Top 10: Space Movies

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a work of cine-magic.

Though this is not a review, this is where I must begin, with a plea to the movie viewing public. The peril-filled space adventure signifies a new language in filmmaking; a dialectic work that is wholly millennial, representing the accomplishments of motion pictures and their evolution over a century plus. The technical merits aside – and there are manyGravity is already a transitional film (and it’s not even in nationwide release yet), literally drifting us into what we’ve been simply labeling ‘the future’ for the past couple of years.

Since James Cameron changed the filmic landscape with Avatar and the prominent maturations came in increments courtesy of Martin Scorsese, Pete Travis, and Ang Lee, ‘the future’ was definitely getting closer. Cinematic technology melding digital influence and multi-dimensional capabilities allowed fully realized imaginations to take on textured forms, viewable by all for approximately twelve dollars. Ang Lee’s Best Director Oscar win earlier this year cemented the three dimensional surge onto a pedestal – no longer an attractive gimmick or financial scheme, but a layered invitation into a manufactured world that became more real after every passing minute. Lee’s Life of Pi was as immersive as any contemporary film could be. Though we watched Pi’s struggle to survive from a safe distance, it all felt very, very real. The third dimension doesn’t jump out at you, the third dimension is the audience walking through the forests of Pandora only a sidestep from the fictional characters. The realism of imagination is the essence of moviemaking and is therefore the foundation of 3D.

This was the dream that George Méliès gave to the world in 1902 and I can only imagine what his reaction would be to these invaluable, progressive works. And to Gravity, well it would cause him a nostalgia-induced heart attack. Cuarón reaches to the bedrock of all motion picture creations and then invites us into outer space, allowing us to struggle alongside Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone and adopt the emotions – fear, love, hate, triumph – gluing them into a catharsis so authentic, in a setting so vastly scary and mythic, I thought my tears were going to peel off my face and wander around the theater. For this surreal experience, Gravity is of course worth every of its 88 minutes and any amount of money that it will cost you to view it in IMAX 3D, but it’s even more than all of that, if you can believe it. It’s masterful, plain and simple; one of the greatest films I have ever seen.

In preparation for my own second viewing of Cuaron’s Gravity, and many viewers’ first, I have comprised a list of cinema’s finest lead-in efforts asking us to join plots and characters in Méliès’ original stomping grounds: Space. These 10 films signify cinema’s biggest progression before the 3D breakthrough, which was realistically depicting a story within an environment only rarely prodded by our fingertips, or still way beyond our reach.

Here are Reel Reactions’ Top 10 Space Films:

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Armageddon-poster06.jpg10. Armageddon (1998) – I have not seen The Right Stuff or either version of Solaris and I fall happily within the minority who finds nothing too special about Ridley Scott’s Alien, and it’s for reasons such as these that this tenth spot is given to a very unconventional piece: Michael Bay’s Armageddon. Earlier this year I wrote a defensive piece in the name of Michael Bay and all of those arguments still stand at this very moment, so do not act so surprised that I enjoy Armageddon immensely. It’s campy – far more fake looking than any of Bay’s other films – and mostly brainless, but it’s adventurous and carefree despite the disaster-centric plot, very funny, and wholly entertaining. It’s almost an unsung cult movie in that its technical wrongs are mostly memorable rights. There’s chaotic mass destruction, an all-star cast (led by Bruce Willis and a young Ben Affleck), surprisingly effective emotion, and two – count ‘em, two – Aerosmith songs, one of which defined many of our junior proms. It’s 150 brain-numbing minutes, most of which take place on an asteroid in space, but the endearing nature of Bay’s sugary, bombastic film is what makes it so fulfilling.

Moon (2008) film poster.jpg9. Moon (2009) – Who knew David Bowie’s son was a super talented filmmaker? With the reliance of character actor Sam Rockwell put at the forefront, accompanied by literally no other sentient being other than the brooding voice of Kevin Spacey as the moon base’s computer, Moon is an isolated case study in going stir crazy. Rockwell’s Sam Bell is ending his three-year stint on the moon sending back resources to Earth that will reconcile the planet’s power problems, when he suddenly encounters a strangely familiar individual, which unravels a pretty unsettling identity conspiracy. While the low budget is to blame for some shoddy visual effects, they mean very little when compared to the story and character work, not to mention Jones’ inspired hand. It’s a little film with major moral and psychological questions on display and a powerhouse performance from Rockwell. While this led to Jones’ superior Source Code two years later, Moon manages to relinquish any “first film” indicators and it stands on its own as a minimalist piece of space-set science fiction.

Sunshine poster.jpg8. Sunshine (2007) – Danny Boyle tends to lean toward the experimental, which is what makes his genre work so intriguing. Like American contemporary Steven Soderbergh, Boyle never makes the same film twice. His entire filmography is like a variety show – a little dark comedy here, some adaptation work there, a chilling horror flick, an uplifting children’s story, a Best Picture winner, etc. – with so many likeable gems amidst more prominent work. Sunshine is the best of those gems. It’s eclectic cast, with Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, and Chris Evans, is en route to jumpstart the Sun which is slowly dying but they encounter problem upon problem during their journey; Apollo 13 to the Sun is how I usually pitch it. It’s a beautiful film, but unlike Moon, its low budget reality is almost entirely masked. Some exterior shots are mesmerizing, everything tinted by the golden solar ball signifying an illuminating, though insecure destination. The tonal switch that slices down the middle of the picture is polarizing to some – and in truth it’s the film’s roughest moment – but Boyle is the kind of filmmaker who inspires trust in his viewers. If you follow him down the rabbit hole, you’ll always enjoy the ride, and Sunshine is very much a deep space rabbit hole. It’s brutal but bright and reaches a very haunting, albeit satisfying finale.

002-the wrath of khan poster art.png7. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – This is where I start cheating a little bit…Nicholas Meyer’s franchise classic set a new standard for small-to-big screen adjustments. While the beloved original Star Trek series had already one feature film to its name, Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was with Khan that Star Trek finally split its boundaries and found viewers outside of Trekkie cultdom. A phenomenal Ricardo Montalban out-screen chews William Shatner as Kirk’s mortal enemy: Khan Noonien Singh, resurrected from one of the series’ greatest episodes, intending on using a life-generating planetary device as a weapon. The film juggles a number of moving parts pretty seamlessly, every single component as engaging as the next. They soon culminate into a terrific climax, where Kirk and Khan battle it out via phasers and photon torpedoes. It’s grim and harrowingly brutal, especially as it reaches its final moments. Where there’s great tragedy, there’s also massive sacrifice; The Wrath of Khan broke many viewers hearts come the end, a very famous cliffhanger that let us know Star Trek was definitely in the cultural pantheon to stay.

A thin light-gray crescent Moon stretches diagonally from lower left to upper right against a black background, with a blue and white crescent Earth in the far distance. In front of the portion of the moon that is in shadow on the left appears a small image of the Apollo 13 Command/Service module joined to the Lunar Module, with vapor streaming from a hole in the side of the Service Module — the words "Houston, we have a problem" appear directly above the craft in white lower case lettering. The names of the principal actors appear in white lettering at the top of the image, and the title APOLLO 13 in block white upper-case letters appears at the lower right.6. Apollo 13 (1995) – When compiling Ron Howard’s greatest films last week, Apollo 13 rounded out the top three and in this list it comes pretty close. As realistic for 1995 as Gravity is for 2013, Howard’s directorial ingenuity is what brings the fantastic story of the Apollo 13 mission to life. While an all-star cast and detailed screenplay don’t hurt, it’s very much Howard’s work that justifies the film’s placement on this list. The brilliance of the production process is what creates the stressful environment and the sympathetic peril of the dramatization, allowing it to seem as emotionally draining as the real account. While our reception banks on the film’s thrills, Howard’s dedication to keeping all of the activity very sustained gives Apollo 13 a frightening edge as well. While most disaster films revel in their destruction and excess, Apollo 13 is a triumphant tale of avoiding disaster, even when it came so readily. It’s uplifting and life-affirming, but aptly showcases the horrors of space travel in a time period when NASA was just starting to get comfortable.

Aliens poster.jpg5. Aliens (1986) – I’m no fan of the 1979 original, but James Cameron’s sequel is a magnetic action film, filtering through set-piece after set-piece without ever becoming tiresome, excessive, or repetitive. While Alien’s intent was situational horror, Cameron maximizes the scope and widens the cast and leaves no burning mystery to be discovered. Right from the start, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley is tossed into mayhem when she awakens from cryogenic stasis almost sixty years following her defeat of the original xenomorph. When she reluctantly agrees to return to LV-426, her nightmare is reborn and much bloodshed ensues. It’s hard to describe exactly what makes Aliens such a landmark action film, but it’s placement within the greatest science fiction and space films comes from its bombastic, yet controlled scale, understanding of the genre and story, and breezy direction from James Cameron. An ambitious filmmaker born to make audience pleasing science fiction, fresh of his success with The Terminator, there’s hardly a better person to continue the Alien saga and not a better direction that the story could have gone.

Startrekposter.jpg4. Star Trek (2009) – Like I said, I cheated a little…but for good reason. The Star Trek cinematic franchise seemed over and done with. Star Trek: Nemesis was an underwhelming conclusion to Captain Picard and the TNG family and the recently cancelled UPN series, Enterprise, was not worthy of a big screen transition. Star Trek, as a whole, was at a standstill. But Paramount searched high and low for Lost co-creator J.J. Abrams and took a wild gamble: Can a television showrunner with two major successes and only a single feature film directorial credit revive a forty year old franchise on the big screen? The resulting answer was a resounding yes, and it was here that the sci-fi wunderkind within J.J. Abrams was uncovered. With a youthful cast, all of whom are now stars, and a time-warping plot, it was literally wax on wax off; out with the old and in with the new, overseen by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock – in the film’s context, that is. The character-centric vibe that connected the best of Star Trek together was on full display thanks to Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci’s witty script and Abrams’ eye for breathtaking visual effects and universe construction – and tantalizing camera angles and lens flares –  and it brought Star Trek into the 21st Century. What a grand entrance it was! This is the coolest that Star Trek has ever been.

WALL-Eposter.jpg3. Wall-E (2008) – Andrew Stanton’s Pixar classic is so many things at once, but it’s also so simple it’s beautiful. I remember my own reaction being tepid initially, mainly because it was so unexpectedly mature and humane despite being an animated movie about robots. It was breathlessly romantic, creating scenes filled with warmth and heartbreak, full visual sentences seguing from act to act organically though two main characters who can barely say anything other than their own names. It’s themes congregate into a laundry list, taking place on a dilapidated Earth and a Apple product-like super spaceship where obesity is the norm and emotionless machines have let humanity become nothing but boneless blobs. It’s a beautiful intergalactic genre hybrid, probably the most wowing piece of work Pixar has ever put out. The pitch: After Skynet from Terminator becomes aware, he grows into a hopeless romantic inspired by the musical teachings of Dolly Levi and pursues a stone-cold fox/research kill-bot on a space journey that’ll define mankind’s future. It’s just as poetic as it sounds.

A painted image of four space-suited astronauts standing next to a piece of equipment atop a lunar hill, in the distance is a Moon base and a ball-shaped spacecraft descending toward it—with the earth hanging in a black sky in the background. Above the image appears "An epic drama of adventure and exploration" in blue block letters against a white background. Below the image in a black band, the title "2001: a space odyssey" appears in yellow block letters.2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)2001 is a movie entirely about feelings, sensations, dreams, and endless possibilities, wonderfully set in a world with no boundaries. Stanley Kubrick (who won his only Oscar for the visual effects work he crafted for the film) is a king of filmmaking, rarely embarking on a project too similar to one he had already made, and 2001 is as individualistic as it gets for Kubrick. It’s massively ambitious, metaphorically profound, visually advanced, purposeful and meticulous, as well as totally groundbreaking and dense beyond my own benching weight. As the fiftieth anniversary of its release inches closer, its theses about the connectivity of the soul, our primitive drive to conquer all that is set before us, the destructiveness and cyclical nature of humanity, and, of course, the never-ending struggle set between man and machine still sting with poignancy. It’s the oldest film on this list and is interchangeable with our top choice because the theories it dared to pursue and the way in which Kubrick played with them. Delicate and powerful, enlightening and intoxicating, 2001: A Space Odyssey is an outerwordly symphony that can only be played one way, never dared to be replicated; the influence of Kubrick’s genius is infectious and apparent genre-wide.

StarWarsMoviePoster1977.jpg1. Star Wars – The Original Trilogy (1977-1983) Again, slight cheat…but who can object? If Stanley Kubrick proved that space was finally a viable and believable setting to be depicted on film, George Lucas exploited it with his immortal trilogy, solidifying the idea of a blockbuster in the process. While they’ve been tinkered with and rereleased and reconverted and re-whatever’ed a thousand times over by the self-righteous, money-hungry nerf herder, what the originals possess that the prequel trilogy does not is a sense of humility, ambition, fantasy, and multi-generational access. Though Lucas’ descent into kiddie territory began while working on Return of the Jedi, his merchandise-tracked mind didn’t fully begin to reject the creativity and darkness that so wholly embody A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back until the laughable The Phantom Menace was tossed to us in 1999. His cheesy, messy, CGI-bloated prequels have nearly destroyed Star Wars, but Lucas’ amped fan base – which Lucas time and time again denies any care toward – has come up with ways to right the franchise, blogging about certain ways to watch the saga, illuminating its magical moments that defined it originally, and self-editing cuts of the original trilogy that remove the superfluous add-ons and ‘remasterings’ that enraged a geeking populous. With Lucas ceding power to Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams to continue the story he began, the future of Star Wars remains in question, but his bold space opera from the late 1970s and early 1980s is quintessential science fiction, operating within the furthest parts of space, presenting a full galaxy with colorful characters, creatures and a royal storyline that is utterly timeless. Like how 2001’s biggest ideas will never deflate, the boyish adventure enriching Star Wars top to bottom is Hollywood at its most wondrous; a true depiction of filmic imagination.

What’s your favorite space-set film? Will you be seeing Gravity this weekend?

You must.

Article by Mike Murphy

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