It’s impossible to determine exactly when humans first had the notion of going into outer space, but we’ve never let it go since we first had it. More than anyone else, we’ve been inventing stories about other worlds and making movies about traveling to the moon since the advent of motion pictures.
Sci-fi stories involving star journeys, star wars, and just about everything else relating to the stars have gotten increasingly popular as visual effects have improved and space travel become a reality. Small, independent comedies and dramas can also take place on space ships, space stations, and other planets in the 21st century thanks to cutting-edge visual effects technology.
It was inevitable that we’d have to set some boundaries while compiling a list of the top space movies of the century. A “Top 20” list that includes mostly sequels and prequels to Star Trek and Star Wars is pointless. Do we really need to talk about so many Guardians of the Galaxy flicks before you get the overall concept that they’re excellent?
For this reason, we’re limited ourselves to one film per franchise on our list of the best space movies of the 21st century so far! Prepare for a journey into the depths of the cosmos in search of action, adventure, and, if necessary, boredom.
1. Titan A.E. (2000)
At its heart, Titan A.E. was an attempt by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman to create their own version of Star Wars in the world of cinematic animation. However, despite the apprehensions of the general public, the scripts by Ben Edlund (for The Tick), John August (for Go), and Joss Whedon deliver a compelling story with witty banter and surprising twists (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
An innovative outer space adventure, set in a future where humanity have been dispersed around the galaxy and no longer have any sort of homeworld, features the voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore. If they find a second Earth, our heroes will have to defend their race. Intriguing, Titan A.E. deserves a second look.
2. Solaris (2002)
Even though Solaris isn’t as expansive as Andrei Tarkovsky’s original film, Steven Soderbergh’s remake of the sci-fi classic is an amazingly complete condensed version of the original. To examine a faraway space station, where the crew members all refuse to return, George Clooney stars as a bereaved psychotherapist. But when he arrives at the space station, he discovers that all but two members of the crew have perished, and that the station itself is populated with the deceased loved ones they left behind.
A number of classic science fiction tales have attempted to explore the concept of the infinite, and Soderbergh’s Solaris is an excellent example. It’s hard not to be moved by Clooney’s portrayal, and Soderbergh’s dedication to keeping this high-concept sci-fi drama anchored in character is admirable and heartbreaking.
3. Treasure Planet (2002)
It’s hard to believe that Disney’s final 2D masterpiece, Treasure Planet, was such a disappointment when it was first released. It’s possible that some individuals are still resistant to the idea that animation can be an exciting, fast-paced journey. Back in 2002, it’s possible that “steampunk” was still too obscure to be understood by the general public. Regardless of the cause, the crowd was left disappointed.
On Treasure Planet, the classic story about a young boy who uncovers a treasure map and becomes friends with and then enemies with an evil pirate, adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island. It’s hard to imagine a more complex and nuanced connection than Jim’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with cyborg John Silver (Brian Murray), and the animation only adds to the richness. Reimagining space flight as romantically flying on solar sails, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Moana) brilliantly kindle the feeling of wonder that many sci-fi tales are missing.
4. Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
When Jon Favreau was hired to direct Iron Man, he made his first step into pop filmmaking with this imaginative version of Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura. An apparent sequel to Jumanji, the film follows a group of bored children as they play a board game that takes them on an epic journey. This time, though, their suburban home is launched into outer space.
Favreau cleverly pulls his VFX back and allows most of the picture appear hand-made in Zathura, which is full of odd sci-fi imagery. Astonishingly terrifying, the extraterrestrial beasts and realistically constructed sets combine to create a terrifying experience. To put it another way, rather of plunging the protagonist into a virtual reality environment, it delivers a very real universe of spacemen and space aliens right into their own living room. It’s a film that will leave you gasping for air.
5. Sunshine (2007)
The only way to save the sun is to launch a nuclear missile into space and detonate a nuclear weapon there. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and Alex Garland (Ex Machina) aren’t nearly as boring as a mainstream Hollywood director and writer would have been. There’s an existential threat to this tale of survival in outer space that they masterfully amplify in Sunshine.
A who’s who of A-list actors and actresses star in the film, and they’re all in it together as if they’re in a powder keg, ready to go off at any moment. While some may claim that the film’s third act goes off the rails, maybe – just maybe – it’s what the movie was really about all along.
6. WALL-E (2008)
When humans leave the earth, only garbage compactor robots will remain to clean up the mess they made and make the environment habitable again. That’s possible it didn’t work. WALL-E is the sole remaining robot, and he only cares about the fact that he is completely and utterly alone.
All that changes one day when another robot visits our planet. Directed by Andrew Stanton, WALL-E takes an unlikely hero on an almost impossible journey and introduces a necessary dose of disorder to the stagnant civilization that has all but given up on improving its surroundings. Cynically, it’s an apocalyptic piece of fiction yet argues that optimism always triumphs. WALL-E doesn’t feel like just another huge studio product because of its inventive presentation, adorable design, terrific sense of humor, and visceral sense of astonishment. At the start, it was an immediate classic.
7. Star Trek (2009)
J.J. Abrams’ brilliant 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise expanded the universe even farther by cleverly creating an alternate reality while maintaining all of the valuable continuity from the original series and movies. In order to exact vengeance on the planet Vulcan, a furious Romulan travels into the past to assemble an all-star cast, which includes Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin.
Die-hard The film’s approach to production design (and sure enough, Abrams’ signature lens flares are everywhere) may irritate Trekkies, but this first rebooted outing successfully marries spot-on character work with an exciting plot and tells that rare prequel story in which literally nothing is preordained. While not everyone is happy with the direction the series has taken, Star Trek: The Motion Picture immediately established itself as one of the best pictures in a long-running franchise.
8. Moon (2009)
On the moon, a miner named Sam (Sam Rockwell) is alone with an artificially intelligent smiley face. His boredom is crushing and mildly amusing, until he discovers an incomprehensible twist in his goal.
Directing his first feature-length film, Jones manages to create a story that’s both ludicrous and believable. As a result, the film is held together by Rockwell’s stunning portrayal as an entirely unexpectedly disarrayed guy who is forced to confront the tragedy of his own existence in a virtually unimaginable way.
9. Pandorum (2009)
Pandorum, by Christian Alvari, is one of the most underrated and underseen sci-fi thrillers of the century (so far). Two astronauts, Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster, wake up in the middle of hypersleep in a spaceship that needs repair. When they come face-to-face with man-eating animals on the ship, it appears like things can’t get any worse for the survivors of their abrupt hibernation. The answer is, of course, yes.
Pandorum’s atmosphere is eerily similar to that of Event Horizon, assuming the filmmakers weren’t so concerned with making you like the ship as much as they were with making you afraid of it. Filmgoers are kept guessing throughout the film thanks to the unexpected plot twists.
10. Gravity (2013)
It’s difficult to make personal films on a massive budget, but Gravity does precisely that. Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a novice astronaut whose ship and co-pilot, played by George Clooney, are destroyed by a debris field and sent hurtling across space. Beautifully shot by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, the picture looks to be shot in lengthy takes to underline how hopelessly broken up our guy is. Like no other character from a film before him or since him.
In the absence of any foes to contend with and already overcome by a deep sense of hopelessness, it is up to Stone to try to save herself out of sheer desperation. “Gravity” is an exhilarating intervention in which the audience is encouraged to keep fighting the urge to give up and let life end. It is an outstanding work of visual effects directed by Alfonso Cuaron. A classic of cinematic inspiration, and one that will leave you gasping for air.
11. Space Station 76 (2014)
It’s hard to understand why people assumed that travelling into space would solve all of our issues. With the help of Space Station 76, Jack Plotnick’s hilariously gloomy sci-fi setting, our suburbia woes have been converted into a depressing non-stop social call with people we dislike and spouses who sleep together behind one other’s back in a fantasy world.
As Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, and Jerry O’Connell and others portray a cast of lovably miserable characters, the film’s dry humor comes from the fact that no amount of technological advancement has been able to save any of these folks from their own terrible decisions. Just like 2001: A Space Odyssey, this is a classic 1970s character-drama that happens to look like an offshoot.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
As a result of Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken a dramatic swing toward absurdity. To steal an all-powerful rock from outer space, a motley crew of bounty hunters and crooks forms an unlikely alliance, and the journey proves to be an action-packed one! That, however, is really a facade. A raccoon with a cruel sense of humor, a tree who only knows one line and a human who attempts to play like Han Solo without realizing he’s the dude Ice Pirates at worst are the stars of James Gunn’s flick.
With the visual splendor of a Star Wars film, but the humor of an indie comedy, Gunn offers it. In a medium dominated by the grandeur of a John Williams soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy reimagines an outer space defined by Bowie melodies and songs about pia coladas. A mother who cannot be there to support her son, but who nevertheless helps tell his tale, uses music to express her love and support for him. When it’s not making you laugh, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a heartbreaker.
13. High Moon (2014)
For the best space movies of this century, there’s no rule that they have to be released in theaters first. To be fair, High Moon isn’t quite what you’d expect from a TV series pilot, but it’s a strange oddity that borrows from a handful of 1960s sci-fi westerns as much as it does from its original novel, The Lotus Caves by John Christopher.
The moon has been colonized by governments and corporations from around the world for half a century, and old rivalries still exist. There was a tremendous cover-up and mind-blowing revelations after the discovery of a flower on the moon’s surface. High Moon doesn’t get to resolve every thread but the world it establishes is gorgeous and hyper-stylized, just the kind of sci-fi kitsch you’d expect from producer Bryan Fuller, who also gave you Hannibal and Pushing Daisies.