This week’s episode of Andor reminded us of an age old question: Why are there not more movies about heists in space?
To be clear, we are not just talking about sci-fi crime stories set in space; a heist is a specific and beautiful form of crime when it comes to cinematic storytelling, the kind of which that has become its own subgenre over the decades. And as the Diego Luna-led series just remembered, it requires three key essential elements: the Crew, the Take, and the Plan.
The Crew is the element most sci-fi movies set in some type of seedy underworld usually pulls off admirably: A team of elite but unorthodox professionals whose skills gel together as their personalities clash. Excellent chemistry and at least one rivalry that evolves into grudging respect is a must. Then you have the Take. It’s almost irrelevant what the take is—Death Star plans, dilithium crystals, or in a pinch, hard cold space cash will do. Upcoming space heist video game, Hyenas, has you stealing antique licensed merchandising from billionaires. The only thing that is really important about the Take is that it is behind a devilishly intricate, heavily guarded security system that you would be a fool to try and get past.
Finally, and most importantly, you need the Plan. We can’t just space smash and space grab this MacGuffin. Oh, no. The Plan needs at least nine steps, three of which are hidden from the audience, and two of which go wrong—only for it to later turn out that the steps going wrong was part of the plan the whole time. You can deliver the plan to us piece by piece or in flashback, if you like. We don’t mind.
The point is stories set on spaceships and among heist masterminds are two great flavors of the same food group. They should, in any rational universe, taste great together. Spaceships are highly contained, controlled environments where highly competent people engage in solving technical problems to achieve their goals. Meanwhile the cinematic heist genre usually revolves around teams of highly competent people engaged in solving technical problems in a highly contained, controlled environment to achieve their goals (to steal stuff). Yet, if you look for entries in the space heist subgenre, you will find the pickings are surprisingly sparse unless, like Andor, you’re from the galaxy far, far away.
Sci-Fi Crime Movies That Miss the Fun of Heists
Don’t get us wrong though. If you want crime in space then there is absolutely no shortage. This is the final frontier, after all, and you can’t have a final frontier without some final outlaws. The two biggest titans of the space crime genre have recently been the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie and last year’s surprise Korean space opera hit, Space Sweepers. Yet the meat of both of these movies isn’t about stealing something. It is about fencing something—the boring bit that most heist movies rightly leave until long after the credits have rolled.
Beyond that, there are space lawman movies (Sean Connery’s surprisingly hard sci-fi crime thriller Outland), space smuggling movies (Space Truckers—which has a lot of fans but we’d politely suggest those fans haven’t rewatched it in a while), and space piracy movies (Disney’s own Treasure Planet, which is actually a pretty great space adventure). There’s even a subgenre of space jailbreak movies, including Luc Besson’s Lockout, from 2012, and 2018’s less well-regarded Incoming.
The closest candidate for an actual full on space heist is Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, with a few exceptions. And just like this week’s Andor, those exceptions tend to take place in the Star Wars universe.
Star Wars Gets It
The “A Star Wars Story” series of standalone spinoffs was a short, weird offshoot of the main Star Wars saga that, despite its critics, gave us two of the most enjoyable movies in the franchise. Funnily enough, they were both space heist stories.
Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us the story of a young street urchin named Han, and follows him on a journey from the mean streets of Corellia to the world of high crime, eventually helping to hatch a plan to steal a shipment of coaxium. It involves all the ingredients, even if it rushes past some of them. The crew is assembled; the plan is executed; everything goes wrong (naturally); and there are last minute twists and betrayals. It even features friendly rivals getting to know each other over a high stakes card game. It’s no Empire Strikes Back or The Last Jedi (which also, incidentally, features a heist), but it is one of the most fun entrants in the franchise.
Meanwhile Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the film which Andor acts as a prequel to. It’s much darker in tone as it dramatizes the first few lines of the very first Star Wars movie’s opening crawl. Indeed, even in Star Wars itself, the template of “rag-tag band breaks into a secure facility to steal something away” sets a formula that the franchise will return to again and again.
But outside of the Star Wars franchise, there is no shortage of space heists onscreen; just not on the big screen.
Small Screen Stakes
Basically every show about a rag-tag bunch of space outlaws (of which there are many) will feature at least one heist episode at one point. Blake’s 7 (1978-1981) stole quite a few things in their time. Conversely, the movie Serenity (2005) started out with a heist that was little more than sticking up a bank, and that film itself only existed because it was an extension of the legendary cult TV series Firefly (2001-2002). That series, by the by, featured several beautifully executed heists, including robbing a magnetic train, stealing from a floating city’s elite neighborhood, and raiding the drug stash of a futuristic hospital.
Farscape’s “Liars, Guns & Money” trilogy featured an ambitious space heist, as does Dark Matter. Even Netflix’s animated series, Dogs in Space, features an excellent space heist episode in its sixth episode, “Speak” (one of the few mentioned in this article where the heist is actually in space).
So when are we finally going to see the obviously great combination of ensemble dynamics, tech know-how and competence porn that is a space heist on the big screen? That remains to be seen. Andy Weir (author of The Martian) has his second novel, Artemis, currently in development, with The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and erstwhile Solo: A Star Wars Story writer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller pegged to write.
The novel concerns a heist plot on the moon’s first city. However, that movie may have been a casualty of the Disney-Fox merger, especially as Lord and Miller have moved on to adapt Weir’s next (non-heist) novel, Hail Mary.
Luna Park, meanwhile, which is to be directed by Edge of Tomorrow helmer Doug Liman, also concerns a moon-based heist, with a group of renegade employees heading to the moon to steal an energy source. However, that film has also languished in development hell for quite some time.
There are those that claim “The Heist” has been overdone. Maybe you don’t think it can be taken seriously since Rick and Morty took a hatchet to it. But that same episode thought that the best way to lay into Elon Musk was to remind us that his name rhymes with “Tusk.” So its satiric edge wasn’t exactly on top form that week.
Still, to get Luna Park and films like it out of development hell, it might take something extra. We’re going to need an elite team with a special set of skills. Get in the spaceship, there’s no time to explain. We’re going to pull one last job…