For those of us just joining, please check out the previous 25 picks here so you can get an idea on the criteria for this list.
Here’s where we get into trickier territory in picking the Best Space Adventure Movies. Some movies might be better products overall, I’m judging them primarily on their status as Space Adventures. So don’t freak out if *spoiler alert* E.T. the Extra Terrestrial doesn’t top the list (I’d be a lunatic not to include it at all). Movies that take place primarily in space will succeed over movies that only have a few scenes in space.
Let’s do this.
25. Super 8
I was initially going to place this much lower on the list. After a second viewing, I decided I wasn’t an idiot. A feature long homage to another entry on the list, JJ Abrams handily crafts a movie with his trademark lenseflares. Okay, I actually don’t mind the lens flares. I care about the story and the characters. Ironically, it’s the alien/space side of the story that feels disconnected from the human component of the story. The real heart of the movie is the Goonies/ET inspired antics of the children and two fathers who come to realize the most important aspects of their lives.
24. Escape from the Planet of the Apes
Escape from the Planet of the Apes doesn’t get the love it deserves. We all know how great the original is along with the reboots, but nobody talks about how special Escape is. It starts off as a goofy comedy with some fun social commentary before… well I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it. Just know like all classic Apes movies, it gets dark. Like, really fucking dark. Maybe that’s how they should promote the franchise from now on?
23. The Thing
On the flip-side, we have John Carpenter’s horror-thriller The Thing. Personally, I watch this movie every Halloween. It’s not scary enough to jump out of your seat, but it’s got enough horror to make uneasy around certain people. I don’t believe practical effects are inherently better than CGI but when I see the transformation sequences on display here, it makes me long for the day when CGI is this effective in its execution (They’ll get there). Also, Kurt Russell fights shape shifting aliens with flamethrowers and dynamite. It’s 80s horror-thrills mixed with 80s action. What’s not to love?
22. Men in Black
Will Smith in the 90s was like the go-to guy for kicking alien ass. He blew up a spaceship with Jeff Goldblum, now he gets to blow up another one with Tommy Lee Jones! Men in Black is just hysterical. The jokes come at you in such rapid succession that you might need to rewind to understand what was just said onscreen. But it also has well-written characters and is never mean-spirited in its execution.
21. Lilo & Stitch
Disney gets another entry on the list thanks to a little blue dog angel alien named Stitch. It lacks the visual distinction that other Disney classics share, but the story of a little broken family rebuilding itself in the wake of tragedy is one worth sharing. Cobra Bubbles is also one of the subtly funniest characters in the Disney canon.
20. District 9
This was made in the wake of a failed Halo movie? Maybe more video games should enter pre-production before being skewered like a pig. If Elysium is any indication, Neil Blomkamp can only speak in metaphors and social commentary. Only he uses it to much better effect here and there’s no cheap Jodie Foster accent from the future. On the science side of things, the alien Prawns have like the coolest weapons ever. Now if only we could get these guys to make something on this quality again.
The son of Ziggy Stardust is more than just a product of nepotism. The guy can actually direct the hell out of a movie. As an entry in the science fiction genre, Moon has the makings of a bonafide classic. As Duncan Jones’ first feature film? It’s unbelievable. I can’t say too much here because of the manner in which the plot unravels. Just enjoy the atmosphere.
18. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
There’s just something about Steven Spielberg. Not all of his movies are knockouts but his optimistic type of storytelling is remarkable. There’s another movie on the list that is worth nominating as his single best movie, but Close Encounters isn’t far behind. Remember kids, if we ever make contact with aliens, make sure you know how to communicate via lights and sounds.
Master of the genre, Mel Brooks, takes a swing at every space classic he can cram into 96 minutes. Results are balls-to-walls funny.
16. Galaxy Quest
I was wrong when I said Wrath of Khan was the best Star Trek movie. The best Star Trek movie isn’t even a Star Trek movie at all. It’s Galaxy Quest! It’s technically a Star Trek parody but it somehow manages to keep the spirit of Star Trek intact while traversing a sea of ironic cynicism. It’s the best type of parody. Also THIS.
15. Superman: The Movie
Warm spirited, a little silly, inspiring, and everything else the last son of Krypton is meant to be, Superman showed audiences that superheroes were no longer meant for the pages. They had the opportunity to thrive on the big screen. Superman treats Kal-El’s origin with respect but isn’t afraid to get playful either. Remember what it’s like to have a Superman that doesn’t ignore blatant destruction that levels an entire city? Good times…
14. The World’s End
I love thematic trilogies. You can just hop right into one and enjoy it regardless of whether or not you’ve seen any of the others. And yet, there’s an emotional through line that Edgar Wright carries through each entry of the Cornetto Trilogy. I know Shaun of the Dead is considered the gold standard but my vote has to go to The World’s End for his most complete and mature film. Not in a snooty mature sense; I mean that Wright has matured as a director throughout his career and this movie feels like a bookmark on this point in his life.
13. Planet of the Apes
The ominous “They” Charlton Heston refers to at the end of Planet of the Apes might have ruined everything, but it started one of the most influential science fiction franchises in history. The social commentary aspect of the movie basically plays out like a long-term Twilight Zone episode (Not a negative) but it’s really the final punch in the gut that makes this movie worthwhile.
12. The Right Stuff
One of the more inspiring choices on this list, I recommend watching this one when you’re having a bad day. Once the 3 hour movie is over, prove to yourself that you’ve got “The Right Stuff.” There’s no space adventure in the traditional sense, but there is a flight sequence at the end of the movie that always has me on the edge of my seat, and on the verge of tears.
11. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial
I love optimistic science fiction. Everyone is always worried about alien invasions or how we’re going to end up destroying ourselves with monkeys. This is the other Spielberg entry I mentioned previously. His humor and heart persevere where so many genre entries fail. Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and help a little buddy find his way home. Along the way, we might end up discovering something about ourselves.
10. Apollo 13
When Ron Howard is on his directing game, boy is he on. A simple mission gone awry is the name of the game this time around and Howard, along with Tom Hanks and Kevin Bacon, milks this movie for every drop of dramatic heft. The result is an emotionally satisfying adventure that makes you hope to reach the stars.
9. Return of the Jedi
ROTJ is a wonderfully solid movie, albeit, a step down from the previous two. No, it’s not because of Ewoks (Even though they do suck and if you like them your opinion sucks) and it’s not even because the movie is responsible for the term “Boba Fetting.” The movie just loses some of the edge that it gained with The Empire Strikes Back. It’s still tons of fun and closes out the series with the heroes living happily ever after. I wonder how long Episode 7 let’s that last?
Like the Cowboy Bepop movie, Serenity stands on its own, but greatly benefits from watching the short-lived series beforehand. It functions more as a series finale for Firefly than it does a feature length movie but you should’ve seen the 14 episode series by now anyways. Written and directed by our glorious leader, Joss Whedon, the movie has his trademark wit and snark, but with ten times the budget and scale (And feelings)! If you’re as attached to these characters as I am, this one can get a little emotionally heavy at spots. No amount of preparation will save you. Joss wills it. Also: SPACE WESTERN.
Pixar is known for their wondrous animation and storytelling. They win Oscars almost every year dammit. But I don’t know if any of their movies have captured visuals as stunning as WALL-E. Few movies have made me actually mouth “Wow” with their space visuals. That image where our little hero soars through space like that? I’m always entranced by it. It’s also a refreshing take on the hero’s journey. WALL-E isn’t destined for greatness. He’s destined to shovel shit all day. He makes himself great and that’s the best message a film can send.
6. Aliens 5. Alien
This is a similar situation to the Thor movies. Granted, the first two Alien movies are significantly better than the Thor movies but just roll with me. Both movies succeed at everything they set out to do. Alien is a horror-thriller set in space that spends more on creeping you out than it gets you cheering from your seat. Aliens is a straight up action movie with hundreds of the horrifying creature that Ripley faced in the first movie. It all depends on what you’re looking for in your space adventure here. There is no wrong answer.
I haven’t seen Gravity since I first watched it in theaters. Some of you might say that is a disadvantage. I say no. Some movies are just meant to be seen in theaters (or a very, very large, and suitable, replacement involving a home theater room). Gravity is a masterpiece. For all those who complain about the simplicity of the story, that’s kind of the point. There doesn’t need to be a side-plot about space stations being blown up by some lunatic or aliens coming to invade Earth. It’s a story about one woman finding the will to fight and live. The space scenery is unlike anything since 2001: A Space Pdyssey. Stars from far off solar systems illuminate the background as Ryan Stone is tossed throughout the vastness of space. It’s utterly terrifying to see how small we are in the grand scheme of things but I can’t help but think how beautiful it is that there’s so much to explore.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
It’s all about the Star Child. It… represents… I… I don’t know. You probably don’t know either. Nobody knows. Who really knows anything anyways? (The movie actually gave me an existential crisis when I first watched it. I was 13)
2. Star Wars
The reason the space opera genre has survived this long started a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Star Wars (A New Hope for the younglings) is less hard science fiction and more space fantasy, but that’s why we love it so much. It’s a fairy tale in space about a young boy rising up against an evil empire. Good versus evil stories done properly are what make me love these types of fun blockbusters. Why? Because movies like Star Wars back up their simple tale of good versus evil with concrete characters, motivations, and breathtaking new worlds (Binary Sunset for best sunset ever). It can be quite jarring for a new story to just thrust an audience into the middle of it, but the opening space battle communicates everything the audience needs to know: a small Rebel ship is out-manned and outgunned by the ever-growing and evil Empire. The final battle to destroy the Death Star is practically cathartic. It’s not just a cool action, explosion moment (IT TOTALLY IS THAT TOO) but everything the characters had been through by that point put them on the path to save the day. It’s a space adventure that still holds the title of second best. I had a clever segue to put here but you already know what #1 is…
Howard the Duck
No other movie on this list is filled with such sense of fun like Howard the Duck. There’s no space battles to speak of but there is quack-fu! The scene direction, the acting, but mostly the use of the duck makeup to create a totally believable alien life form in duck-form! Who needs Caesar from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes when you’ve got this guy on your side?
If any of you thought I was serious, please dismiss yourself from the internet. Here’s Howard giving you the stink-eye until you leave because you don’t deserve to see what the real #1 is.
1. The Empire Strikes Back
The unspoken rule of sequels is that they should be darker, change the status quo, and end on a big cliffhanger. Changing the status quo seems like a natural fit, and ending on a cliffhanger doesn’t work well on its own, but the darker tone does seem to help the characters progress in almost any story. Luke, Leia, and Han have already blown up the Death Star. So what do you do in the sequel? After showing how their bonds of friendship have made them stronger, you make the Empire come back at them. HARD. Even though our heroes have destroyed a construction that could destroy planets, the Empire isn’t weak. The rebels lose the opening fight before the movie immediately separates our golden trio. Han and Leia are on the run until the climax where they’re betrayed, captured, and separated. Luke can’t quite get a grasp on his Jedi training. He loses his fucking hand before immediately finding out the asshole who did it is his father. Needless to say, the heroes of Star Wars have had better days, but they come out even stronger for it. This isn’t just the defining episode of the Star Wars saga. It’s the defining space adventure movie.
Do you agree? Do you disagree? Comment down below and tell me your favorite space adventure movies! Now let’s just see where Guardians of the Galaxy ends up…