The Astronaut Farmer (2006)
The problem with movies about space travel has always been that the heroes and heroines are of necessity members of a privileged class: either “right stuff” pilots and scientists, handpicked for their missions by government bureaucrats, or super-wealthy enthusiasts who buy their way into the cosmos. The charm of The Astronaut Farmer, starring Billy Bob Thornton as a farmer who never made it into space despite his brief tenure as an astronaut, is in how it makes the possibility of space travel seem no more distant than a trip to just the right junkyard. Thornton, scavenging parts from around the world, pieces together a working Mercury spacecraft in his barn and plans to rocket into orbit. His wife (Virginia Madsen) supports him even though she thinks he’s kind of nuts, and the government tries mightily to keep this freelancer from pushing the blastoff button. Director Michael Polish, who has a knack for enabling quirky characters to breathe, makes it all seem wonderfully possible.
There are a lot of excellent spaceships-on-a-mission movies that could fit into this slot — among them Alien (1979) and its sequels, Event Horizon (1997) and Silent Running (1971). I picked this intriguing film from Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle mostly because I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen it. Besides Sunshine’s admirably authentic sense of claustrophobia and danger, it’s also a well-crafted ensemble piece. A rarity among sci-fi movies, Sunshine’s characters don’t seem to be off-the-shelf movie types (the nerd, the leader, the sexy female scientist, etc.). In fact, before he filmed one frame, Boyle had his international cast (including New Zealander Cliff Curtis, Irishman Cillian Murphy, and Malaysia-born Michelle Yeoh) live together, and had them tour a nuclear submarine to gain some sense of the close quarters a long space mission would entail. I’m not so sure about Sunshine’s science — to reignite a dying Sun, the astronauts have to fly right up to it (that’s pretty hot, right?) and inject it with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan. But fans have long since learned to forgive sci-fi films for their scientific liberties. Sunshine creates a rare sense of space, place and humanity, and that’s more than enough.
In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)
The story of America’s outrageous reach for the moon in the 1960s (and is there any better word to describe it?) has gotten prodigious big-screen treatment, often with outstanding results: Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 and Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff are prime examples. But this documentary, utilizing some never-before-seen NASA footage and interviews with surviving moon walkers (except for Neil Armstrong, who hardly ever talks to anybody), endures as the most concise and stirring account of them all. The astronauts speak directly into the camera, their faces lined with experience, their eyes still somehow aglow with sights no human had ever seen before — nor, sadly, since.