The best space movies are beautiful manifestations of human curiosity, because for as long as humans have been around, they have always looked up towards the stars and wondered what mysteries they contained. The heavenly bodies – planets, stars, sun, and moon – have inspired countless tales and legends throughout human history.
Our first cinematic trip to the great blackness above our heads was 1902’s Le Voyage dans le Lune, in which explorers travel to the moon via a particularly powerful cannon. We’ve actually traveled to the moon since then, but that hasn’t diminished our curiosity or love of telling stories that take place among the stars.
The great thing about space movies is they can be anything: comedy, drama, horror. Space is just a setting, a background upon which storytellers can craft whatever kind of tale suits their fancy. The possibilities of space are endless, which is perhaps why so many incredible movies are set there.
This list includes a variety of tones and genres, so if you’re looking for something a bit more specific, check out our list of the best sci-fi movies or the best space horror movies. To narrow the scope of our list, we’ve stuck to English-language movies, so something like the original Solaris (1972) wouldn’t be eligible.
Without further ado, here are our choices for the best space movies of all time.
10. Pitch Black
- Release date: February 18, 2000
- Cast: Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Vin Diesel
Before he was obsessed with family and fast cars, Vin Diesel was convicted felon Richard Riddick, one of the few to survive the crash of the spaceship Hunter Gratzner. In what has to be the worst case of bad timing in history, Riddick et al. have landed on a planet about to experience a lengthy darkness during which carnivorous creatures will pour forth from their subterranean homes to wreak bloody havoc on anyone foolish enough to cross their path.
Finesse is not a word normally associated with Diesel’s acting, but his deft portrayal that elegantly takes Riddick from murderer to hero is surprisingly nuanced.
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9. Event Horizon
- Release date: August 15, 1997
- Cast: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Joely Richardson
Where is Hell? Is it another plane of existence or is it an actual place? These are the questions to ponder while viewing the tale of the Event Horizon, a ship created to travel great distances by punching a hole through space. Its sudden return after having gone missing seven years ago prompts an investigation by the rescue ship Lewis and Clark, with the Event Horizon’s designer Dr. Weir in tow. The ship has been in Hell, and it’s looking for a new crew so it can go back.
Event Horizon is not a film for the squeamish; it’s bloody and cruel, pulling the crew apart by showing them their deepest fears and shames. It’s also visually spectacular, although one does have to wonder why Dr. Weir designed it to look so much like a torture device. Giant spikes? Razorblade tunnels? Get some therapy, man.
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8. Men in Black
- Release date: July 2, 1997
- Cast: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio
If there’s life out there, why haven’t we ever seen any aliens? Turns out we have, but the Men in Black (MiB) clean up any mess and wipe your memory to keep Earth running smoothly. Will Smith is new recruit Agent J, learning the MiB ropes from crusty veteran Agent K. J and K must find Vincent D’Onofrio’s human skin-wearing bug alien (sounds horrifying, but it’s genuinely hilarious) before it can destroy the galaxy of the Arquillians.
The movie is our introduction to the secrets that exist right under our noses as aliens hide in plain sight and the MiB save our sanity by keeping us oblivious. The chemistry between Smith’s youthful swagger and Jones’ wry exhaustion has never been matched in any of the sequels.
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- Release date: July 20, 2007
- Cast: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans
The sun is dying and Earth is freezing. In a last-ditch effort to save humanity, the crew of the Icarus II looks to do what the Icarus I could not: reignite the sun by hurling a massive bomb into it. Icarus II picks up a distress signal from the presumed-lost Icarus I and naturally investigates, unwittingly catalyzing a series of catastrophes that put the mission in jeopardy.
Sunshine is a divisive movie, with some viewers feeling that the final third of the movie doesn’t jibe with what came before it, while others feel it’s the perfect culmination of the flick’s themes. Regardless of where you come down in that argument, it’s undeniable that Sunshine is visually stunning and offers outstanding performances from the entire Icarus crew, hence it’s inclusion on our best space movies list. Director Danny Boyle avoids the tropes that typically come with a plot about saving the world, instead giving us thoughtful scientists trying to make the best possible decisions in impossible situations.
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6. Hidden Figures
- Release date: January 6, 2017
- Cast: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner
It’s hard to decide which of Hidden Figures’ truths are the most mind-boggling; that the calculations for anything involving the American space program were done by hand, or that anyone ever cared about the skin color of the people doing said calculations.
The film plays fast and loose with certain facts – the dramatic smashing of the toilet sign never happened, for example – but its depiction of the brilliance of Katherine Johnson and the other “computers” is just right and why it’s one of our best space movies.
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- Release date: July 18, 1986
- Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen
Had Aliens simply replicated its predecessor, it likely would’ve been entertaining, if forgettable. Instead, director James Cameron turned it into a full-bore action film as space marines return to LV-426 to investigate a human colony that’s gone quiet. (Pro tip: Maybe don’t settle on a planet populated by lifeforms with acid for blood.)
It’s an endlessly quotable action film, but Aliens’ exploration of motherhood – and the lengths a mother will go to protect her offspring – elevates it above mere popcorn movie status.
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4. Apollo 13
- Release date: June 30, 1995
- Cast: Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon
Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise were supposed to land on the moon, but catastrophe strikes: one of the tanks holding their craft’s liquid oxygen explodes, sending their module tumbling and destroying much of the capsule’s inner workings. The Apollo 13 movie details the efforts to get the trio safely back to Earth without shying away from the terrifying truth that it is very, very easy to die in space.
Ed Harris provides steely strength as Flight Director Gene Krantz, who famously declares that “Failure is not an option” when it comes to figuring out how to restart the Odyssey before the astronauts suffocate. Come for the outstanding performances, stay for the reminder that this actually happened.
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3. The Martian
- Release date: October 2, 2015
- Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara
It’s difficult to combine a thrilling space story with hard science, but The Martian pulls it off with ease – it even made it onto our 5 most realistic space movies list. The crew of the Ares III mission to Mars accidentally leaves astronaut Mark Watney behind as they evacuate the planet. (In their defense, they thought he was dead. Oops.) When Watney realizes he’s alone and stranded, he begins the laborious work to ensure his survival, chronicling his efforts on a video diary. As he works to stay alive, NASA and the rest of the Ares III crew work to bring him home.
NASA collaborated heavily with the film production to make its depiction of a Mars mission “reasonably realistic.” The winds that force the crew to evacuate, for example, would’ve been more like a gentle breeze, but sometimes creative licence simply must step in. Also, NASA’s offices apparently aren’t that stylish (okay, we could’ve guessed that one).
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- Release date: June 22, 1979
- Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm, Tom Skeritt
If you ever want to start an argument among Alien fans, ask them if it’s horror or science fiction (it’s both). A group of space truckers are pulled out of cryosleep when their ship’s computer detects a distress signal. The interstellar cruiser, Nostromo, sets down on LV-426 and what happens next spawns a franchise that’s still going strong.
The design of the titular creature introduced audiences to the bizarre imagination of artist H. R. Giger, while Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley immediately became a genre icon. Ian Holm’s final moments as Ash are spine-chilling as he dispassionately discusses the relative value of the crew’s lives against that of the xenomorph. Would the alien have gone back for the cat? No. Checkmate, Ash.
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1. Galaxy Quest
- Release date: December 25, 1999
- Cast: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman
In the movie, the cast of Galaxy Quest are questioning the life choices that have led them to still be talking about the dopey TV show they did in the 80s as they do the convention circuit and cut ribbons at store openings. The only one who misses those halcyon days is Jason Nesmith, who played the ship’s Captain – he’s always delighted to have another opportunity to put on the uniform and mingle with the fans.
Galaxy Quest sees a race of aliens mistakenly take old episodes of the show to be actual historical documents and plead with Nesmith to save them. This is one of the best space movies because what ensues is a love letter to Star Trek: The Original Series and its fans. Trekkies are usually the butt of the joke, but in Galaxy Quest they’re the heroes who save the day. Alan Rickman is unforgettable as Sir Alexander Dane. Just try not to get emotional when he finally delivers the “Grabthar’s hammer” line, we dare you.
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