11 Memorable Movies About Space Exploration

10:59 AM 7/20/2019

by Kelsey Lentz

Celebrate Apollo 11's 50th anniversary with some of Hollywood's feature-length forays into the final frontier.

'The Martian' (2016)
'The Martian' (2016)
Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Since Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong’s historic moon landing on their Apollo 11 mission 50 years ago on July 20, 1969, countless movies set in space have been made in attempts to recreate the same groundbreaking spirit. With their first steps on the moon, the famed astronauts not only made a giant leap forward for mankind, but they also inspired a whole new realm of out-of-this-world storytelling and made space a common setting in film.

Some pics that take to space have even become household names — earning praise for their depictions of adventurous expeditions and explorations into new frontiers. Movies like Interstellar, The Martian and First Man highlight everything from the adrenaline of rocket launches to the risks of space travel while classics like Apollo 13, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff manage to visually capture the excitement of journeys into the final frontier, a trailblazing triumph for the sci-fi genre.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on Saturday, take a look back at some of the most memorable space-exploration movies — films that popularized all the elements of sci-fi that audiences now love, including nail-biting space missions, extraterrestrial phenomena and astronaut feats.

Check out 11 of Hollywood's fictional forays into the solar system, presented in alphabetical order, below.

  • 'Apollo 13'

    Universal Pictures/Photofest

    This Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton starrer chronicles the true story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon mission. The movie screens like a documentary retelling of the unfortunate events that forced the crew to forgo their original plan of landing on the moon in order to return home safely. The gripping action film details the many challenges this crew faced and made the phrase, “Houston, we have a problem," a part of pop culture.
     

  • 'Armageddon'

    Photofest

    This star-studded space movie features actors Billy Bob Thornton, Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan and Owen Wilson, among others. Its plot consists of a ragtag group of miners embarking on a space mission to drill a hole into an asteroid’s surface before it can collide with Earth and destroy the planet. Although it did not fare well with critics, the $140 million movie made more than $550 million at the global box office.

     

  • 'First Man'

    Courtesy of Universal Studios

    Ryan Gosling plays Neil Armstrong in this biopic, which takes a deeper look at Armstrong’s life between the years 1961-1969. The movie aims to strip away the perceived glamour of Apollo 11 and not shy away from the hardships Armstrong and everyone involved in the famous mission faced.
     

  • 'Gravity'

    Warner Bros./Photofest

    Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Gravity is a thriller set in space that revolves around two astronauts who are stranded in zero gravity after their shuttle is destroyed. The pair must fight for their lives as they face extreme elements like low oxygen and cut-off communication with NASA. The movie also offers a unique twist on the thriller genre, as one of the main fears is drifting off into the vast nothingness.

     

  • 'Hidden Figures'

    Twentieth Century Fox Films

    A different side of NASA is shown in Hidden Figures, a biopic centered on three African-American women who worked at NASA in the 1960s and were pivotal in sending astronaut John Glenn into space. In the movie, the brilliant women must overcome racial segregation and sexism to help move the U.S. to the forefront of the space race.

     

  • 'Interstellar'

    Paramount Pictures/Photofest

    Set in a futuristic dystopia, Interstellar follows a group of scientists and astronauts as they attempt to find a planet for the human race to survive on as Earth becomes uninhabitable. Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck round out the cast of the pic, which has been heralded for its visual effects.
     

  • 'The Martian'

    Giles Keyte/Twentieth Century Fox

    In The Martian, Matt Damon plays the sole astronaut left behind on Mars after an accident leads his crew to believe he is dead. The pic focuses on his character’s ingenious and innovative methods of surviving on a desolate planet as he waits until he can be rescued and brought back to Earth. The film went on to win a Golden Globe for best picture in 2016, and Damon received a Golden Globe for best actor. 

  • 'Moon'

    Sony Pictures Classics/Photofest

    Sam Rockwell plays a lonely astronaut who is almost finished with his solo three-year space mission. Despite his loneliness, all is well with his character until he begins to experience hallucinations, strange medical issues and visions of his younger self. The critically acclaimed Moon is a mystery set in space that forces Rockwell’s character to figure out what is wrong with him before he misses his chance at a safe return to Earth.
     

  • 'The Right Stuff'

    Ladd Company/Photofest

    The Right Stuff is an epic drama and an adaptation of the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe. The film stars Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid, Scott Glenn and Sam Shepard and chronicles the story of the original Mercury 7 American astronauts and the U.S.’ most influential step towards winning the space race. The action-packed movie also highlights the first 15 years of America’s space program as well as the country's obsession with these modern-day heroes.
     

  • 'Space Cowboys'

    Warner Bros./Photofest

    Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood alongside actors Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner, Space Cowboys is a comedy that gives retired astronauts — whose dreams of going to space were dashed when they were replaced by a chimpanzee — a second chance at making it to the new frontier. The film offers a comedic take on the traditional space action pic, given its protagonists are 40 years past their prime and not your typical astronauts, physically or personality-wise.  

  • '2001: A Space Odyssey'

    Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

    Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a mind-bending film that is regarded as one of the most influential sci-fi features. It centers on a crew’s journey to Jupiter, which is sabotaged by the ship’s computer, “Hal.” This pic plays around with the dangers of technology and predictions of the future. Though the film was released in 1968, Kubrick’s visual effects made it seem years in the future which, according to critics, set a precedent for many sci-fi movies to come.