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Presenting: The Movie Astronaut Matrix

Two resident space movie enthusiasts discuss space movies, hand out superlatives, and debate which space film has the best score

Ringer illustration

As it’s been repeated ad nauseam: Space is the final frontier—a beautiful, haunting canvas of boundless stars, galaxies, and cinematic possibilities. It’s little wonder that Hollywood keeps returning to outer space. In the past seven years alone, we’ve been annually blessed with a space movie from a major studio helmed by an acclaimed filmmaker—Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuarón), Interstellar (Christopher Nolan), The Martian (Ridley Scott), Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi—and OK, he’s not on everyone else’s level, but St. Vincent was also pretty solid), Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve), First Man (Damien Chazelle), and now, beginning on Friday, Ad Astra (James Gray).

These films—ranging from grounded biopics to [ahem] interstellar adventures to the far reaches of the cosmos—highlight the breadth of cool stuff that can be done on the big screen when space is the primary setting. But aside from sterling visuals, the key component to a good space movie is its characters. It’s one thing to set a movie in space; it’s another to have characters you actively root for to survive the many ways this harsh environment is trying to kill them. And by that definition, these characters are astronauts.

In celebration of Ad Astra’s release and its entry into the pantheon of great space movies, two of The Ringer’s space enthusiasts—myself and Michael Baumann—have created the Movie Astronaut Matrix: a compendium of the best astronauts from the genre and their unique character traits. Though Baumann and I have different space movie preferences—he’s partial to by-the-number biopics like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff; I believe Event Horizon to be a masterpiece and want to cradle 2001’s Giant Space Baby in my arms—we did establish a few ground rules, if only as a measure to maintain our sanity. The important ones to know before you come at us on Twitter:

  • We included only movies where space travel isn’t super-futuristic, and hasn’t become completely routine to the point where it’s done by most characters within a universe. That means something like Alien—with a whole crew of blue-collar workers just chilling on a spaceship waiting to get slaughtered by the Xenomorph—and all the Star Wars movies will be omitted.
  • Many astronaut characters are also pilots, so for the ones that weren’t, we decided to lump them together as various mission specialists (ie. Mark Watney in The Martian is a botanist).
  • We tried our best to avoid including multiple astronaut characters from the same movie, but we did choose three from Armageddon and two from Sunshine, because they were too good to pass on.
  • Yes, there are two John Glenns on this thing, courtesy The Right Stuff (as played by Ed Harris) and Hidden Figures (Glen Powell). John Glenn was a very good astronaut.

Without further ado, here is the Astronaut Movie Matrix:

Evidently, astronaut movies contain a wide array of characters, from level-headed leaders to the unpredictable/dangerous dudes with whom you’d never want to be trapped in a steel box in the middle of space. And within this matrix, the films referenced have provided some of the most memorable, horrifying, and singularly strange moments in the genre. Below, we’ve catalogued some of our favorites with some Astronaut Movie Superlatives. —Miles Surrey

Lost Touch With Reality in the Coolest Way: Searle, Sunshine

I’ve spent years looking for a quote I saw once, I believe attributed to Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, about how astronauts’ descriptions of space tend to undersell the experience because anyone with the propensity to grasp—and capacity to articulate—what space travel is truly like would freak out and die during the mission. This is a common trope of space films, including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.

On the journey to restart our dying sun, the mission’s psychiatrist, Searle (Cliff Curtis), becomes increasingly obsessed with the sun and the idea of “total brightness,” exposing himself to increasingly large doses of sunlight. When he tries to explain this obsession to the crew, Mace (Chris Evans), a no-nonsense military type, says: “What’s strange, Searle, is that you’re the psych officer on this ship, and I’m clearly a lot saner than you are.”

Searle is far from the most out-there person in this film, but his fixation manifests itself in a very calm sense of wide-eyed awe. The film’s most awe-inspiring scene comes halfway through, as the captain, Kaneda, is about to be killed by direct exposure to sunlight, as Searle is on the radio, asking him in a pleading whisper to describe what he sees. Later in the film, Searle volunteers to sacrifice his own life to save his crewmates, because doing so allows him to experience—and die from—exposure to full sunlight.

Sunshine’s cast—Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy—is more star-studded now than it was upon the movie’s release in 2007, and it’s always puzzled me that Curtis never achieved the heights of superstardom that some of his castmates did, because his character, and his performance, channeled such awe-inspiring power. —Michael Baumann

Most Heroic Sacrifice: Captain Miller, Event Horizon

Granted, this matrix is filled with characters who’ve risked their lives—or even sacrificed theirs—for the greater good. But nobody went to further lengths than Laurence Fishburne’s character in Event Horizon. A quick primer: This beautifully batshit movie is about a group of scientists orbiting Neptune who inadvertently open a portal to a “hell dimension” (oops!). Fishburne’s Miller captains the rescue operation—obviously, the poor souls under his command don’t know about the hell thing—which quickly becomes subjected to the dimension’s warping. The initial “hell” scenes depicted in Event Horizon were so graphic, some test audience members reportedly fainted, so the final cut massively toned it down. (The “toned-down” version is still, in brief snippets, quite horrific.)

Anyway, within that context, Miller sacrifices himself in the third act of the film by exploding the ship in half, separating his surviving crew from the hell portal in the process. Now, while it’s possible that Miller died from the explosion, it seems more likely—especially without evidence to the contrary, and the fact that the bombs Miller planted weren’t in the same area of the ship where he is when he detonates them—that he’s actually sending himself to hell in order to keep his shipmates safe. I think it’s fair that “literally going to hell” is a sacrifice nobody else on this matrix can compete with. —Surrey

Most Terrifying IRL Scenario: Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity

I feel like if I were confronted with aliens or something, my conception of reality would shift so extremely that I wouldn’t be afraid anymore. Now, floating around in space, jumping from shuttle to space station to space station while knowing that every 45 minutes or so the thing that’s giving me life is going to get Kessler-syndromed into a mist—that’s scary as shit. Scarier than waking up in a pile of sand on Mars to discover that my shipmates have left me behind, scarier than having my oxygen tanks blow up on the way to the moon.

Because in space travel—I imagine, since I have little first-hand experience in the medium—there’s a big psychological distinction between “inside” and “outside.” An airtight spaceship means propulsion, food, water, air, even the ability to scratch one’s nose, none of which were available to Dr. Stone in Gravity. And with no air resistance or engines or anything to hold on to, if she lets go she’s gonna float away forever and die. Gravity is predicated on the idea that this concept is terrifying, and quite successfully. —Baumann

The Strangest Piece of Space-Adjacent Worldbuilding: the “Fuckbox,” High Life

Science-fiction often lends itself to bizarre bits of worldbuilding—the Mos Eisley Cantina alone is a goddamn trip—and while many of the films on our matrix keep things within a realistic standard, there are some notable outliers. But before we get to the single strangest tidbit from an astronaut movie, let’s take a quick moment to reflect on the New York Yankees, as presented by the future, crop-ravaged world of Interstellar:

These guys are playing an exhibition game on a Single-A-ass field in Oklahoma, with an apparent economic standing not unlike the present iteration of the Miami Marlins. (The juiced ball era has probably ended, too, not because the balls aren’t juiced, but because every meal an MLB athlete would eat is either okra- or corn-based.)

Anyway, even the Oklahoma Yankees pale in comparison with the thing in High Life that director Claire Denis has aptly referred to (many times) as the “fuckbox.” For the characters of High Life—inmates who have volunteered for a mission gathering data on black holes—their ship doesn’t just have access to a garden for sustenance and downtime: They also have a room that’s effectively a masturbation chamber. We see Juliette Binoche’s character make [clears throat] efficient use of the fuckbox’s giant dildo in a singularly beguiling sequence.

While High Life offers a grim and compelling portrait of the human condition, it’s also a reminder that sex is one of the things foremost on our minds. In space, no one can hear you straddle a huge, metallic dildo! —Surrey

Most Impressive Feat of Space Derring-Do: Coop, Interstellar

Docking a spaceship is hard. Docking a spaceship while the target is damaged, spinning, spewing debris, and in the process of reentering the atmosphere, and the price of failure is certain death in a faraway star system? Well there’s only one pilot in the universe who can do that. —Baumann

The Five Wildest Astronaut Movie Premises

Let’s just run a quick ranking, because in space shit often gets weird as hell.

5. Armageddon

A huge asteroid is headed for Earth? Just send a bunch of deep-core drillers to take care of the problem.

4. Sunshine

Don’t you just hate it when you’ve got to reignite the sun?

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey

HAL 9000 seems like a dick. Maybe don’t touch the Monolith.

2. Interstellar

Imagine breaking the space-time continuum with the power of love for someone called MURPH.

1. Event Horizon

It bears repeating: SCIENTISTS OPENED A GATEWAY TO A HELL DIMENSION NEXT TO NEPTUNE.

Surrey

Astronaut I’d Trust Most to Save My Life: Neil Armstrong, First Man

Neil Armstrong comes close to dying four times in First Man: when his X-15 bounces off the atmosphere in the opening scene, when the thruster pack of Gemini VIII malfunctions and sends the craft into an unstoppable spin, when he almost crashes the LLRV—that ridiculous jet-powered lunar module trainer he ejects from—and when he lands the lunar module itself on the moon, after two computer overflows, with eight seconds’ worth of gas left in the tank. Each time, he saves the day at the last second because he knows precisely when the last second is.

Ryan Gosling’s Armstrong isn’t as warm and reassuring as say, a pile of rocks, or Tony Goldwyn’s Armstrong in From the Earth to the Moon. But as an elite pilot-engineer, he embodies NASA’s “work the problem” approach, and cheats death not through feats of daring but through eerie calm and methodical problem-solving ability. I would not like to be married to Gosling’s Armstrong, but I’d trust him to get us back on the ground alive. —Baumann

The Best Astronaut Movie Score Is …

Surrey: Astounding visuals aside, the thing most space movies on our matrix share is an awesome score. Picking a favorite space movie score—and we’re not even including any of John Williams’s iconic music from the Star Wars franchise—is an inherently contentious exercise, like definitively claiming Chick-fil-A is a superior fried chicken chain to Popeyes, or determining whether Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal is the men’s tennis GOAT.

Alas, we’ve got to pick some contenders for the best movie music, some of which should be obvious. How can we not consider: 2001, First Man, Interstellar, and Apollo 13? Am I missing any big ones?

Baumann: Well I don’t know anything about tennis, but I agree with your point about space movies having routinely great soundtracks. The first one I’d like to nominate is The Right Stuff, which is my favorite space movie full-stop. This soundtrack interpolates military standards with the greatest hits of His Most Serene Majesty Gustav Holst with Rocky composer Bill Conti’s incredible original score, highlighted by the aspirational “Breaking the Sound Barrier” and the exultant “Yeager’s Triumph,” which for lack of a better way to put it, sounds like what the desire to be an astronaut ought to sound like. Seriously, go to 4:01 in this clip and talk to me when you come back out of ionization blackout.

Surrey: As much as I would like to be a Space Movie Completist, I have to out myself as someone who hasn’t yet seen The Right Stuff—which you already know, and are forcing me to admit here. I’ll take all the requisite flak. I will watch The Right Stuff by the end of this year! But you’ve arguably committed an equally egregious sin, having never watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music is beautiful, but it’s also a soundtrack full of works from classical composers. (Stanley Kubrick famously commissioned a score, but never actually used it.) So while it’s an iconic part of 2001’s legacy, it doesn’t match our criteria.

So I’m just going to go back one year and nominate Justin Hurwitz’s score for First Man. (I may hold a personal bias for “The Landing” because it’s excellent music to listen to while trying to get into a #BlogZone.) The music simultaneously captures the weight of what Neil Armstrong was trying to accomplish and conveys all the emotional baggage he’s carried with him along the way. First Man’s score sounds epic, but it’s also got an undercurrent of pathos—something that feels perfectly suited for any narrative centered on space travel, considering the type of perilous journeys these characters are subjecting themselves to.

Baumann: You mentioned 2001! I think having a soundtrack instead of a score is fine—as I said, The Right Stuff uses Holst and other songs liberally—but my main gripe with that soundtrack is personal: My South Carolina Gamecock football team uses “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as entrance music and everyone calls it “2001” as if the piece itself doesn’t have a title, and that’s always bugged me. Though since I’ve never actually heard anyone with a deep Lowcountry accent try to pronounce “Zarathustra,” I don’t know if this is in reality a mercy.

But I digress.

You liked First Man way more than I did, but the single undeniable truth about that film is that “The Landing” is a fucking banger, a composition worthy of the epic achievement of landing on the moon. But even greater than the First Man soundtrack—which is indeed great—is “Adagio in D Minor” from Sunshine, otherwise known as the backing music to the “Kaneda, What Do You See” scene I mentioned a few segments ago. It’s one of those pieces of music that elevates an already incredible scene, like the best parts of the Star Wars soundtrack.

I’d also like to make sure that we at least mention James Horner’s incredible score from Apollo 13. “The Launch” could not more perfectly tie the visuals to the dialogue to the music of the movie’s best scene. It defines the arc of, well, the launch, in a way that has you humming along while at the same time not realizing the music’s there. And if you can get from splashdown to the end of the credits without getting choked up, you’re a stronger man than I am.

Surrey: Midway through “The Launch” that thing crescendos like a boss (technical music term), which is a great way to conclude that James Horner’s score for Apollo 13 is as worthy of plaudits as any score on this matrix. To paraphrase one of our favorite space shows that’s responsible for roughly one-third of all our Slack conversations: so say we all.

Baumann: [Running behind, shirtless, holding a box of Animal Crackers]

Wait wait wait, we forgot one!

Surrey: [Copy and pasted from Slack] I really don’t even know how to respond to that.