Movies you’ll want to have on deck for Space Day
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1. "2001: A Space Odyssey"
No list of space movies could exist without the quintessential space movie: Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Partly a glimpse into the imagined future where a non defunct Pan Am shuttles to a massive orbital space station complete with a Hilton (Seriously, how disappointing is the actual future?), and partly an existentialist reflection on evolution and technology, 2001 is both stark and surreal. Loosely based on Arthur C. Clarke's short story "The Sentinel" (he wrote the novel later), the film is a head-spinner that'll leave you thinking and analyzing for days afterwards. It stands as one of the most important and influential films in the history of the medium.
2. "Star Wars" (the original trilogy)
Before he was abducted by a fan-hating alien race and replaced by a clone who had never seen any movie filmed before 1992, George Lucas created what is arguably the greatest space opera in history. Beginning with "Star Wars" in 1977, and continuing with "The Empire Strikes Back" in 1980, and "The Return of the Jedi in 1983," the original trilogy set the mark for all future blockbuster space movies. In a nutshell, this is a story of good against evil--but you probably don't need any further explanation here. Be warned, filthy liars out there will tell you there are three prequel "Star Wars" movies, don't believe them.
3. "Star Trek" (all of them)
Before "Star Wars" there was "Star Trek" (that's just a fact, people), a 1966 television show created by Gene Roddenberry for NBC. NBC quickly cancelled the show, but not before it made a seismic impact on American pop culture. Before anyone could say live long and prosper, Star Trek conventions were popping up all over the place and in 1979 the first of a dozen films was released to a fan base eager to see Captain Kirk (originally William Shatner) and Commander Spock (originally the late, great, Leonard Nimoy) toss as many red shirts as they could on the sacrificial pyre. Between the first films, the "Next Generation," and the J. J. Abrams reboots, there are too many movies to mention, but standouts include "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," and "Star Trek: First Contact." Admittedly, they're not all great, but they are all fun.
In 1979, Ridley Scott released his groundbreaking science fiction horror film, "Alien." It's been downhill ever since. Despite suffering from the George Lucas proclivity of working damn hard to unmake his own legacy, "Alien" still stands out as an impressive film achievement. Taking place largely in the claustrophobic confines of a spaceship, the film follows the struggle of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), as she struggles to survive against a menacing alien monstrosity. Unlike the later films, which transformed the franchise into a series of ever more disappointing action flicks, this one is horror at its bloodiest. Remember: In space no one can hear you scream, but your neighbors sure will.
5. "Apollo 13"
And now for things going terribly wrong in a spaceship, retro edition. Directed by Ron Howard, the 1995 film, "Apollo 13," recounts the true events of the Apollo 13 moon mission that nearly resulted in tragedy for its three astronauts: Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks at his most Hanksish), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton, not Pullman), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon ruining Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for all time). The film is partly a survival story, and partly a celebration of human ingenuity. "Apollo 13" is Ron Howard at his best. The movie is both thrilling and heartfelt, and worth the two-plus hours if only as a reminder of a time when we dared to reach for the stars and as Kennedy said, do things not because they are easy but because they are hard.
To round out our "terrible things happen in outer space" trilogy, we give you Alfonso Cuaron's 2013, nausea-inducing film, "Gravity." Astronaut, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical doctor who is fixing the Hubble Space Telescope for some reason, when a debris field of space junk destroys her shuttle and throws her head first into a spinning, dizzying and terrifying struggle for survival. Along the way George Clooney shows up to inject just enough George Clooney to ruin the immersion. Despite some problems and a cringe-worthy scene in which "Gravity" displays a complete lack of understanding of gravity, the film is a visual feast best enjoyed on a big screen. A must watch for any fan of roller coaster rides or car sickness.
Based on Stanislaw Lem's brilliant science fiction novel of the same name, the 2002 "Solaris" is the story of bereaved psychologist Chris Kelvin (Clooney) and his journey to a space station orbiting a mysterious, living world. It's not long before things get weird, very weird, and the film becomes a psychodrama about the meaning of loss and the hope for second chances. In the spirit of full disclosure, we should mention that there is a 1972, Soviet version of the film that your hipster film studies friend will tell you is the superior of the two. All we can say is that Stanislaw Lem himself didn't much care for the Russian version, and in a 1983 autobiography even the director admitted that his "Solaris" was ultimately an artistic failure.
If soul-crushing despair is your thing, why not watch Christopher Nolan's 2014 "Interstellar?" The Earth is dying in the mother of all dust bowls and it's up to Matthew McConaughey, playing former NASA astronaut Cooper, to save us. The film is a visual masterpiece, it has sassy robots, and Matt Damon shows up to play his most despicable role since "The Departed." Be warned, "Interstellar" is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film. Those who love it will tell you that the action and family drama make it one of the best movies of the decade, while those who hate it are wrong, wrong, wrong.
9. "Guardians of the Galaxy"
If you're looking for the opposite of soul-crushing despair, check out Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy." Released in 2014 and directed by James Gunn, Guardians is a rollicking superhero space adventure full of lovable characters, over-the-top action sequences, and everything else that makes DC Comics cry at night. The film effectively launched Chris Pratt into super stardom (and the gym), and has one of the best soundtracks of any movie in recent years. This isn't an introspective soul-searcher like "Interstellar" or "Solaris," it's fun, pure fun. Get some popcorn, put on your favorite mix tape, and soon too you'll be saying "I am Groot" with the rest of us.
Before he directed "The Avengers" there was Joss Whedon's "Firefly," and all was good. But then Fox decided to cancel it after just fourteen episodes and a great darkness fell over the world. The 2005 space western, "Serenity," was Whedon's attempt at making things right again. Perfectly watchable as a standalone movie (though we highly recommend binging through the series first), "Serenity" tells the tale of Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his misfit crew as they try to expose the biggest conspiracy in the verse--namely the crimes of the benevolent-seeming but actually maniacal Alliance. Along the way, our heroes close a lot of the loose ends left over from the series and fight through some impressive space battles. But what makes "Serenity" so special is Whedon's smart and witty dialogue, because space doesn't have to be such a dower place.
Honorable mentions: "Dune," "The Right Stuff," "The Last Starfighter," "Moon," "Event Horizon"