I saw a list recently of “space movies” and the first film on the list was… Star Wars. I like lists, and though they usually make me angry I also like bad lists – because they inspire me to create my own. After all, if you’re going to put together to a list of “space movies”, then you’d expect “space” to play a major role in the film. And yes, there’s the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon running away from the Imperial space destroyer and that final space battle and it’s space opera which even has the word “space” in it… but is Star Wars really a “space movie”?
There are plenty of films – not just Hollywood ones, either – where space or space travel forms a major portion of the plot, or is indeed the actual subject of the film. Having said that, any list of films which comprises almost entirely Hollywood output, bar one or two token world cinema entries, is also going to generate rage. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris as the token non-Hollywood sf movie in a lists of sf movies. Tarkovsky was a great director, no doubt about that, but he made two other sf films – all of which is beside the point, as there are a huge number of non-US and non-Anglophone directors who have made science fiction movies, many of which are excellent.
All this is, of course, a somewhat long-winded way of introducing my own list of “space movies”, ie films that are space-related – inasmuch as they are about space exploration, or the setting is space for at least more than half of the film. I have, as is my wont, tried to avoid the obvious and commercially safe choices…
Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004, UK). This is my go-to for near-future space-based science fiction. It’s a television dramatisation of a near-future Grand Tour, made chiefly by the BBC. It’s hard to find these days, but it’s definitely worth hunting down a copy. The CGI hasn’t aged especially well, the acting is not great, and the talking heads often slow things down… but much of it was filmed on the Vomit Comet and it does a top job of presenting life aboard a spacecraft travelling about the Solar Sytem. In fact, it does a top job of presenting all the technology required to visit all the planets of the Solar System. Good stuff.
Apollo 18, Gonzalez López-Gallego (2011, USA). Okay, so the rock monsters are a bit silly, as is the, er, plot. But this is still the best fictional presentation to date of an Apollo mission on celluloid. And it also scores highly because it shows a Soviet LK and gets it absolutely right. This is the proper way to do a space movie… even if it’s in service to a hoary old plot. Admittedly, it’s a found footage movie, and it’s never quite made clear how they found the footage, given we’ve never been back to the moon… but never mind.
Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). This is a polished piece of sf from a country not really known for producing science fiction movies. The story takes place aboard a starship on its way to an Edenic colony world, which is closed to the masses teeming in space stations orbiting a poisoned Earth except as a prize in a lottery. En route, the film manages to pull in most modern sf movie tropes, but it handles them well and even manages a few – albeit somewhat predictable – scares along the way.
Eolomea, Herrmann Zschoche (1972, East Germany). Deutsches Film-Aktiengesellschaft made four big-budget – for East Germany – sf movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re a bit dippy, but they did go all out to make good-looking, globally-minded intelligent science fiction. Eolomea is perhaps the best of them, a mystery about the plan to settle the eponymous exoplanet and a space station that has suddenly gone silent. Some great 1970s retro-futuristic production design, too.
Test Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (1979, USSR). AKA Pilot Pirx’s Inquest. Based on the character created by Stanisław Lem, this sees Pirx take a trip to the rings of Saturn, with a crew which contains one or more androids – but he doesn’t know who is which. It starts as a weirdly-paced future thriller, before turning into a space movie that strives for accuracy in some areas but gets it bizarrely wrong in others. And, like most Eastern Bloc sf movies, the future is assumed to be a world of peaceful multinational cooperation, unlike in US films. The soundtrack is also surprisingly ahead of its time.
Ikarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963, Czechoslovakia). The titular spacecraft is sent on a long mission to Alpha Centauri, and various incidents happen en route, including one member of the crew going mad. The production design reminds me a little of Raumpatrouille Orion in places, and there’s plenty of Anglophone films that were later influenced by it – perhaps because, unlike Hollywood sf films of the time, it had an intelligent script.
Frau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929, Germany). Not the first ever sf movie, that was Georges Méliès’s Le voyage dans la lune in 1902 (which is worth seeing), but Lang’s silent epic Frau im Mond is considerably more realistic and famously gave us the rocket launch countdown. It perhaps spends overmuch of its length laying out the background to the moon shot, and the scenes set on the lunar surface are unsurprisingly not especially accurate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first actual space movie.
Queen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA). This is one of those films Roger Corman cobbled together from footage from a pair of Soviet sf movies – in this case, Небо зовет and Мечте навстречу – with US-filmed material starring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith and Basil Rathbone. Florence Marly plays the title role, an alien vampire stranded on Mars who is rescued by a mission from Earth. Although considered a B-movie, Queen Of Blood rises above its humble origins – those astonishing Soviet visuals, Meredith’s equal treatment alongside Saxon and Hopper, and Marley pulling a star turn as the alien vampire.
Into Infinity, Charles Crichton (1975, UK). AKA The Day After Tomorrow. A live-action made-for-television film by Gerry Anderson, it describes the maiden voyage of Altares, the first human spacecraft to travel at the speed of light. The dialogue is mostly exposition, there’s an explanatory narration by Ed Bishop, and, to be fair, the plot is somewhat on the dull side… but I remember loving it as a kid, and although a recent rewatch did reveal many of its flaws it still fired the sense of wonder I recalled from all those decades ago.
Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneâmise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). An anime film about a space programme on an entirely invented world, and which ends with the first launch of a crewed rocket, should surely qualify for this list. I only watched this for the first time recently, and I wasn’t that taken with it – but in the weeks since I found myself thinking more kindly of it, and I’m even considering getting hold of a copy of my own.
There are some others I could have included, one or two of which I might even hold in higher regard, but for this list I wanted a good geographic spread.