is to leave it behind.
It’s the latest film to tap into our fascination with the depths of space – a topic that has been explored many times since the earliest days of cinema. Time and again, the genre has depicted our hopes and fears for the future and what we might one day find on other planets. More often than not, though, these movies are also about how exploration brings out the best and worst in us – emphasising both our bravery in the face of the unknown and how fragile we are when we’re cut off from our own planet.
Below you’ll find what we hope is a varied selection of films about journeying into space and what we find in the void. Some strive for scientific accuracy, while others play fast and loose with the laws of physics. All of them, we’d argue, are underappreciated, and well worth tracking down.
Had this claustrophobic movie been released a few months earlier, it could have been a hit. Instead, it was released after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, when fascination with the subject had already begun to wane, and the movie failed to recoup its estimated $8-10m budget. It’s a really well-made film, though directed by John Sturgess, who brought us such classics as The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.
Gene Hackman heads up a trio of astronauts (Richard Crenna and James Franciscus being the other two) who find themselves trapped in space when the engine on their ship conks out. Sturgess and his filmmakers worked hard to make Marooned look believable – audiences had, after all, been watching the real space race unfold with keen interest – and the result is an unusually rigorous and handsome-looking sci-fi survival film, which predates films like Apollo 13 and Gravity by several years. In fact, director Alfonso Cuaron has even suggested that Marooned may have been one of his inspirations when making Gravity (“I watched the Gregory Peck movie Marooned over and over when I was a kid,” he told Wired).
Royal Space Force: Wings Of Honneamise (1987)
Before Japan’s economy went pop in about 1990, the country was producing some expensive and extraordinary animated feature films. Akira is the most famous, but Wings Of Honnemaise is equally spectacular from a visual standpoint. It’s like a fantasy retelling of The Right Stuff, in that it’s about a fictional country trying to get its first man into space; its setting looks like a deliciously exotic version of our own.
Admittedly, there’s relatively little space travel in Wings Of Honneamise, but both director Hiroyuki Yamaga’s film and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar share a common ancestry in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. Exquisitely detailed and told with a real sense of wonder and adventure, Wings Of Honneamise is one of the most unusual and beautifully-made animated films to emerge from 80s Japan.
Europa Report (2013)
Director Sebastian Cordero’s Europa Report gets a lot of mileage from a lean budget. In it, an international group of explorers — among them Sharlto Copley and Michael Nyqvist — set off for Jupiter’s moon, Europa, in search of extra-terrestrial life. Supposedly cobbled together from footage sent back from the mission, Europa Report has the tone of a hard SF novel; despite some decidedly uneven special effects, Cordero manages to create a realistic atmosphere.
Although there’s plenty of suspense, this is a film about the excitement of discovery rather than the threat of otherworldly monsters. It also depicts the motivation that drives us to strike out into the unknown – for the astronauts in Europa Report, the thirst for knowledge far outweighs the fear of death. A cameo from Neil Degrasse-Tyson further adds to Europa Report‘s geek credentials.
Battle Beyond The Sun (1959/1962)
The story behind this 50s sci-fi curiosity is a bit of a sad one. It began life in Russia with the title Nebo Zovyot, which translates to the less lurid-sounding The Sky Calls. Directed by Mikhail Karyukov and Aleksandr Kozyr, it was a serious, speculative piece about the Soviets’ first mission to Mars and their race to get to the red planet before the Americans.
Then Roger Corman got hold of it, cut out about 15 minutes of footage, and had a young Francis Ford Coppola stage a series of new scenes full of wobbly monsters. This heavily edited version, now with the B-movie title Battle Beyond The Sun, was released in the US in 1962, three years after the unexpurgated version appeared in Russian cinemas. What’s unfortunate about all this is that, while Battle Beyond The Sunis fairly easy to get hold of on DVD, Nebo Zovyot doesn’t appear to be available.
Even when watching Corman’s version, the grandeur, careful design and surprisingly accomplished visual effects still shine through. The video above, entirely free from wobbly Coppola monsters, gives a better idea of the original film’s tone.
When Worlds Collide (1951)
Interstellar and this 50s sci-fi adventure shares a not dissimilar premise, in that they both see the Earth threatened by natural disaster. Based on the 1933 novel of the same name, When Worlds Collide is about the attempt by scientists and billionaires to build a space-age ark which can be used to ferry the population of Earth to a new home – here, the threat to our planet is an inbound star that will incinerate all life within eight months.
While the film’s tone is largely upbeat – Richard Kerr making for a decidedly chipper space pilot, like a less soul-baring Matthew McConaughey – some scenes are quite troubling. A lottery’s held to decide who will get to go on the space ark, and understandably, the people whose numbers don’t come up are far from happy. The sequence where an angry mob attacks the ship is effectively staged.
Ultimately, When Worlds Collide is a product of its era – the romance is toe-curling, and the lottery winners aboard the space ark are distractingly WASP-ish – but the special effects are impressive for the most part (and won an Oscar) and the apocalyptic scenario often thrilling.
Danny Boyle’s space film didn’t exactly blast off at the box office, but it’s atmospheric and superbly acted. With the sun rapidly losing energy, a team is despatched to get the star going again with the use of a gigantic bomb. Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh and a pre-Captain America Chris Evans are among the famous faces aboard the Icarus II, and the story’s as much about the crew facing their own beliefs and anxieties as it is the perils of space travel.
Boyle gives the film an uneasy claustrophobia, even before things start going wrong with the mission, as well as a sense of the vastness of space – one of the most memorable shots is of a lone figure standing in front of a raging sun. Superbly designed and acted, Sunshine is arguably among the best space movies of recent years.
This sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey was doomed to live in its shadow, but to his credit, Peter Hyams doesn’t even attempt to ape Kubrick’s style of filmmaking. 2010 sees Roy Scheider head up a mission to find out what happened to the Discovery – the ship that went off to Jupiter in A Space Odyssey.
Where 2001 was ethereal and ambiguous, 2010 is relatively fast-moving, with a plot that hinges on exploring the mysteries left behind by Stanley Kubrick. Why did HAL go crazy? Where did David Bowman go? Who created those monoliths? Your enjoyment of 2010 will probably hinge on whether you want those questions to be answered or not. But if viewed simply as an exploration movie, rather than a follow-up to one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time, there’s lots to enjoy in 2010. Hyams’ direction is superb, Roy Scheider turns in a robust leading performance, ably supported by John Lithgow, Helen Mirren (with a Russian accent) and a returning Keir Dullea as Dave Bowman. Unlike 2001, 2010 isn’t a classic, but it’s gripping, well made, and peppered with moments of cosmic wonder.
The Black Hole (1979)
That The Black Hole features some cute floating robots and emerged from Disney might lead you to assume that it’s a breezy space opera in the vein of Star Wars. Don’t be fooled; although there’s more fantasy than fact in The Black Hole, it’s also atmospheric and surprisingly eerie.
A group of explorers stumbles on a gigantic ship sitting at the outer edge of a black hole. On closer investigation, they discover that it’s a vessel that had vanished years before, and is now solely inhabited by a Captain Nemo-like character called Doctor Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) and an army of cloaked, hooded robots. The explorers (among them Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine) have arrived at a bad time: Reinhardt plans to fly his ship straight into the black hole in the search for “the ultimate knowledge” – a sign that the doctor may not be entirely sane.
Much of the dialogue in The Black Hole is quite bad; samples include, “What basis do you have for these macabre accusations?” and, “Something caused this. But what caused the cause?” But visually, the movie’s sometimes stunning; Disney sank a then unprecedented $20 million into its making, and it’s all there on the screen: there are detailed miniature effects, huge sets and elaborately composed shots. One, in which Reinhardt’s robot drones toil in front of their exotic machinery, is little short of stunning. Then there’s the surprise waiting for everyone beyond the black hole itself. Cut to the chilling march of John Barry’s score, it’s nightmarish and unforgettably weird.
Destination Moon (1950)
Produced by sci-fi mogul George Pal (who also made When Worlds Collide), Destination Moon was supposed to be the first big-screen attempt to seriously depict what a mission to our nearest satellite might look like. Instead, the low-budget Rocketship X-M got into theatres less than a month earlier. Although looking its age now, it’s still fascinating to see the future of space exploration from a 1950s perspective; director Irving Pichel simulates the effects of takeoff on his astronauts (though the facial expressions are unintentionally amusing) and what being in zero gravity might look like.
Also look out for Woody Woodpecker, who shows up to explain some of the basic principles of space travel – a technique Steven Spielberg later used to introduce the gene-splicing concepts in Jurassic Park.
This 2011 film explores remarkably similar themes to Interstellar: it’s about the loneliness of space, human isolation and interconnectedness, and a sense of fear and fascination in the face of the unknown. Its story is told on a large canvas, ranging from the discovery of a mysterious (possibly alien) object in Civil-War era America to an orbiting space station in the near future. What’s so remarkable about Love is that writer-director William Eubank managed to make it with about $500,000 – the space station interior, which looks entirely convincing on the screen, was constructed on his driveway.
Gunnar Wright plays an astronaut on a solo stint aboard as the Earth descends into all-out war. He begins to unravel through sheer loneliness and boredom, but then the chance discovery of a journal from a soldier in the Civil War provides a link between the past and the present. Going for a similar mix of poetry and science as Interstellar – Eubank was inspired by the writing of Carl Sagan – Love is full of handsome visuals, ambient music from the band Angels & Airwaves, and a great leading turn from Wright.