Humankind has long-dreamed of what lies beyond earth. The infinite void of space is one of threat and beauty, of intrigue and fear, of fantasy and nightmare. The greatest mirror of mankind’s complex relationship with space is cinema. Whether it the early-20th Century UFO boom triggering a flurry of paranoia alien-invasion flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), or the all-out fantasy of the Star Wars series, Space has become a cinematic sub-genre. These space films often border on philosophy – creating a window to the unknown that thrills, dumbfounds and provokes a daunting dialogue with mankind’s origins. A year after Cuaron’s stifling space picture, Gravity, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is hitting the silver screen. Matthew McConaughey plays an astronaut tasked to explore beyond our galaxy to save humanity. In the classic space films, visuals are often more key than plot, and Interstellar is mooted to be soul-stirringly beautiful. However, we feel that Nolan’s stab at the extraterrestrial is best judged in context. Some of the finest films ever made take place in space, here are five for you to savour.
1 – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece was miraculously ahead of its time. The special effects wouldn’t look out of place in a film today, and it attracted the film legend’s only Oscar. No other film has evoked the mystery and eye-popping beauty of space like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Following an astronaut’s lonely saunter through space, he confronts rogue shuttle robot, HAL, and is flung into the farther-reaches of the galaxy where things take a turn for the weird and wonderful. The 160 -minutes running time is framed by the mysterious appearances of the Monolith, a form of extraterrestrial surveillance. However, Arthur C. Clarke, author of the book, said: “If you understand ‘2001’ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.”. So, when you go into this film for the first time, don’t expect answers, expect a miasma of beguiling imagery and feverish uncertainty.
2 – Alien (1979)
Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror uses space as a vehicle of terror. A group of explorers are attacked by a horrifying intergalactic monster that famously impregnates one of their guts. The beast is impenetrable, and escape is the only option. An option that’s almost impossible in the hostile expanse of space. Scott transformed the genre of survival horror with this classic nail-biter, using the otherworldly to play on the characters’ lack of control and, thus, hopelessness. Alien shows space as not only a vacuum for humankind, but also a vacuum of hope.
3 – Wall-E (2008)
When it comes to dystopian sci-fi, you wouldn’t think the family-friendly Pixar would quite fit. With Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles lining their magnificent track record, Pixar made films that appealed to adults, but were still, by definition, kids films. Wall-E, with its ambition and scope, changed all that and launched Pixar into the higher reaches of cinema. It opens with astoundingly-animated panning shots of Earth in the distant future – a landscape strewn with mountains of rubbish, a grey, heaving, lifeless mess. The only movement comes from a rubbish-picking robot left behind, a cute little thing called Wall-E. When he finds a rare green sprout, the first whiff of life for decades, he’s taken on a adventure to a space station where humanity ended up. Morbidly obese and reliant wheeled seats with a TVs attached on them, mankind have turned into slobs. Pixar are clearly fighting the environmentalist cause, but Wall-E says so much about our reliance on technology and our acquiescence to ruthless commercialism. Wall-E does what a dystopian sci-fi should do, hold a mirror up to society. It’s not only thought-provoking, it’s also beautiful, a veritable feast for the eye. Extraordinary.
4 – Apollo 13 (1995)
Ron Howard is an excellent auteur of tense, finely-paced, action. Apollo 13 may be his finest achievement. It set the benchmark for space survival cinema that hasn’t yet been topped. It follows the true story of NASA’s attempt to save the lives of three astronauts marooned in space with a severely damaged craft. While some dramatic licence is permitted over the true story, this thriller gives a more realistic portrait of the dangers of space than Alien. Tom Hanks’ famous line above resonates throughout film history, and this inspirational rescue story taps into the risk of space travels and the infallibility of the human spirit. A must-see for all.
5 – Solaris (1972)
Tarkovsky’s slow-burning adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel is a fantastical exploration of the human condition in space. A meditative drama about a psychologist who travels to the Solaris space station to assess three astronauts who’ve lost their minds. The film’s complex brilliance was designed by the director to combat the Western sci-fi genre’s otherwise “shallow” offering. Solaris delivers in this depth, and perfectly rounds-up the isolation and mental suffocation of space travel. This one’s a little less accessible than our other picks, but it’s weighty and wonderful to behold.
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