Reading time: 28 MIN

Giant Leap for Mankind: A History of Astronaut Films

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released
Not released
Not released

It's 50 years since Neil Armstrong's small step for a man became a giant leap for mankind. To mark this momentous occasion, Cinema Paradiso looks back on over a century of movies about astronauts and interplanetary exploration so that you can get well and truly spaced out.

One of the fascinations of 20th-century science fiction is that it's now possible to see how fantasy and fact kept pace with each other as the decades passed. Flight by anything other than balloon was still a pipe dream when the Lumière brothers presented their first Cinématographe films in 1895. Compatriot Jules Verne had already envisaged expeditions to the Moon, however, and it took the moving image a little while to develop the technology to bring such flights of fancy to the screen.

As aircraft became faster and more streamlined, fears grew about aerial bombardment, especially when the Nazis perfected the V-1 flying bomb, which was nicknamed 'the doodlebug'. As Johnny Gogan points out in his 2019 documentary, Prisoners of the Moon, some of the boffins behind these weapons of mass destruction were smuggled into the United States during Operation Paperclip so that the likes of Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph could work on the rocket technology that would help their adopted nation beat the Soviet Union in the space race.

Cinema reflected these changes, in the sci-fi movies being produced in Britain, Italy, Germany, Mexico and Japan, as well as America. Cold War paranoia meant that many more B-movies focused on alien invaders than the conquest of the final frontier. But, as humans succeeded in orbiting their planet, film-makers began contemplating adventures set in galaxies far, far away and the rapid improvements in special effects technology in the 1970s saw sci-fi lead Hollywood into the blockbuster era that is still going strong over 40 years later.

In Space, No One Can Hear You...

A still from A Trip to the Moon (1902)
A still from A Trip to the Moon (1902)

There are no prizes for guessing which pioneer was the first to recognise the filmic potential of stories set in outer space. In between making The Astronomer's Dream (1898) and Whirling the Winds (1904), George Méliès produced A Trip to the Moon (1902), which remains one of the most important films ever made. Appearing just seven years after the projection of the first flickers, this ambitious account of the encounter between the members of the Astronomers Club and the lunar-dwelling Selenites proved that the nascent medium was capable of presenting sophisticated narratives, as well as slices of reality and trick novelties.

Famous for the shot of the rocket fired from a giant cannon landing in the Man in the Moon's eye, this 14-minute masterpiece is available from Cinema Paradiso on a stand-alone disc, as well as on Méliès the Magician (1997). The 1905 offering, which sees a train carried by two airships crash land on the Sun, can be found under its original title, Voyage à travers l'impossible, on the BFI's Early Cinema: Pioneers and Primitives collection. Depicting a car speeding around Saturn's ring, Walter Booth and Robert Paul's The '?' Motorist (1905) features on another BFI selection, RW Paul: The Collected Films, 1895-1908.

Growing tensions in Europe in the early 1910s saw film-makers turn their attention to destruction from the skies and it wasn't until Dane Holger Madsen released Himmelskibet (1918) that cine-space exploration resumed. Following a craft called Excelsior on its flight to Mars, this early feature doesn't have a political axe to grind like Yakov Protazanov's Aelita (1924), which draws on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy to chronicle a Muscovite engineer's bid to bring Bolshevism to the Red Planet. If these two enjoyable escapades were pure fiction, there was more than a hint of science fact about Woman in the Moon (1929), which Fritz Lang had been inspired to make after reading Hermann Oberth's By Rocket to Interplanetary Space. Indeed, he was so taken with the tract that he invited Oberth to serve alongside Willy Ley as technical adviser and the Friede rocket they fashioned fired the imagination of Von Braun and his design team in the 1930s. Moreover, Lang's film introduced the countdown that is still used in rocket launches to this day.

The coming of sound coincided with a drift toward space opera, as comic-strip heroes Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon thrilled young Saturday matinee audiences with their serial adventures. Both characters were played by Larry 'Buster' Crabbe, with Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) being available to rent. A key influence on the 70s sci-fi boom, these chapterplays were revisited to cash in on the success of George Lucas's Star Wars (1977), with Gil Gerard taking the lead in the TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-81), while Sam Jones took on Max von Sydow's Ming the Merciless with the backing of a Queen soundtrack in Mike Hodges's 1980 feature, Flash Gordon. More recently, Eric Johnson assumed the mantle in Flash Gordon (2007), a small-screen series featuring Alex Raymond's timeless characters.

Neither Buck nor Flash was an astronaut in the modern sense of the word, but they piloted cigar-shaped rocketships that seemed more advanced than the craft fired from a Mélièsian space gun in designer-director William Cameron Menzies's brilliantly bold 1936 interpretation of HG Wells's Things to Come. Within three years, however, terrestrial events took a turn for the worse and when Von Braun launched the first V-2 rocket towards the end of the Second World War, it bore the logo of Woman on the Moon, which had been based on a novel by Lang's vehemently pro-Nazi screenwriting partner, Thea von Harbou.

The Space Race Hots Up

With Von Braun and Rudolph safely ensconced in Huntsville, Alabama with nobody any the wiser about their connection with the Mittelbau-Dora slave labour camp, America stepped up its rocket research in a bid to score a Cold War victory over the Soviet Union. The hysteria surrounding the Communist threat underpinned numerous sci-fi allegories about sinister space invaders and it's ironic that Irving Pichel should fall foul of the witch-hunters from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, as his 1950 opus, Destination Moon, couldn't have been more supportive of capitalist enterprise. However, Pichel and SFX guru George Pal probably antagonised the authorities by having Washington oppose the bid to use atomic power to launch the Luna rocket. Nevertheless, this $500,000 picture impressed some important people, with sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov dubbing it 'the first intelligent science-fiction movie'. Moreover, it added a nomination for its production design to the Academy Award for its special effects.

A still from Rocketship X-M (1950)
A still from Rocketship X-M (1950)

Counting Robert A. Heinlein among its writers and containing a charming cartoon interlude in which Woody Woodpecker explains the basic principles of space travel, this landmark feature sparked a rash of copycats that among others included Kut Neumann's Rocketship X-M (1950) and Richard Carlson's Riders to the Stars (1954). The fact that these titles are not available on disc says much about their quality, although cult items like Arthur Hilton's Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) are well worth reviving. As is Byron Haskin's Conquest of Space (1955), which introduced the notion of the space station with 'The Wheel' that orbits 1075 miles above the Earth before diverting towards Mars.

Given the title of Charles Lamont's Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1952), one would be forgiven for thinking that Bud and Lou's destination after accidentally pressing a rocket's starter button would be the Red Planet. But they actually fetch up on Venus, which hasn't seen men of any description since Queen Allura (Marie Blanchard) banished them after an unhappy love affair. The situation is much more serious in Rudolph Maté's When Worlds Collide (1951), which was produced by George Pal and shows what happens when governments ignore scientific warning about an imminent threat to the planet. In this case, it's the discovery that a rogue star named Bellus is heading directly for Earth and that special space arks are needed to ferry the chosen few to the habitable planet of Zyra.

Few 50s sci-fi features could match the effects work in Pal's pictures and he won a second Oscar for Haskin's The War of the Worlds (1953), the HG Wells chiller that had panicked America when Orson Welles had broadcast a lifelike radio version on Halloween in 1938. William Alland, who played an announcer in the show, went on to produce sci-fi gems like Joseph Newman's This Island Earth (1955), which sees scientists Rex Reason and Faith Domergue swept away to the planet Metaluna in a flying saucer.

The spaceship C-57D lands its crew on Altair IV so that commander Leslie Nielsen can ascertain the fate of Walter Pidgeon's lost mission in Fred M. Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956), a reworking of William Shakespeare's The Tempest that racked up a number of film firsts. In addition to being the first sci-fi feature entirely set on an alien world, it also boasted the first electronic score (by Bebe and Louis Barron) and the first robotic character with a distinctive personality in Robbie the Robot.

A still from Man in the Moon (1960)
A still from Man in the Moon (1960)

Even though sci-fi was still regarded as a cult genre and the preserve of the independent producers who had stepped into the breach when the studios closed their B-hives, British space movies couldn't compete on equal financial or technical terms. However, Hammer sponsored Terence Fisher's Spaceways (1953), an adaptation of a Charles Eric Maine radio play that sees engineer Howard Duff blast into orbit to prove that he had not disposed of his adulterous wife and her lover aboard an earlier satellite. Much more wholesome was Basil Dearden's Man in the Moon (1960), which starred Kenneth More as a volunteer on a research project on the common cold who proves to have the right stuff to become Britain's first astronaut.

The three titles on the BFI's Children's Film Foundation: Outer Space collection are equally quaint. However, Supersonic Saucer (1956), Kadoyng (1972) and the award-winning The Glitterball (1977) all centre around visiting extraterrestrials rather than orbiting earthlings. Walt Disney was also intrigued by the prospect of crewed spaceflight and devoted three episodes of his TV series Disneyland to the topic. Directed by animator Ward Kimball, Man in Space and Man and the Moon (both 1955) featured Wernher von Braun, the onetime Nazi who was now a key figure at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In December 1957, the USSR launched the first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik. As Joe Johnston reveals in October Sky (1999), his adaptation of NASA engineer Homer Hickam's bestselling autobiography, Rocket Boys, this momentous event had a life-changing impact on the young Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is helped by science teacher Frieda J. Riley (Laura Dern) to build his own rocket and find a way out of the hardscrabble mining community of Coalwood, West Virginia.

While Von Braun supervised the flight of Explorer 1 in January 1958, Hollywood responded with movies like Robert Day's First Man into Space (1959). But Moscow took a decisive lead in the space race by sending Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova into orbit in April 1961 and June 1963 respectively. Christopher Riley recalled Gagarin's exploits in the 2011 documentary, First Orbit, while Yaroslav Zhainin played the fighter pilot-turned-cosmonaut in Pavel Parkhomenko's Gagarin: First in Space (2013). Moreover, as fans of Lasse Hallström's Oscar-nominated My Life As a Dog (1985) will know, the Soviets also sent a stray named Laika into orbit in Sputnik 2. Desperate not to be left behind, President John F. Kennedy summoned the NASA hierarchy to the White House and ordered them to find a way to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

To Boldly Go

As NASA sought to make good on Kennedy's pledge, the United States caught space fever. Naturally, film and programme-makers followed the curve. Having co-written Ib Melchior's The Angry Red Planet (1959), Sidney W. Pink turned director on Journey to the 7th Planet (1962). Ever the novelty seeker, the producer of Hollywood's first 3D feature, Bwana Devil (1952), had made his Martian odyssey in the CineMagic process. However, he had to go to Denmark to film his follow-up, which is best remembered today for the trendy blue-and-yellow spacesuits.

A still from Prometheus (2012) With Sean Harris, Noomi Rapace And Logan Marshall-Green
A still from Prometheus (2012) With Sean Harris, Noomi Rapace And Logan Marshall-Green

Producer Charles H. Schneer had a much bigger budget at his disposal in making Nathan Juran's First Men in the Moon (1964). Moreover, he had Nigel 'Quatermass' Kneale to co-adapt HG Wells's 1901 novel and the peerless Ray Harryhausen to producer the stop-motion effects in glorious Technicolor. Three years later, Don Sharp presented another period expedition in Rocket to the Moon, which mined the writings of Jules Verne for a caper involving Phineas T. Barnum (Burl Ives) - he of The Greatest Showman (2017) - and a consortium of continental crackpots seeking to make history. These underrated adventures couldn't be more different to Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires (1965), which had a considerable influence on Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Prometheus (2012).

On television, Hanna-Barbera looked to a future in which humans lived in outer space in The Jetsons (1962-63), which was revived by Joseph Barbera in Jetsons: The Movie (1990) and its long-delayed spin-off, The Jetsons and WWE: Robo-Wrestlemania! (2017). Before he became known as 'the Master of Disaster', producer Irwin Allen also ventured into the unknown in reworking Johann Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson as Lost in Space (1966-68), which was set in 1997 and followed the voyage of the Jupiter 2 spaceship around Alpha Centauri. In 1998, Stephen Hopkins released a feature version of Lost in Space, with William Hurt, Gary Oldman and Matt LeBlanc among the cast. Two decades later, Netflix revived the franchise, which is currently in its second season.

Not everyone thought the original show took space exploration sufficiently seriously, however, and many preferred Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek (1966-68). We all know what happened to the Starship Enterprise during its five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and civilisations. But, while Captain James T. Kirk and his crew boldly went where no man had gone before, they weren't really astronauts. Nevertheless, it's impossible to ignore the significance to the genre of their space operatic adventures and the 13 movies made since 1979 are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso, along with The Animated Series (1973-74), The Next Generation (1987-94), Deep Space Nine (1993-99), Voyager (1995-2001), Enterprise (2001-05) and Discovery (2017-18).

Another TV favourite branched out into cinemas in David Lane's Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968), which each featured John Tracy in his orbiting space station. Also released around this period were Byron Haskin's Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Roger Vadim's Barbarella (1968) and Lewis Gilbert's 007 outing, You Only Live Twice (1967), whose hijacking of the Jupiter 16 spaceship was spoofed by Mike Myers and Jay Roach in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997).

The pick of the mid-60s crop, however, came from Czechoslovakia, as Jindrich Polak's Ikarie XB-1 (1963) followed Iron Curtain epics like Pavel Klushantsev's Planet of Storms (1962) in challenging Hollywood at its own game. Based on a novel by Stanislas Lem, the story is set in 2163 and centres on a mission to a white planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.

Back in the real world, NASA was pressing ahead with the Mercury and Gemini projects. The magnitude of the enterprise is superbly captured in Philip Kaufman's 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel, The Right Stuff, which follows the exploits of the Mercury 7, as they took reckless risks in the name of science and patriotism. Documentarists David Sington and Heather Walsh provide a fascinating corrective to this study in macho derring-do in Mercury 13 (2018), which reveals the lengths to which NASA went to prevent women from participating at the sharp end of the space programme. They did make a major contribution behind the scenes, however, as Theodore Melfi reveals in Hidden Figures (2016), which draws on Margot Lee Shetterly's book to show how African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) into orbit in February 1962.

The stress experienced by the wives of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts is potently conveyed in From the Earth to the Moon (1998), a 12-part HBO mini-series that shares its name with a 1958 Byron Haskin movie. Produced by Ron Howard and exec'd by Tom Hanks (who appears in every episode), this ambitious project finds time to show how Méliès produced his miniature epic back in 1902. But the focus falls firmly on the 17 Apollo missions between 1961-72. Of course, Howard and Hanks were reuniting after collaborating on Apollo 13 (1995), which had recreated the crisis that almost engulfed Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise in April 1970. But Lovell had also been aboard Apollo 8 with Frank Borman and William Anders, as they became the first humans to fly to the Moon in December 1968, which remains a banner year for astronaut movies.

A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) With Keir Dullea And Gary Lockwood
A still from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) With Keir Dullea And Gary Lockwood

There was a decided simian aspect to both Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes, which pitched Charlton Heston and his crew two millennia into the future to 3978, and the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, such was the latter's grounding in the latest research that it had a captivating ring of authenticity once the scene shifted to Discovery One's mission to Jupiter and the showdown between astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL 9000 computer, which was chillingly voiced by Douglas Rain. Scripted by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke around the latter's short story, 'The Sentinel', the action owed much to the efforts of a production design team that included former NASA illustrator Harry Lange and the effects wizardry of Douglas Trumbull, who had been responsible for the Cinerama spectacle, To the Moon and Beyond, at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

Wrestling science fiction from the clutches of the B merchants, Kubrick gave the genre new respectability and the influence of his vision can be seen in bothStar Warsand Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Kubrick also gave his blessing Peter Hyams's sequel, 2010: The Year We Made Contact (1984), which accompanies the joint US-Soviet mission aboard the Leonov to discover the fate of Bowman and his crewmates. However, this under-radaring picture has more in common with the likes of Robert Altman's Countdown (1967) and John Sturges's Marooned (1969). The former sees James Caan blast off in a solo bid to thwart the Russians and spend a year on the lunar surface while awaiting rescue by an Apollo crew, while the latter offered a peek into the Skylab future by stranding Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and James Franciscus in orbit while Gregory Peck at Mission Control figures out a way to bring them back.

Made with the full co-operation of NASA, Sturges's nailbiting saga won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. But they were upstaged by the images beamed back by Apollo 11, as Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins took off from Cape Kennedy on 16 July 1969. The story of their eight-day journey has been the subject of numerous documentaries, including Bill Gibson's Footprints on the Moon (1969), which was narrated by Wernher von Braun and arrived in cinemas within two months of the giant leap for mankind. Theo Kameche provided a more in-depth analysis in Moonwalk One (1971), which has since been followed by Tony Palmer's The Space Movie (1980), with its soundtrack by Mike Oldfield; Al Reinert's Oscar-nominated For All Mankind (1989), with its narration by various Apollo veterans and a score by Brian Eno; Mark Cowen's Tom Hanks-scripted 3D spectacle, Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon (2005) and the Discovery Channel's six-parter NASA's Greatest Missions: When We Left Earth (2008), as well as Todd Douglas Miller's Apollo 11 and David Fairhead's Armstrong (both 2019), which are currently in cinemas and will be available from Cinema Paradiso later this year.

Featuring Harrison Ford reading from Neil Armstrong's writings, the latter makes an intriguing companion to Damien Chazelle's First Man (2018), which was originally announced as a Clint Eastwood project back in 2003. Taking its cues from James R. Hansen's biography, it won the Oscar for Best Special Effects, although neither Ryan Gosling nor Claire Foy were nominated for their thoughtful performances as Armstrong and his long-suffering wife, Janet, who died just a few months before the film's release. Armstrong himself passed away in 2012, but both Aldrin and Collins will be able to enjoy the 50th anniversary of their achievement.

A still from Toy Story (1995)
A still from Toy Story (1995)

Now 89, Aldrin gave his name to astronaut Buzz Lightyear, who is voiced by Tim Allen in the Toy Story series (1995-2019). He also taught Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) a lesson in humility after he returned from the International Space Station in the 'Holographic Excitation' episode of The Big Bang Theory (2007-19). Among Aldrin's many other guest appearances is a cameo in Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), while the more self-effacing Collins showed up in Miguel Arteta's Youth in Revolt (2009).

After the Leap

Human nature being what it is, the American public quickly lost interest in the Moon programme after Apollo 13's emergency and, with NASA facing budget cuts, the last three scheduled missions were cancelled. This hasn't stopped director Gonzalo López-Gallego and producer Timur Bekmambetov from unearthing some found footage from a hushed-up mission in Apollo 18 (2011), however. There were those who believed the Apollo programme to have been a waste of money at a time when many in America were living below the poverty line. Moreover, conspiracy theorists emerged to claim that the Moon landing had been a hoax, with NASA having asked Disney to sponsor a mock-up scenario devised by Arthur C. Clarke and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Peter Hyams added fuel to the fire with Capricorn One (1977), in which astronauts James Brolin, OJ Simpson and Sam Waterston are whisked off the first manned flight to Mars and taken to a television studio to fake the event.

This fascinating film was rather lost in the maelstrom caused by Star Wars and Close Encounters. But, while these movies helped change the face of cinema, let alone sci-fi, they were not the only ones to focus on space themes. Following his miraculous SFX contribution to2001, Douglas Trumbull directed the eco-parable Silent Running (1972), which sees botanist Bruce Dern go rogue with his drone helpers Huey and Dewey after being ordered to abandon a mission to preserve the precious flora kept aboard the space freighter Valley Forge beneath a series of vast geodesic domes.

The same year saw Andrei Tarkovsky similarly muse on the loneliness of space in Solaris, an adaptation of a novel by Pole Stanislas Lem that sees psychologist Donatas Banionis travel to a creaking interstellar space station to assess the mental fitness of a skeleton crew that keeps complaining of strange visitations. Shortly after his arrival, Banionis has a close encounter of his own, with his late wife, Natalya Bondarchuk. When Steven Soderbergh remade Solaris in 2002 (after James Cameron had decided to produce rather than direct), the roles passed to George Clooney and Natasha McElhone, who never quite managed to capture the crushing sense of sadness achieved by their Russian counterparts.

The action in John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974) takes place aboard another deteriorating ship. Originally conceived as a student graduation film, the story of four bored astronauts scouring deep space for unstable planets cost $60,000 and was written by star Dan O'Bannon, who joined Ronald Shushett in penning Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). Introducing the character of Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), this stomach-knotting trek around LV-246 aboard the Nostromo proved too much for executive officer Kane (John Hurt), but Jones the cat takes events in his stride. Having snagged the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, this epochal picture spawned a cross-media franchise whose screen spin-offs are all available from Cinema Paradiso: James Cameron's Aliens (1986), David Fincher's Alien³ (1992), Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997), Scott's prequel, Prometheus (2012), and its sequel, Alien: Covenant (2017). Then there's Paul W. S. Anderson's Alien vs Predator (2004) and the Brothers Strause's Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (2007), as well as Steven Hopkins's Predator 2 (1990), Nimród Antal's Predators (2010) and Shane Black's The Predator (2018), in which the alien cameos. But nothing matches the chilling suspense and terrifying intensity of the original.

A still from Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)
A still from Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)

Neither Gary Nelson's The Black Hole (1979) nor Stanley Donen's Saturn 3 (1980) could compete, despite the former earning Disney its first PG rating and the latter boasting a screenplay by novelist Martin Amis. Even Roger Moore's James Bond search for a missing Space Shuttle in Lewis Gilbert's Moonraker (1979) seemed tame by comparison, while ex-007 Sean Connery found himself in the Con-Am 27 mining colony on Jupiter's moon, Io, in Peter Hyams's Outland (1981). On the small screen, meanwhile, Glen A. Larsen's Battlestar Galactica (1978) did its best to replace Star Trek and has proved just as fruitful in the spin-off stakes, with Battlestar Galactica 1980 (1980), Battlestar Galactica (2003), Battlestar Galactica (2004-09), Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007), Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (2009), Caprica (2009-10) and Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome (2012) all following in its wake.

The success of the Star Wars sequels, Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Richard Marquand's Return of the Jedi (1983), confirmed the fanboy fixation with space opera and genuine astronauts became something of an endangered species. Steven Spielberg similarly discovered with ET the Extraterrestrial (1982) that aliens now had the right stuff and the trend continued with such crowdpleasers of varying quality as David Lynch's Dune (1984), Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator (1986) and Mel Brooks's scattershot satire, Spaceballs (1987). Thank goodness for Harry Winer's SpaceCamp (1986), which starred Kate Capshaw as an instructor at the training facility at Huntsville, Alabama who is awaiting her mission on the Space Shuttle. However, this lively feature had the misfortune of being released shortly after the Challenger disaster in January 1986, which claimed the lives of the seven crew members just 73 seconds into its flight. Michelle Williams is currently slated to play teacher Christa McAuliffe in Martin Zandvliet's biopic, The Challenger.

To Infinity and Beyond

As space exploration slipped off the front pages and the prospect of space tourism was touted, film-makers seemed to forget all about astronauts. Trips into the furthest reaches of the solar system continued to impinge upon various pre-millennial pictures, including Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element, Andrew Niccol's Gattaca (all 1997) and Dean Parisot's Galaxy Quest (1999). But there was little science fact in these space operas or more recent adventures like James Cameron's Avatar (2009) and James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017).

A still from Event Horizon (1997)
A still from Event Horizon (1997)

But it wasn't all comic-book escapism. The Mir space station played a crucial role in Robert Zemeckis's Contact, an adaptation of a Carl Sagan novel that sees astronomer Jodie Foster prepare to take off from Cape Canaveral after a message is received from the Vega star system some 26 light-years away. A distress signal sends Laurence Fishburne and his crew aboard the Lewis and Clark through an artificially created black hole in the direction of Neptune to find the eponymous spacecraft in Paul WS Anderson's Event Horizon (both 1997), which has acquired a cult following after some decidedly mixed reviews.

The need to respond to an imminent crisis also drives the action in Michael Bay's Armageddon and Mimi Leder's Deep Impact (both 1998), which respectively see NASA executive Billy Bob Thornton team with expert driller Bruce Willis to destroy an approaching asteroid and astronaut Robert Duvall blitz a comet on a collision course. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, the latter is easily the more intelligent picture. Moreover, it boasts a hero with the wonderful name of Spurgeon Tanner, which is aeons better than Spencer Armacost, the moniker that Johnny Depp is saddled with in Rand Ravich's The Astronaut's Wife (1999), which sees teacher spouse Jillian (Charlize Theron) cope with Armacost's erratic behaviour after he returns from the shuttle mission during which he briefly lost touch with the ship during a routine spacewalk.

Curiously, as computer-generated imagery enabled Hollywood to produce ever-more convincing visual effects, the public seemed more impressed by filmic fakery than by the actual feats being achieved in space itself. As audiences weren't interested in the real science, film-makers bandied around bits of jargon to give the action a whiff of authenticity and then recycled conventional plotlines about mid-orbital crises, planetary landings and alien invasions. Thus, while they were proficiently made, there was little innovation on display in the likes of Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, Antony Hoffman's Red Planet (both 2000), Maria Lidón's Stranded (2001), Roger Christian's Stranded (2012) and Lilly Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending (2015).

By contrast, Clint Eastwood harked back to the good old days in Space Cowboys (2000), which was granted access to the Kennedy Space Centre and built its Mission Control set according to NASA specifications. The director teamed with James Garner, Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones to play the ageing members of the US Air Force's crack Project Daedalus test team, who finally get their overdue opportunity to take a tilt at space when the Russian Ikon communication satellite begins to malfunction and sets a crash course for Earth. It was back to soap opera for Joss Whedon's Serenity (2005), however, which gave fans of the short-lived Firefly (2002) series a chance to bid a proper farewell to galactic civil war veteran Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his cohorts. There was also an element of back to the future about Garth Jennings's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), which brought Douglas Adams's comic bestseller to the big screen after it had already achieved cult status on radio and television.

Writer-director Michael Polish and his brother Mark came up with something newer in The Astronaut Farmer (2006), which stars Billy Bob Thornton as an air force pilot who was forced to quit the space programme to take over the family farm after his father's suicide. However, his dream of reaching space never died and, with creditors threatening foreclosure, he decides to build a Mercury-Atlas rocket in his barn in Story, Texas. The whimsy also comes with a potent message in Andrew Stanton's Wall-E (2008), a piece of Pixar near-perfection that sees a Waste Allocation Load-Lifter (Earth Class) quit a ravaged 29th-century Earth for the starliner Axiom. Those seeking more animation that's out of this world should check out Ron Clements's Treasure Planet (2002) and Jorge Blanco's Planet 51 (2009), which respectively rework Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island and invert the classic alien invasion concept by having a race of little green people believe that they are under threat from a lone astronaut named Chuck.

Isolation is more of a problem for Sam Rockwell's mine caretaker in Duncan Jones's Moon (2009) and one-man space station crew Gunner Wright in William Eubank's Love (2011). But, even though there are eight souls aboard Icarus II in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007), the oppressive silence of space and the magnitude of the 2057 mission to reignite the fading Sun with a nuclear missile prove too much for the melting-pot crew commanded by Hiroyuki Sanada. Scripted by Alex Garland, this psychological thriller is almost a lexicon of interstellar tropes, but it's also bleakly tense and quietly terrifying.

A still from Elysium (2013) With Jodie Foster
A still from Elysium (2013) With Jodie Foster

In spite of the fact that they are joined by 60,000 other souls aboard the interstellar ark Elysium on its 123-year trek to colonise the planet Tanis, Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster also wake from a deep sleep to feel utterly alone in Christian Alvart's Pandorum (2009), which offers insights into the condition known as Orbital Dysfunction Syndrome. A sense of 'Us and Them' also informs Neil Blomkamp's Elysium (2013), as Jodie Foster and Matt Damon find themselves on opposite sides of the class divide in a story set in 2154 that makes use of the doughnut-shaped Stanford torus space station design that was pitched to NASA in the mid-1970s. The fate of 5000 more slumbering colonists and 258 crew members is in the hands of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt after they wake three decades into a 120-year flight to the planet Homestead II in Morten Tyldum's Passengers (2016), while medical officer Juliette Binoche has problems with a crew of restless prisoners on a Death Row mission to find an alternative source of energy in deep space in Claire Denis's High Life (2018).

With a budget of $100 million at his disposal, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón considered making Gravity (2013) in space, but settled for the British studios at Shepperton and Pinewood to maroon Sandra Bullock and George Clooney aboard the damaged Explorer Space Shuttle. Exploiting the space debris theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978 and making inspired use of 3D photography, this visceral spectacle became the most decorated astronaut picture in landing seven Academy Awards. Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014) had to settle for the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. But the theoretical insights of astrophysicist Kip Thorne and the spirit of IMAX space movie pioneer Toni Myers enabled Nolan to combine credibility with spectacle, as 69th-century NASA pilot-turned-farmer Matthew McConaughey ventures through a wormhole in search of the dozen potentially habitable environments located near the Gargantua black hole.

Ridley Scott has done more than most to broaden the horizons of the space movie and he returned in 2015 with The Martian, which tracked the Ares III mission to the Red Planet and followed the efforts of astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) to survive the inhospitable terrain after he is left behind in a dust storm and has to hope that help from Earth is on its way. With NASA's James L. Green serving as an adviser, the film was feted for its authenticity and brought Damon a Golden Globe for his performance. Curiously, this adaptation of Andy Weir's novel won the Globe for Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy when it doesn't have any song-and-dance routines and is too deadly earnest to be amusing. Only in Hollywood.

A still from The Martian (2015)
A still from The Martian (2015)
Uncover landmark films on demand
Browse our collection at Cinema Paradiso
Subscription starts from £15.99 a month.