Are you over your case of 50th-anniversary-of-the-moon-landing fever yet? Since I’m sort of a space junkie, this whole commemoration of the momentous event has been right in my wheelhouse. I like to tell myself that, had I not pursued a career that has me writing columns like this, I would have been an astronomer or some sort of astrophysicist, or maybe even an actual astronaut. But that whole thing about having to solve complex math equations and being in peak physical condition might have combined to derail my pursuit.
That's why I'm more of your Monday morning or armchair astronomer, astrophysicist and astronaut. I'm simply fascinated by it all; I just think it's cool.
I must not be alone, because can you think of a genre, other than comic book superhero movie franchises, that's been the focus of more films than space?
So, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and Hollywood's love of space movies, what follows is my list of space film favorites. As far as criteria go, it's pretty simple. I have focused on movies that have to do with space travel, whether it's in the past, present times or in the future. Some of the films are based on actual events, while more are conceptual and fantastical in nature. At the heart of them all is a spirit of exploration and adventure. I have not included any space-related films that feature aliens that kill everyone. I also have not included any space film franchises and their sequels, prequels, remakes and re-remakes.
We have liftoff!
8. SpaceCamp: Laugh all you want, but for my generation, the Space Shuttle missions were our Apollo program. The shuttle was all we knew, and this fun-for-the-whole-family flick that focused on a space camp for kids was basically "The Breakfast Club," but instead of taking place in a high school during Saturday detention, the stressed-out teens in SpaceCamp are orbiting earth when a shuttle launch simulation becomes real. SpaceCamp also stars Lea Thompson, whom, back in those days, I thought was just about the most adorable female on the planet. It's worth noting that SpaceCamp was released in 1986, five months after the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. The unfortunate timing of the film's release was a marketing nightmare for SpaceCamp's producers, even though filming of SpaceCamp wrapped up months before the Challenger disaster. I was 16 when the Challenger exploded, and there's no other news event from my youth that I remember more today.
7. The Right Stuff: This 1983 epic had a cast of Hollywood studs that perfectly fit the hero worship that astronauts basked in when the United States' space program was first launched. The Right Stuff is all about speed and endurance and survival. It's a bit too macho for my blood at times, but perhaps more than any other trait, these guys had to be macho in order to get where they wanted to go, and where their nation wanted them to go.
6. The Martian: This 2015 flick features Matt Damon playing an astronaut believed by his crew to have been killed in a storm on Mars, so they conduct an emergency evacuation launch and mistakenly leave him behind, injured but alive. The epic struggle to survive against all odds is perhaps what makes space movies so compelling, and the odds Damon faces are stacked tremendously against him. That's what makes his efforts to not only live to see another day but also make contact with Earth, where everyone still thinks he's dead, such great theater. It's a major struggle at times to get past The Martian's cheese factor, which goes full-on muenster at times with the dialogue between Damon, his crew and NASA. It's just so cornball. But if you can get past that and stick to the heart of the story – Damon, his crew and NASA working together to try to rescue him – then The Martian is solid.
5. 2001: A Space Odyssey: You could write 100 columns about this 1968 Stanley Kubrick film and still only be scratching the surface. First off, the special effects, for 1968, are incredible. And the level of accuracy with which Kubrick predicts how space travel and technology would look in the future is impressive. But if you've seen this film, you know space travel is only a part of the journey it takes you on. It's an evolutionary tale that begins in prehistoric times with primates ravaging each other in one scene and learning how to use a tool in the next, continues with man's eventual demise, and then rebirth. Indeed, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a lot to take in. At the center of it all is a monolith. Don't feel bad if you, like me, have to Google the definition of a monolith. This is a Kubrick film, though, so even if you know what a monolith is, you'll still find your head spinning at times. The best scene: When supercomputer "HAL 9000" that's running the mission to Jupiter goes off the rails in evil fashion and astronaut "Dave" starts to shut HAL down. HAL is at first defiant, "What do you think you're doing, Dave?" and then starts to plead for its very life, "Dave, I know I did some bad things, but I feel much better now." and "Dave, please, let's talk about this."
4. Gravity: They pack a whopping amount of thrills, chills and melodrama into this 2013 film's tidy 90 minutes. The special effects, the haunting, ominous musical score that accompanies the pulse-pounding scenes when an exploded Russian satellite starts obliterating the U.S. Space Shuttle and everything else in its orbital path...it all adds up to a riveting, gripping ride. It stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, and, yes, much like The Martian there's a cheese factor here, too, at times that you need to get past. But if you come at it from an angle that you think an astronaut facing almost certain death at any moment should be allowed to pile on the sentimentality, then you will enjoy Gravity. On a side note, my wife grew fixated on Bullock's constant heavy breathing while in her space suit as she's flailing about in zero gravity. Naturally, as I viewed Gravity more times in the future, I, too, found myself distracted by Bullock's panting and gasping and lung-heaving hyperventilations. But, again, if you consider that she's an astronaut hurtling through space, running dangerously low on oxygen and staring death in the face, you'll allow for the likelihood that she's going to be more than a little worked up.
3. Contact: As the 1997 film's name implies, this star-studded production starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey focuses on advanced beings from a far-off planet making contact with Earth, and then us prehistoric-by-comparison Earthlings following the being's instructions so that we can pay them a visit. For me, the film's 30 minutes or so from when Foster first detects the signal from the alien beings to when she and the powers-that-be on Earth start to realize just who or what they're dealing with...it's just about as good as it gets. What almost ruins it all for me is the inclusion of the McConaughey character, an author and representative of some new-age style of church. When the President of the United States and his Cabinet are seated around a White House table trying to decide what the alien beings might actually want - Are their intentions benevolent in nature or sinister? - and whether or not Earthlings should construct a spacecraft to go and meet them, McConaughey's character not only has a seat at the table, the floor is conceded to him to speak more than anyone else. He goes on and on about the faith-based implications on the religious community, and it's agonizing to watch. You'd like to think, if a Contact-like scenario was real, that scientists and space experts would command the podium more than anyone else. You'd like to think that.
2. Apollo 13: The attention to detail in this 1995 film makes the viewer almost swear, minus all of the famous actors dotting the cast, that they're watching actual Apollo 13 images. Filmmakers of various epics and blockbusters tend to feel like they need to pile on embellished drama and suspense, even if the story they're retelling already possesses drama and suspense to spare. But Apollo 13 keeps it fairly real, as a world in those times that had become complacent about the missions to the moon found itself once again gripped by astronauts on a mortally wounded ship trying to get back home alive.
1. Interstellar: This 2014 opus is admittedly a handful, but space should be a handful. Anything less and it would cease to be space. It should take three hours to tell a tale this big. There's a star-studded cast here, too, including McConaughey, again, playing a hot-shot space pilot. His character's cockiness and swagger do grind on the nerves sometimes, but if you don't get overly hung up on him, you're in for a treat. What makes this film my all-time favorite space-flick might be the fact that I can't fully figure out what it is that makes me love it so much. Much of space beyond our little moon and our solar system and galaxy involves venturing into the great unknown. It sounds corny to say it, but it simply comes down to the wonder of it all. In Interstellar, that wonder is mixed with other ingredients like despair and fear and anger and deception, amid a setting that has the Earth reverting to a giant dust bowl and dying a slow death. The clock is ticking and it's time to find a new, suitable home for the human race way out there somewhere before it’s too late. Combine those mega-plot elements with stellar special effects and a haunting musical score, and you have my personal best, Interstellar. This should come as no surprise to my family, the members of which on several occasions over the past few years have strolled through the living room and have been heard to say, after seeing me on the couch and then glancing at the TV, "Oh, god, Interstellar’s on.”