Unless Richard Branson comes knocking on my door with a $200,000 gift certificate for a ride on his Virgin Galactic space plane, I’m not going to fulfill my childhood dream of rocketing into the Void anytime soon.
See also: A quiz to test your space savvy.
That’s why I’m glad filmmakers have been merrily creating simulated space trips for more than a century. Here are some of my favorites:
A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage Dans la Lune) (1902)
The movies were barely a decade old, and already they were taking mere Earthlings into deep space. Loosely adapting the popular novels From the Earth to the Moon (Jules Verne) and The First Men in the Moon (H.G. Wells), France’s Georges Méliès concocted a 14-minute spectacle that, when you think about it, may have gone a long way to inspiring the whole world to reach for the stars just 50 years later. The movie is, of course, famous for its iconic shot of the bullet-like rocket smashing into the Man in the Moon’s eye. But Méliès, who early on discovered the magic of special effects, also mounts a thrilling battle between the Earth men and an army of moon creatures, which explode into a puff of smoke whenever the expedition’s aristocratic leader whacks them with his umbrella. Only recently has the film’s long-thought-lost conclusion been found: Safely back on Earth, the astronauts discover they’ve accidentally brought a moon man home with them. At first they try to fight him; at the fade-out, he joins them in a jubilant dance.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
By the late 1960s, perhaps hundreds of movies had shown audiences what space travel might be like. With 2001, director Stanley Kubrick actually took them there. On his giant screen, utilizing mind-blowing special effects developed especially for the film, Kubrick introduced the vertigo-inducing, no-up-or-down nature of the cosmos and the unnerving sense of a universe that goes on, literally, forever. I’m pretty sure 2001 was the first movie to graphically illustrate the devastating airlessness of space: When Dave the astronaut (Keir Dullea) detonates the space pod escape hatch in open space to reboard the mother ship, the flames, the billowing smoke, the violent ejection of his rag-doll-like body all happen in utter, harrowing silence. The authenticity of 2001 is born in the script by Arthur C. Clarke; its fruition is in the meticulous care of Kubrick, who clearly senses that for this movie, as in space, a single misstep could be fatal.
Mission to Mars (2000)
Admittedly, I’ll follow director Brian De Palma just about anywhere, even on this harebrained journey to decipher the meaning of the legendary Face on Mars. From his delicately choreographed opening tracking shot to the final spectacle of Gary Sinise encountering honest-to-goodness Martians, De Palma is, as usual, endlessly resourceful in his use of the camera. He also gives us what is probably the most authentic peek at what a Mars settlement might look like: not a series of high-tech domed enclaves, as you’d expect in a Hollywood vision, but instead a barely there tent, its walls supported by the slightly higher air pressure inside, its oxygen provided by an array of potted plants worthy of your neighborhood garden shop.
Treasure Planet (2002)
The box-office failure of this lushly animated Disney film, for my money the most visually sumptuous hand-drawn ’toon of the past 20 years, nearly sank the studio’s whole animation division. I’m not sure why audiences stayed away from Treasure Planet, a fantastical retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but it sure wasn’t because Disney skimped on the production. The best movies take us to places we’ve never been — or better yet, never even imagined. That’s the charm of Treasure Planet: As the young hero plies the universe in an intergalactic sailing ship, he encounters scenic wonders that seem to wed Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” with images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
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.