Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.
Space: It’s the final frontier, the place where no one can hear you scream, and a boundless backdrop that squashes any man’s ego. Or so we’ve been told by three of the best space movies ever, as determined by the semi-rigorous ranking process we’re presenting today.
Whether a story unfolds in the past, the present, or the future — in our own galaxy or one far, far away — space makes a great setting for film. For one thing, it’s always trying to kill characters, which raises the storytelling stakes. Its scale, and the speed required to traverse it, make space a natural special-effects showcase. And most importantly, the inhuman emptiness of space forces characters to confront their private fears and self-doubts even as it inspires existential and epistemological questions that fascinate us all. It’s no wonder that Hollywood never stops making space movies. (Brad Pitt, James Gray, and Insterstellar’s cinematographer are at work on another epic right now.) Our appetite for them is as vast as the vacuum.
We’ve seen several space movies added to the index in 2017, from the great to the terrible (and everything in between), and we still have the annual Star Wars installment (and, uh, Geostorm) to salivate over. But today’s exercise is an attempt to determine the best space movies of all time, with a list of nominees dating back decades.
To qualify for the list, it’s not sufficient for a film to be sci-fi (Blade Runner doesn’t count). Nor are aliens alone enough (sorry, E.T., Close Encounters, and Arrival). The prerequisite is simple: To be eligible, a movie has to be at least partly set in space. Some of the movies below entirely take place in space, while in others, space makes more of a cameo. But if you’re wondering why a movie you love didn’t make our cut, an absence of actual space scenes might explain the snub.
To arrive at our ranking, we stuck to almost the same formula we followed in our ranking of Good Bad Movies earlier this year. First we canvassed our staff for favorite-space-movie nominees. After weeding out nonqualifiers (apologies to Alien Nation) and supplementing the list with some worthy candidates that weren’t mentioned, we ran the resulting 55 films through the equation below:
Let’s take this one acronym at a time.
CR stands for Cultural Relevance and, in the words of Good Bad Movie maven Andrew Gruttadaro, “was determined by multiplying a movie’s number of Google News hits in the last year (with 1 point being awarded per 100 hits) by the number of years it’s been since that movie’s release.” We want to reward movies that never grow old, becoming artistic touchstones and constantly resurfacing in our cultural conversation. Of course, this metric favors movies that belong to ongoing series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Avatar — which, judging by Google, James Cameron has at least been busy discussing, if not directing — but that’s OK, since sequels help draw attention (and devotion) to the originals.
RT stands for Rotten Tomatoes score. This time around, we aren’t targeting poorly reviewed movies, so the higher here, the better (although not all of our leaders are completely critic-approved).
PO stands for Public Opinion. Last week, we asked you — that is, those of you who follow The Ringer on Twitter and happened to see this tweet — to select your 10 favorite films from our list of 55. More than 5,500 readers responded. After the crowdsourced picks came in, we tabulated the vote totals and ordered each movie from 1 to 55, with first place receiving 55 points, second place receiving 54 points, and so on.
With each of those three components in hand, we did the arithmetic to calculate each movie’s GSS, or Great Space Score. The higher the score, the higher the ranking.
Now that you know the methodology, you, like Lewis Pirenne in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, might be thinking, “Space, man, have you no respect for science?” To which we, like Foundation’s Anselm haut Rodric, say, “Science be damned!” (Foundation has very lifelike dialogue.) No, not really — we like science. But movie greatness is more than a matter of math, so there’s room to disagree.
We hope you’ll join us on this top-25 journey; when you’ve touched down at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a link to the rankings for the full 55. We’re now T-minus one paragraph away from the rankings, so it’s time to stare at your screen and start saying that stuff is a go.
Remember to check back for more space-related content throughout the week. And don’t miss our interview elsewhere on the site Monday with Industrial Light & Magic effects legend John Knoll, who had a hand in the looks of a few of the films below. — Ben Lindbergh
Just Missed the Cut
Total Recall (1990)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Total Recall is a perfectly weird space movie, a standout of ’90s science fiction. In it, Schwarzenegger frantically yelps “Two weeks!” while his old-lady disguise malfunctions when he’s trying to infiltrate the planet Mars. Later, he kills a henchman named Richter by dragging him in front of a moving elevator and bisecting his arms from the rest of his body; then he holds up both arms and says, “See you at the party, Richter!” I really, really love Total Recall. — Andrew Gruttadaro
Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, which recently turned 10, is the ultimate “except for the ending” film. Most of the movie perfectly captures the oppressive silence of space, channeling the serene-yet-sinister stateliness of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky. Boyle understands that aliens, enemy spacecraft, and crazed killers aren’t the only things that make space scary; the unforgiving environment, and the small-but-costly slip-ups that can occur under intense pressure, are terrifying enough. I just wish he could do over the third act, which transitions too abruptly and cryptically into shaky-cam slasher horror that almost — but not quite — spoils the exquisite setup. —Ben Lindbergh
The Fifth Element (1997)
The Fifth Element was released in 1997, and it would still be ahead of its time if it came out today. It’s a fantastical depiction of the future that never loses sight of the essential absurdity of human beings and the societies we create. The movie is a two-hour acid trip with Chris Tucker and Gary Oldman turning it up to 11 in supporting roles, yet it somehow manages to remain grounded with a strong leading performance from Bruce Willis and a love story between him and a supernatural being who was built in a lab from alien DNA. Luc Besson, the writer and director, caught lightning in a bottle with this one: It shouldn’t work, but it does. — Jonathan Tjarks
Hidden Figures (2016)
That we have the technology for space exploration in 2017 is incredible. That the same technology also existed in the 1960s, long before the internet, smartphones — hell, even calculators became commonplace? It’s frankly unbelievable. Hidden Figures puts that intelligence into perspective via the stories of three African American women whose brilliant number-crunching launched John Glenn into orbit. It’s a truly “untold” story, and one of the most compelling ever put to film. — Rubie Edmondson
Interstellar brought me on an emotional voyage unlike anything I’ve felt before. I saw it three times in IMAX over the first few weeks of its release because I may never again come so close to experiencing the sensation of traveling through space and time. Its booming sounds and striking images physically enthralled me. The way in which it fused both the fantastical and the familiar mentally captivated me. The plot holes don’t hamper the journey through wormholes and black holes, because no film will bring you closer. Interstellar is cinematic magic that brought me to a place that’s hard to reach as you get older: a place of childlike wonder. — Kevin O’Connor
25. Galaxy Quest (1999)
“How did I come to this?” an anguished, purple-head-pronged Alan Rickman asks early in Galaxy Quest, moments before a hungover and oblivious Tim Allen strides into the green room, an hour late to his own fan convention. Galaxy Quest is a thought experiment taken to its most chaotic, delightful, and even tentacly heart-warming extremes, a loving portrait of a galactic cargo cult that simultaneously makes fun of everything and takes all of it completely seriously. Sure, Allen has since outed himself as the worst kind of internet troll — but in Galaxy Quest, we can still enjoy him at his David Duchovny–esque best. The film is a perfect send-up of Star Trek fandom as well as a perfect sci-fi voyage in its own right. It is, just in general, perfect, and never — never — something to be skipped over in its deservedly infinite cable syndication loop. — Claire McNear
24. Gattaca (1997)
An original sci-fi movie with top-of-the-line movie stars and a cameo from Gore Vidal. Remember when that was possible? Gattaca is a story about the dangers of eugenics centered on three objectively genetically blessed white people, but once you get past that minor hurdle, Andrew Niccol’s 1997 feature is the best kind of thought experiment — pointed and human-scale in a way that encourages us to emotionally invest in its hypotheticals. In keeping with the theme of this list, though, Gattaca’s vision of space is less futuristic than old school. It’s still the last frontier, an impossible dream for Ethan Hawke’s Vincent, a naturally conceived human being in a society where everyone’s been genetically engineered for perfection, and Uma Thurman’s Irene alike. And when Vincent finally gets there, it’s pure catharsis. Gattaca’s a deeply American movie about how DNA shouldn’t be and isn’t destiny that shockingly flopped at the American box office, but at least we appreciate it now. — Alison Herman
23. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Sure, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has its issues. There’s a blind character who offs Stormtroopers with a staff. There is classic Star Wars plot armor in the form of crucial information being available only via physical media. (The internet doesn’t exist, but intergalactic travel does?) There’s a creepy CGI reincarnation. And — spoiler alert — you can’t count on getting to know any of your new friends better in future installments.
But as a wise man once wrote on the internet, Rogue One is the best popcorn war movie since Saving Private Ryan. Taken that way — as a war movie set in space instead of as a meaningful installment of a larger mythology (which it still is, IMO) that is both still being formed and was largely set in stone long ago — Rogue One is immensely entertaining. Yes, it’s dark, but so is life. Whether or not Rogue One should be counted as one of the best space movies of all time comes down to how you answer a simple question:
22. The Martian (2015)
The Martian begins as most tales of disaster do: with unexpected weather and very bad luck. One moment Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is just a botanist on Mars, studying dirt and wisecracking with his suspiciously good-looking crew members. The next, he is abandoned on a planet whose entire environment is antithetical to his existence. There are no alien invasions or flashbacks to his beautiful wife and children back home, just shots of Watney, who is forced to confront a set of circumstances that most likely end in death. What follows is an intricate study in triage, both for Watney — who switches from panicked, to despondent, to determined that he will “science the shit” out of his survival — and his dedicated saviors back home. (Shout out to Donald Glover as the token oblivious-yet-brilliant aerodynamicist.) The movie’s most thrilling moments don’t come in the form of explosions or fantastical space tomfoolery, but via the inventive victories cooked up by Watney and his very loyal support system. I never thought I would tear up witnessing a space botanist discover the first potato sprout in a farm that he fertilized with his own shit, but that’s The Martian’s charm: It’s a movie about making due with a handful of supplies and your brain, a love letter to the power of intellect. — Alyssa Bereznak
21. Contact (1997)
Growing up Catholic, I think I liked Contact so much for the whole “science versus religion as told by Jodie Foster versus Matthew McConaughey” storyline. But really, just the whole scene where Foster is being hurled around the galaxy still makes me wish Contact: The Theme Park Ride existed, and also I am very glad 3-D was not a thing at the time the movie came out. Oh, and how about that whole mirror scene in the beginning?! How did they shoot that?! Just kidding, we all know now, but here’s a very fun Reddit thread about it. So many layers! — Molly McHugh
20. Wall-E (2008)
Wall-E is the most experimental and audacious film Pixar has ever made. As far as animated movies for kids go, this one stands out for having the most socially responsible message since FernGully, its use of live action actors in quick-cut scenes, and essentially being a silent film for the entire first half. Wall-E poetically issues a stern warning about the consequences of society’s blatant disregard for the planet and our increased dependence on automation and technology while sending a ray of hope via the uncompromising spirit of life. Plus there’s an adorable robot love story and beautiful animation. — Zach Mack
19. Space Jam (1996)
Rumors circulate every few years about a Space Jam sequel, but it’s never going to happen. Only once in this world will a superstar athlete who quit mid-career to be a mediocre athlete in another sport decide to participate in a 88-minute image-rehabilitation project that is also a full-length children’s movie about greedy aliens who want to enslave a beloved Warner Bros. property but also agree not to enslave said property if it can beat them in basketball. Also, Bill Murray is too busy for this shit now.
No, we have to enjoy Space Jam for the bizarre, embarrassing, perfect miracle that it is: a slapstick commercial for the NBA, Michael Jordan, Looney Tunes, and physically impossible dunks. — Kate Knibbs
18. Star Trek (2009)
I first watched Star Trek as a begrudging favor to a friend. She “liked science fiction” and I “decidedly did not,” but I figured there are worse things than staring at Chris Pine for two hours while he swaggers around causing mayhem as a young Captain Kirk (at least that’s how the film was advertised to me). This is where I admit that I had never seen an episode of the original series, nor did I have much of a concept for it beyond character names and the fact that it involved space. However, by the bar fight scene I was intrigued, and once the stoic Spock is forced to admit that he was emotionally compromised by the death of his mother, I was feeling a bit emotionally compromised myself.
This is a movie about happenings in space, sure (and there are definitely a lot of CGI renderings, strange species, and shots of the wiiide vaaaastness of spaaace to prove it). But it’s also a film about emotion and family and the things that link people (and Vulcans) to one another. It’s raw in some places and not-so-great in others, but as my introduction to the Star Trek universe, it was memorable. —Megan Schuster
17. Independence Day (1996)
Some space movies are about the majesty of space, the sublime wonder of the void, the mindblowing possibility of contact with a celestial other. Not Independence Day, which is essentially a film about how much aliens suck and America rules. Instead of glorifying worlds beyond ours, the ultimate summer popcorn flick turns alien life into a formidable but punchable villain, and the results are far more charming than they have any right to be. “WELCOME TO EARTH!” Will Smith bellows, an irresistible avatar for jingoism. Jeff Goldblum outsmarts his galactic foes using the power of 1990s computer technology in a plot point so stupid it can only be wonderful. Independence Day is a dumb, beautiful celebration of our dumb, beautiful world. — Kate Knibbs
16. Predator (1987)
If it wasn’t for the fact that the words “ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER” and “PREDATOR” flash across the screen within the first few seconds, there’d be no way to distinguish between this movie’s opening scene and that of any of the Star Wars films. Even the music is Star Wars-y.
And fine, the next hour and 47 minutes take place in a Central American jungle and specifically not in space, but the first minute and a half lays it all out for us: Whatever it is our big-bicepped heroes are dealing with, it’s not of this world. They’re not gonna be on a level playing field with this mysterious figure as it lurks about in an OG invisibility cloak. As we quickly find out, not even (most of) America’s biggest sexual tyrannosauruses can contend with an invisible alien trophy-hunter with thermal goggles and a shoulder-mounted missile-launcher. After indulging in a game of cat-and-mouse, the Predator takes out Blain (ex real-life Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura), and Mac (Bill Duke) sees his translucent outline run into the jungle. This sets in motion one of the most satisfying and gratuitous shows of firepower in movie history: For a full 86 seconds, these dudes just bite their lips and shoot from the hip — with the most ridiculous collection of guns a small team of vehicle-less commandos could carry.
Sure, they’ve got the old reliables — the MP5s, M16s, and an M60 — but these guys also humped an automatic grenade launcher into the bush, Billy (Sonny Landham) carries an M-16 with a shotgun attached to it, and, most impressively and improbably, Blain is carrying around a fucking gatling gun. But the week’s worth of ammo they burnt through is all for naught; they kill nothing, and from there, Dutch and his crew finally start to understand that they’re completely outmatched — and that they’re being hunted. Without spoiling too much of the fun, I’ll say that Dutch goes Apocalypse Now on Predator’s ass, relying on a few primitive methods of warfare. He’s so cunning that the Predator develops a grudging respect for his quarry, abandons all the high-tech alien weaponry that puts him at such an advantage, and decides instead that this beef should come down to a good old-fashioned fisticuffs. It’s great in every way. —Danny Kelly
15. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Think back for a moment to the tremendous pressure The Force Awakens faced before its opening in 2015: a critical community burnt out on cynical IP plays; a massive fanbase already stung by one bungled addition to their beloved original trilogy; the possibility that even if this revival wasn’t an abomination, it’d be a pointless retread. You likely don’t remember that build-up because J.J. Abrams’s revamp arrived on the scene fully formed and ready to make a billion dollars: effortlessly diverse, cognizant of its heritage, and taking full advantage of the 21st century with some gorgeous (and frequently practical!) special effects. The Force Awakens works because it offers archetypes that feel both universal and of the moment: a villain literally related to Darth Vader (who nonetheless smacks of the beta masculinity that gave us Gamergate) and another orphan-turned-prophesized hero (who, when she wielded a lightsaber, still sent chills down my spine). Episode VII pulled off the near-impossible and sealed Star Wars’ reputation as the best-managed mega-franchise in the business. Shout out to you, Kathleen Kennedy, and take some notes, Marvel and DC. —Alison Herman
14. Planet of the Apes (1968)
The original Apes isn’t really a space movie compared to some on this list, but its protagonist is an astronaut, and it does start in space. It also makes the most of the several minutes it spends there. You’re more likely to remember “You maniacs!” or “You damn dirty ape!” or Charlton Heston’s maniacal, meme-able laugh than anything George Taylor says in the opening scene (while smoking, as astronauts do), but as an encapsulation of space’s appeal as a setting, one could do worse than this quote: “Seen from out here, everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.”
Like most great space movies, Apes is imbued with wonder and mystery, and like most successful sci-fi, its depiction of a different time isolates and amplifies the flaws of our own. Almost half a century later, the film’s effects and costumes look all of their age, but the story still works as a cautionary tale and an allegory about racial conflict. After four direct sequels and two reboots (which has spawned two well-received sequels of its own), the end of Apes is nowhere in sight.
Planet of the Apes went into wide theatrical release a few days before 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it’s appropriate that it also precedes 2001 on our ranking. — Ben Lindbergh
13. Gravity (2013)
This will sound like an overstatement or an exaggeration, but, truly, it is not: Watching Gravity in the theater was a profoundly moving experience for me. I thought that every single part of it — Sandra Bullock’s forced-into-heroism heroism; George Clooney’s perfectly chiseled fearlessness; the terrifying soundtrack; the way that Alfonso Cuarón dangled the tiniest morsel of hope in front of everyone with the thinnest piece of thread — was exactly perfect. Gravity does what every movie about space should aspire to do, which is to make you feel entirely inadequate and unimportant (HOW CAN I POSSIBLY MATTER WHEN MEASURED UP AGAINST THE BIGNESS OF SPACE???) while also making you feel like maybe that empty feeling in your chest you can’t outrun is something more than just nothingness — it’s your literal connection to the universe, big and vast and beautiful and terrifying and perfect. — Shea Serrano
12. Spaceballs (1987)
Carl Sagan may or may not have uttered the phrase “billions and billions” during his pop-cosmology TV series a generation ago, but it is an accurate descriptor of how many jokes are contained within Mel Brooks’s sublime outer-space farce. Spaceballs, of course, is the defining parody of the self-serious Star Wars. Brooks calls up the major elements of George Lucas’s universe — the princess, the secret prince, the shaman, the sidekicks both furry and robotic, the villains, the white-helmeted soldiers — and wrings all of them for laughs.
There is a committed band of cultists who trade one-liners back and forth in knowing shorthand. “I’m surrounded by assholes.” “Merchandising! Merchandising!” “Please, please, don’t make a fuss. I’m just plain Yogurt.” And, a personal favorite, “What’s the matter, Colonel Sandurz? Chicken?” (Here is where I disclose that the actor who played the target of the chicken joke, the pro’s pro George Wyner, is a longtime friend of my wife’s family.)
Now that I’ve announced my bias, I’ll leave you with the film’s best scene, a bit of meta-comedy featuring Rick Moranis and Wyner in which they watch a VHS tape of Spaceballs and fast-forward to the moment in the film when the two characters are watching a VHS tape of Spaceballs. It’s a masterful bit of writing and acting whose intricate wordplay recalls Tom Stoppard and nimble delivery honors Abbott and Costello. And it all happens in space.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
You can split the Marvel Cinematic Universe into two eras: Before Guardians and After Guardians. The 10th movie in the franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy, was the first Marvel movie to feel like it had a separate personality. Without the weight of the Avengers to bring him down, director James Gunn created a film that was surprising, compelling, and genuinely fun — and not in a cheap, look-at-that-big-explosion kind of way.
Chris Pratt is excellent as intergalactic cool-jerk Peter “Starlord” Quill — the perfect combination of invested heroism and detached sarcasm, a quality that’s welcome in a movie featuring a blue villain and planets called Morag and Xandar. (Pratt’s star power has been overstated since, but watching Guardians, you can at least understand why he broke out.) Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper round out the crew as Quill’s various extraterrestrial companions — Diesel literally plays a tree who can only say three words — and Guardians blossoms into an endlessly enjoyable origin story about a mismatched, ragtag group of heroes. The soundtrack’s pretty great, too. Nothing against Iron Man or Captain America, but Guardians of the Galaxy makes it hard to come back to Earth. —Andrew Gruttadaro
10. Avatar (2009)
It took all of five years for James Cameron’s story of Jake Sully and the Na’vi to become a punch line. Maybe less than that. How did this happen? How did the most successful non-sequel story in movie history become a landmark for jokes about febrile alien tails, Cameron’s notorious self-absorption, and Sam Worthington’s un-starriness? Cameron’s largesse made the movie a target, but its province is what made it forgettable — Avatar was one of the great moviegoing events of the 21st century, a bombastic and painterly exertion of force. But it looked bad — cheap, even — on TVs. More so on computer and tablet screens. The digital imagery that Cameron employed to bring the blue-skinned Na’vi to life has also aged poorly in the intervening decade. But what is most lost about Avatar’s initial, thunderous impact is not the film’s reach for a visceral grandeur or technological audacity — two of Cameron’s lifelong pursuits — but its intergalactic story of species at odds.
Avatar is a space movie in much the same way The Searchers is a Western. It captures a conflict between races, one militaristic and ceaseless in its quest for dominance, the other more spiritual but no less equipped for battle. And like The Searchers, John Ford’s complex, cockeyed summation of race and power in the American West, Avatar portrays its native people with a simplistic nobility and violent underbelly. Avatar is not quite the iconic vision of a world that has passed us by that The Searchers is. But it does show what could be in a fractured future — privatized military leading the way through the cosmos in search of valuable wares from vulnerable far-off lands. It’s not so much a parable as a straight warning. Careful what you go searching for in space — you just might find it. — Sean Fennessey
9. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
At its best, Star Trek is less about the action than it is about problem-solving and Asking Big Questions — the reboot movies suck precisely because the franchise was handed over to the chuckleheads from Lost, who aggressively and resolutely do not understand this — and Wrath of Khan is all about aging, mortality, fatherhood, the limits of human agency, and not one but three different questions about scientific ethics. (Also, apropos of nothing, I always thought Merritt Butrick was really good as David Marcus.)
It’s one of the best examples of one of the best Star Trek movie traditions: Having the bad guy played by a big-name guest actor who swings from his (or her) heels. It’s also a high point for the Kirk–McCoy–Spock Freudian Trio, punctuated by Spock sacrificing his own life to save the ship — an act born on its face out of simple logic, but executed out of profound love and foreshadowed in Spock’s birthday gift of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s OK to cry. I won’t tell anyone. — Michael Baumann
8. Apollo 13 (1995)
Apollo 13 is the least existential space movie ever made, and that’s probably why it’s the most rewatchable one. It is a love letter to American ingenuity and a testament to the charms of Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon being trapped in a flying thimble together. It also features one of the great exhale crescendos in blockbuster history. It’s easy to tell a story where everything that can go wrong does go wrong, but this is a movie where everything goes right. The quiet moments are tender (Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell listening to the radio as her husband goes around the dark side of the moon); the funny moments are hilarious (“I think old Swigert gave me the clap. Been pissin’ in my relief tube.”); and the scary moments are terrifying (“Houston, we have a problem.”).
Most space movies are about things that are out of our control and beyond our comprehension — whether it’s ideas (like the search for the meaning of life) or technology (like jumping to hyperspace) — but not Apollo 13. Every button gets pushed, every dial gets turned, guys have to ballet dance around headphone jacks, and air filters need to be built out of tube socks and duct tape. It’s a practical, human movie about a time when humans looked at something as impractical as landing on the moon and attacked the problem practically. Work the problem, people. —Chris Ryan
7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Space is glorious and space is terrifying; it follows that a great space movie should induce in its viewer both wonder and horror. With all due respect to Jack Torrance, I truly believe that 2001: A Space Odyssey is Stanley Kubrick’s scariest movie. There’s such an elegance and simplicity to its dread. Studios have wasted the equivalent of small nations’ GDPs trying to craft intricately creepy CGI villains — and they will never surpass a bone-chillingly indifferent red dot named HAL. Alfonso Cuarón spent $100 million trying to get a single shot as existentially panic-inducing as that silent moment when Frank realizes his line has been cut and he’s going to spend the rest of his short life hurtling through space. Filmmakers have been trying to top this movie for almost 50 years now, and no one (not even Christopher Nolan) has succeeded. Sure, Hollywood’s monkey-suit technology has come a long way since 1968, and none of the human performances in 2001 are particularly memorable (I will mail you a dollar if you can name the lead actor in this film without Googling), but these feel like small flaws when taken against the monolithic greatness of this film. Imagine making a space movie a year before the goddamn moon landing and it still looking fresh five decades later. Even 16 years after its once-futuristic-sounding namesake, to watch 2001 is to open the pod bay doors… of your mind. — Lindsay Zoladz
6. Aliens (1986)
Of all the installments in the Alien film franchise, this one holds up the best. If Alien is a horror film in space, Aliens would be a war thriller, also in space. The film’s writer and director, James Cameron, does a masterful job expanding upon what little we previously knew about Ellen Ripley, the Weyland-Yutani Corp, and the terrifying and murderous xenomorphs to tell a tense story about survival, empowerment, and corporate greed. Also, the answer to the question posed early in the film — “So who’s laying these eggs?” — is one of the best big reveals in film. Period. — Zach Mack
5. The Right Stuff (1983)
This is one of my favorite movies ever in any genre. It pulls off the fine balancing act of recognizing the absurdity of the early Cold War — it’s hard not to laugh at the hypermasculinity and jingoism of the Space Race — while also embracing it. Is it ridiculous to look at test pilots as the last cowboys, as Sam Shepard literally rides his horse to Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club? Sure, but those guys were also really cool. This film lives in the moment before liftoff, buoyed by one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever and incredible performances from top to bottom: Shepard’s gunslinger Chuck Yeager, Levon Helm’s resourceful Jack Ridley, Fred Ward’s aggro Gus Grissom, Ed Harris’s manic boy scout John Glenn, Dennis Quaid’s class clown Gordo Cooper, and Pamela Reed as his wife Trudy, whose struggle to “maintain an even strain” breaks your heart more and more each time you watch it. But the performance that characterizes the movie best is Donald Moffat’s outrageous LBJ. It’s broad, it’s preposterous, it’s hyperbolic, but it’s also a major historical figure going berserk over issues of colossal geopolitical importance. This movie is beautiful, hilarious, sad, dramatic, and hysterical. — Michael Baumann
4. Star Wars: Episode VI — Return of the Jedi (1983)
An anonymous member of The Ringer’s staff counts Return of the Jedi as their favorite Star Wars movie, an opinion so misguided that I’m withholding their name to protect their reputation. Jedi is worse in almost every way than the two films that came before it. It’s a true tonal bridge between the original trilogy and the prequels, one that rejects the riveting darkness of The Empire Strikes Back in favor of cuddly Ewoks, clumsy retconning, superweapon recycling, and a virtually consequence-free climax. The too-long Tatooine sequence, bogged down by “Lapti Nek” (or way worse, “Jedi Rocks”), feels like it belongs to a different movie than the three-pronged climax, and Boba Fett’s sarlacc encounter was so lame that the expanded universe had to undo his death.
Yet to paraphrase Luke, there is still good in Jedi, including Luke’s entrance at Jabba’s palace, the speeder-bike chase, and everything in the throne-room scenes, one of which features maybe my favorite minute-or-so snippet on any Star Wars soundtrack. The movie is still incredibly quotable, from “You’re gonna die here, you know” to “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am.” Most of all, it’s just satisfying to spend more time with these characters, whose chemistry is intact even though Harrison Ford barely wanted to be back.
Jedi is clearly riding the coattails of its predecessors (and the Google-results inflation of its successors) to its elite placement on this list. But man, they’re amazing coattails. — Ben Lindbergh
3. Alien (1979)
It’s the silence in Alien that’s worse than anything. The way the music fades out as the alien egg cracks open, moments before the fleshy monstrosity latches onto Kane’s spacesuit. The bizarre tranquility of him resting in the medical ward while a human-incubated nightmare is strapped to his face in a mating ritual from hell. The suffocating stillness — punctuated only by the clinking of chains — just before the fully-grown alien makes its debut to devour Brett. Now 38 years old, Alien continues to horrify because of the quiet that orbits the loud, graphic moment at the heart of the film, when the titular beast erupts from Kane’s stomach. There’s dread of the unknown before the alien birth and fear that something more disturbing will happen afterward. The second shoe never drops, and Alien morphs into an action-thriller as Ripley scrambles to escape. But it’s those eerie, empty moments that make this one of the best space movies of all time. —Victor Luckerson
2. Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
This is the best Star Wars movie. It gave us, in the span of a few minutes, both the “I love you.” / “I know.” exchange and “I am your father.” It gave us the most dramatic lightsaber battle of any of the seven movies — after Darth Vader and Obi-Wan just sort of poked at each other in a hallway for a couple minutes at the end of A New Hope, Vader chases an increasingly terrified Luke across Cloud City, pummeling him with pipes and boxes, literally beating the arrogance and optimism out of our hero. That sense of “Oh wow, this really isn’t going to be that easy, and that’s horrifying,” pervades the story, as Luke, Leia, and Han suffer an onslaught of defeats and unexpected obstacles to rival the string of lucky breaks they’d skated by on in the last movie. That makes a two-hour movie with five or six distinct acts fly by. — Michael Baumann
1. Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope (1977)
The one that started it all. George Lucas changed science fiction, and the movie industry in general, with the first Star Wars movie. Forty years later, Disney is making billions off the universe Lucas created. Lucas was a master synthesizer, liberally borrowing from sources as varied as Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa, but he owed his greatest debt to Joseph Campbell, the writer who popularized the idea of “the hero’s journey,” the archetypal story at the heart of mythological tales in every human society. The young man from humble beginnings receives a call to adventure then waffles on whether to leave home until he meets a mentor who sets him on his path, where he finds new allies who help him triumph over his ultimate fear. Once you set that story in space, it pretty much writes itself. Most of the movies inspired by A New Hope, including the prequels, copied the surface-level stuff — special effects, epic space battles, and witty banter from an attractive young cast — without understanding the underlying framework. Star Wars works because it speaks to a deep desire in the human heart; watching it without rooting for the main characters is like trying to keep your leg in place when someone taps your kneecap. The Star Wars universe continues to expand, but people will always watch and love this movie. — Jonathan Tjarks
Click here for the full ranking of 55 space movies.