Volumes of opinion on the internet and in print have debated and determined the best movies about space. What makes a great space movie? Cast, story, visual effects, love for subject matter or devotion to precision?
The choices on our list may be debatable as picks for the finest cinematic portrayals of space. What’s not debatable is the realism that defined their depiction of space, the people and the science behind space exploration, and the emotions that accompany human voyage into the uncharted.
The Martian (2015)
Based on the eponymous novel by Andy Weir, The Martian is the story of astronaut Mark Whatney who gets stranded alone on Mars in the year 2035, and demonstrates extraordinary thinking and skills to survive the consequences of loneliness and hunger A columnist on Space.com believes The Martian is possibly the most realistic movie about space for its portrayal of scientists. So realistic that many believed the movie was based on a true story. We won’t know for sure until someone actually ends up building a colony on Mars.
When a space movie plot is inspired by the works of a man of science, there’s bound to be more than a semblance of reality to it. The mind-bending blockbuster relied on theoretical physicist Kip Thorne as science advisor, resulting in the most scientifically accurate onscreen depiction of a black hole among other factual details. Scientific accuracy comes with a price – volumes of research and special effects so novel and extensive that the special effects crew created new CGI rendering software and ended up with 800 terabytes of data, and the VFX research led to the publication of scientific papers. When was the last time you heard of movie effects inspiring science in real life?
Gravity tells the story of two astronauts marooned in space, struggling for survival and overcoming every odd stacked against them. Gravity is another rare attempt to capture the reality of space, both benign and brutal. Director Alfonso Cuarón transformed his vision into big screen reality with painstaking work to make the movie mirror its eponymous natural phenomenon as closely as possible. Along with its fair share of much debated flaws, Gravity got a few things right, including space station sets, spacesuit design, scientific detailing and ironically for a movie, the silence of space. No need to mention the critically-acclaimed performance of spacewalking duo Sandra Bullock and George Clooney is worth paying to watch.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The movie is based on the Apollo 13 mission that nearly ended in disaster. Retelling a complicated real-life space drama in cinematic terms can be a dangerous mission that makes or breaks careers and sinks studio budgets. In the end, the director’s success in balancing lived reality and creative liberty, and the stellar cast’s earnest performances won over public and critics, and NASA astronauts who attended the premiere. As for historical accuracy, the real astronaut Jim Lovell who was one of the central figures on the fateful mission said shortly after attending the 1995 premiere: “Everything. The instrument panels, the console switches. That’s exactly what it looks like inside.” He didn’t, however say “Houston, we have a problem.” – the famous quote that sits at number 50 on an American Film Institute list of top movie quotes in Hollywood. Lovell’s exact words were, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Memorable movie quotes don’t always cling to reality.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
To quote from an article in The Week, legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his crew “paid attention to science,” according to Peter Norvig, formerly NASA’s top computer scientist. “They didn’t cheat and have instantaneous transportation all the way across the solar system. It still took them a couple of years to get to Jupiter, and it took 10 minutes for transmissions to get back and forth.” For a movie released in 1968 and set 33 years after, 2001: A Space Odyssey got its scientific accuracy remarkably down pat. Kubrick engaged consultants, including former NASA employees. No wonder the film accurately depicts zero-gravity situations, the behaviour and disposition of astronauts, and spacecraft when no one had the faintest idea of what one actually looked like. Even HAL 9000, the memorable artificial intelligence character that eventually goes rogue, echoes the predicament of contemporary AI creators whose attempts to build intelligent systems sometimes yield unpleasant consequences, proving that you can’t train a computer for everything.
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