What Makes A Great Space Movie?

Critics are unanimously gushing over the new film Gravity, but what exactly does it get so right?

The knowledge that we are tiny and insignificant within the context of the universe is simultaneously humbling and terrifying. Our fascination with what else is out there has led to amazing scientific inquiry and discovery; we’ve put a man on the moon for one (well, outside of the conspiracy theory camp, at least). But scientific inquiry isn’t the only way we can explore our relationship with ‘outer space’ — it’s s also a great generator for the imagination. From science fiction to documentary and everything else in-between, space exploration is so much more than just a literal endeavour.

With Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity — the film that sends Sandra Bullock and George Clooney into space to act out a very simplistic story against some incredible achievement in visual effects and filmmaking craft — hitting cinemas today, it’s time to look back at the five most successful formulas for a great space movie.

The moon movies

It’s not surprising that a man walking on the moon was one of our greatest 20th century achievements, given how long we’d been aspiring to achieve it. Early French filmmaker George Méliès first imagined what it might be like with his fantasy/adventure/sci-fi short, A Trip To The Moon, in 1902. Whilst getting there may have turned out to be a little more involved than shooting an extra large canon as Méliès imagined, and whilst there were no ‘moon-men’ to capture Neil Armstrong when he did arrive in 1969, the depiction was one that combined curiosity and enchantment.

Not too long after this surrealist vision came Fritz Lang’s 1929 German expressionist silent film, Woman In The Moon. Again, in 1969 we would learn that the moon didn’t hold riches of gold, as Lang’s Professor Manfeldt was sure it would. Still, the launch was depicted as a thrilling event: exciting yet filled with trepidation.

The Mars movies

Having not discovered any cat-women on the moon as 1953’s Cat-Women Of The Moon suggested we might, a spate of movies began to look elsewhere in our galaxy for inspiration. Even before the rover could tweet back at us here on Earth, we continued to indulge in the fantasies of our imaginations by exploring that notoriously red planet, Mars. Perhaps taking their cues from the title of the 1959 film The Angry Red Planet, our most notable entries suggest Mars might be host to criminal, ghost or even Nazi underworlds, as depicted in Total Recall (1990), Ghosts Of Mars (2001) and Iron Sky (2012) respectively.

But perhaps the most interesting Mars movie comes from our least subtle director here on planet Earth: Brian De Palma. In Mission To Mars (2000), spiritual questions meet scientific ones, hoping that maybe somewhere out there something exists that can explain it all. I think Don Cheadle puts it best when he says, “We’re millions of miles from earth inside a giant white face. What’s impossible?” Indeed.

The astronaut movies

Before De Palma even started asking ‘the big questions’, family-friendly moviemaker Robert Zemeckis took a stab at it with Contact in 1997. Starring an enthusiastic young Jodie Foster as a scientific crusader who denies God against Matthew McConaughey’s Southern-drawled spiritual stalwart, Contact began to question who we select to propel into outer space and whether or not it ought always be astronauts.

This came just two years after Ron Howard’s Academy Award-winning, Apollo 13 (1995). Starring Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as ambitious, competitive astronauts, suddenly it wasn’t so much about what was out there as it was about who was being sent in the first place.

The genre hybrids, from action/sci-fi to horror/sci-fi

It’s only natural that something as infinite as the universe should cross genres with ease, and over the years space movies have traversed territory from action to horror. But it all started with Star Trek in the 1960s. Opening up the intergalactic arena at a time of much social revolution here on Earth, Star Trek wondered whether or not we might be able to get along with others so different to ourselves. It continued in 1977 with Star Wars, and then Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The franchises both took off, and there was no stopping the imitations and variations being produced all through the ’80s.

Was there intelligent life on other planets? Steven Spielberg said maybe in 1977 with Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Simultaneously, we started to see what aliens might be like and that’s when things got really interesting with Ridley Scott’s superb Alien in 1979, followed up spectacularly by James Cameron with Aliens in 1986. From here there was no limit to where our imagination could take us…

The age of wonder

For my money, the best space movies are the ones that bring all these things together to create a sense of wonder, exploring our natural curiosity as it mirrors our real life space odysseys, creating great characters in tandem with the big questions, and confronting our deepest fears head-on. These films are Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Solaris (1972) and Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake, and Duncan Jones’ sensational debut feature film, Moon (2009).

I am also completely taken with the IMAX documentary films Space Station 3D (2002) and Hubble 3D (2010) both written, directed, edited and produced by Toni Meyers. These films are all provocative and each one creates new lines of scientific and creative inquiry. If the universe is infinite, there’s no limit to how many more great space movies we can expect to see.

Gravity opens in cinemas nationally today.

Tara Judah is a Melbourne based film writer and radio critic. Her outlets include Metro Magazine, Screen Education, Overland, JOYFM and The Big Issue. She also co-hosts a film criticism podcast on Triple R. Her Twitter is @midnightmovies.