When we initially had the notion of going into outer space, we didn’t let it go, and it’s tough to say exactly when that happened. For as long as anyone has been alive, we’ve been telling stories about other places and making movies about going to the moon.
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Star Trek, Star Wars, and other sci-fi tales have gotten ever more popular as visual effects have improved and space travel has 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.
If you’re looking for a list of the top space movies of this century (so far), you’ll have to limit yourself. 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?
Our list of the best space movies of the 21st century so far includes only one film from each franchise, in order to free up space for overlooked and neglected flicks! To begin, don your helmets, buckle in, and prepare for a journey into the galaxy’s distant reaches in search of thrills, excitement, and boredom.
1. Titan A.E. (2000)
To develop a Star Wars-like universe in feature animation, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman collaborated on Titan A.E., the last Don Bluth feature picture to date. Many were skeptical, but the results are fascinating, thanks to the writing talents of Ben Edlund (The Tick), John August (Go) and Joss Whedon (Spider-Man: Homecoming) (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Featuring the voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore, this sci-fi outing takes place in a future where humanity have been scattered across the cosmos and no longer have a home planet. After discovering a second Earth’s location, our heroes are tasked with saving their race. Titan A.E. deserves a second look for its ingenuity and outlandishness.
2. Solaris (2002)
Compared to Andrei Tarkovsky’s original, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris remake falls short, but it’s still a well-made condensed rendition of a trippy and intellectual sci-fi story. A heartbroken psychologist is dispatched to inspect a faraway space station where the crew members have refused to return to Earth. George Clooney plays the psychologist. There, he discovers that all but two of the crew are gone, but the space station isn’t deserted: the bodies of the loved ones they left behind have been scattered everywhere.
Many great science fiction novels have sought to explore the concept of infinity in both its figurative and physical manifestations, and Soderbergh’s Solaris is one such example. Because of Soderbergh’s effort on grounding this ambitious sci-fi plot in human characters, Clooney provides one of his most human performances yet.
3. Treasure Planet (2002)
Incredibly, one of Disney’s final great 2D works, Treasure Planet, was such a colossal failure 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 general public was let down.
Adapted on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Planet tells the story of a little child who discovers a treasure map, only to form an unlikely alliance with a ruthless, mercenary pirate. 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. Many sci-fi stories fail to inspire awe and amazement, but Ron Clements and John Musker (Moana) succeed in doing so with their vision of space travel on solar sails.
4. Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
This brilliant film adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura was Jon Favreau’s first step into mainstream cinema and the one that landed him the job as director of Iron Man. An apparent sequel to Jumanji, the plot once again centers on a group of bored kids who are playing a board game when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a life-changing adventure. 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. Spacemen and space aliens are brought into their home, where the unknown is as real as everything else in their living room, and it doesn’t send the protagonist careening into a virtual reality world. It’s a film that will leave you gasping for air.
5. Sunshine (2007)
In order to restart the sun, a team of astronauts must travel into space and throw a nuclear weapon at it. 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.
Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne and Benedict Wong are all in a tinderbox, and they’re all waiting for the explosion to happen. Perhaps the film’s third act is what the movie was really about all along despite critics’ claims that it goes off the rails.
6. WALL-E (2008)
Trash compactor robots have been left to clean up the mess left behind by humans in the distant future, making the world 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 touches down on Earth. This odd hero and his unlikely journey across the galaxy are brought to life by Andrew Stanton’s direction, which injects some much-needed turbulence into a sluggish civilization that has all but given up on improving its lot in life. 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. It was an instant classic from the start.
7. Star Trek (2009)
With J.J. Abrams’ brilliant 2009 reboot, the Star Trek world grew even larger, cleverly creating an alternate reality while keeping all the essential continuity from the original programs and movies. Vulcan’s Romulan warlord travels back in time to exact his revenge on the crew of the USS Enterprise, which is led by Chris Pine (Zoe Saldana), Zachary Quinto (Simon Pegg), John Cho (John Cho), and Anton Yelchin.
Die-hard Fans may have a problem with the film’s production design, but this first revamped outing successfully combines spot-on character work with an interesting tale and manages to create that rare prequel story in which virtually nothing is predetermined. 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)
Sam (Sam Rockwell) is a miner on the moon who is left alone to oversee a space station with just an artificially intelligent smiley face for company in Duncan Jones’ feature debut. Until he makes a startling discovery that rewrites the rules of his mission, the ennui is overpowering and a little amusing.
Using a tone that’s both absurdist and believable, Jones’ directorial debut succeeds because of his keen ear for storytelling. 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)
It’s a crime that Christian Alvari’s Pandorum is one of the century’s most underrated and underseen science fiction thrillers (so far). Quaid plays an astronaut who wakes up in the middle of a hypersleep in a massive spaceship that requires fixing. 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 a sudden hibernation break. As a matter of fact, it can.
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)
On a massive budget, it’s difficult to make intimate films, yet Gravity does precisely that. When a debris field obliterates her ship and her co-pilot, played by George Clooney, Sandra Bullock plays as rookie astronaut Ryan Stone. By filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (who went on to win an Oscar for this), much of the picture appears to take place in lengthy takes that underscore how screwed up our protagonist is. It’s probably more than any other character in film history.
For Stone, there are no enemies to battle and she is already in a state of despair, so she has no choice except to try to save herself for the sake of rescuing herself. An exhilarating intervention, a call to everyone in the audience to keep fighting against the impulse to give up and let life end is what Cuaron’s masterfully executed VFX masterpiece gradually exposes itself to be. In terms of cinematic inspiration, it’s one of the most jaw-droppingly spectacular examples.
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.
That all our technological development has done nothing to preserve these miserable choices is the source of the caustic humor of Space Station 76’s fabulously unhappy people, such as Patrick Wilson, Liv Tyler, Matt Bomer, and Jerry O’Connell. Despite the fact that it looks like an outgrowth of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this classic character-drama from the 1970s is always funny in its clash of tones.
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. All-powerful space rock is the target of an unlikely team of bounty hunters and thieves who band up to steal it. Then again, that’s just window decoration. 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.
It has all the visual splendor of a Star Wars film, but with all the humor and sarcasm of a low-budget indie film. And in a medium dominated by John Williams soundtracks, 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, Guardians of the Galaxy tugs at your heartstrings.
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.
A half-century later, the moon has been colonized by corporations and governments around the world, and old rivalries remain. Unexpected revelations and a big cover-up result when an unusual flower is found on the lunar surface. Bryan Fuller, who produced Hannibal and Pushing Daisies, is known for his hyper-stylized sci-fi kitsch in High Moon, which doesn’t get to wrap up all the loose ends.
14. Interstellar (2014)
awe-inspiring film director As a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan is more interested in huge ideas than individual emotional drama. Although the film’s emotional moments are a touch shaky, they are saved by the film’s stunning depiction of interstellar travel, contradictory timelines, black holes, and robotics.
The future of humanity is bleak, and the only possible choice is to journey to outer space. It is up to Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hawthorne, David Oyelowo, and Wes Bentley to journey to the stars and back in time to preserve the species, while Jessica Chastain and Michael Caine are attempting to solve the mathematical issues of our survival back on Earth.. The suspense is palpable, and the visuals are breathtaking. A person’s intellect may be clearly sensed. The film’s heart is scholarly, ironically.
15. Jupiter Ascending (2015)
Jupiter Ascending, directed by The Wachowskis, is a joyfully subversive would-be blockbuster that’s totally nuts on purpose. Mila Kunis plays a housemaid who realizes that she’s just inherited the entire world thanks to a genetic abnormality. As long as the Earth is so valuable, her fellow lords will stop at nothing, even if that means killing her or marrying her.
Rather than the old-fashioned princess ideal of discovering that you were born exceptional, inherited tremendous wealth or power, Jupiter Ascending cleverly twists it and then undermines it at every turn. Only with the help of Channing Tatum’s confused dogman with flying shoes can Jupiter avoid becoming a cog in the system of capitalist excess and fascistic control that she has entered through her success. Jupiter Ascending is one of the most underestimated sci-fi pictures of the last two decades thanks to its fantastical imagery and Eddie Redmayne’s campy acting.
16. The Martian (2015)
“I have only one choice in the face of overwhelming odds… In order to solve this problem, I’m going to need a lot of science.” Those are the words of Mark Watney. The sci-fi epic by Ridley Scott is a joy to watch. While on Mars, Matt Damon plays an astronaut who solves difficult problems with rationality and good humor, and somehow turns complex scientific concepts into interesting problem-solving tactics.
The Martian, like Gravity, is a story about overcoming adversity. This is a film that, unlike Gravity, is all about unwavering positivity and the belief that rationality can overcome any obstacle. Even though life cannot exist on Mars’s surface, one of the most dynamic and inspiring characters in sci-fi film history lives there.
17. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Without a doubt, this decade’s best science fiction film is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Set in the future, where alien societies have united their space stations into one spectacular mega-colony, political intrigue attracts dashing cosmic heroes Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Laureline (Juliette Binoche), both played by Dane Dehaan (Cara Delevingne).
There are dangerous psychic squids that they have to fight off, as well as foes who are following them in a parallel reality. Valerian is chock-full of jaw-dropping effects, and despite Dane Dehaan’s egregious miscasting as a charming ladies’ man, the rest of the film is so delightfully strange that it more than makes up for it. We don’t go to distant worlds to witness the same old aliens and action sequences over and over again, and Valerian has more courage and wonder than any of the contemporary Star Wars films (which is pretty ironic, since it was based on a comic that inspired Star Wars in the first place).
18. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Of course, that’s hardly a sleight of hand for Star Wars. The sci-fi action film series that made the genre mainstream has been continuing strong for the last two decades, making it tough to pick just one film to represent the franchise. Star Wars: The Last Jedi, on the other hand, is an expansion of the Star Wars universe in every imaginable manner, breaking free of old traditions and picturing odd new worlds replete with weird animals and amazing new advances.
Since Rian Johnson’s picture strictly adheres to the original structure, it’s surprising how different The Last Jedi actually seems. Two of the cast members split up, with the novice Jedi training by a master Jedi who abandoned the conflict years ago, while another couple heads to a culture whose moral compromise has led to deadly interactions with the Empire. It all comes together in a surprising way with a major plot twist. That sense of extempore—that anything can and will happen—makes The Last Jedi more faithful to the original, unpredictable spirit of George Lucas’ first, classic Star Wars film than any of the other sequels. Moreover, The Last Jedi doesn’t feel as bound to the past as every other Star Wars movie since the prequels began.
19. First Man (2018)
This obsession with exceptionalism is apparent in Damien Chazelle’s films, which feature protagonists who go above and beyond the call of duty to accomplish great feats. Neil Armstrong, in contrast to the protagonists of Whiplash and La La Land, is more interested in scientific and adventurous endeavors than artistic ones. Although he is the first person on Earth, his extraordinary trip to land on the moon also required a great deal of concentration and foresight.
First Man portrays the space program as the work of ordinary people who took on extraordinary risks, rather than a heroic undertaking that altered the course of history. We’re reminded of how terrifying space travel can be from the inside of a rattling canister with only a thin sheet of metal between you and certain death in most of the space journeys featured. The viewpoint shift is thrilling, and the superb sound design immerses you right in the action as you cling to the shuttle’s rails for dear life.
20. High Life (2019)
Who knows what kind of sci-fi epic director White Material and Trouble Every Day director might direct? Everything about it is completely out of left field. On a trip to a black hole, Robert Pattinson plays a convict who is shot into space and never returns. Juliette Binoche’s character, a mad scientist, undertakes acts of crazy science in an attempt to impregnate the crew and create life in deep space along the way
It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, as Robert Pattinson cares for an infant in outer space, all by himself, in Claire Denis’ High Life, which imagines a future in which our best and brightest aren’t leading the way but the individuals who can afford it the most. Usually, this route leads to madness, but it could also lead to some sort of enlightenment that we don’t fully comprehend.