In honor of the terrific new sci-fact movie "Gravity," here's our highly subjective list of cinema's 11 best trips in a rocket ship.
11. The "Star Wars" trilogy, prequels
Fun fact: I don't really care about "Star Wars" and am only adding this entry out of a vague duty to populism and angry readers.
Let's just include both the 1972 Andrei Tarkovsky and 2002 Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney versions. Both are challenging, fascinating slogs (that only nerdy cinephiles like) about a hovering research station observing a massive planet called Solaris. And the planet is observing the observers right back. The sentient Solaris can also manifest memories and insecurities of the human scientists, bringing a dead wife or child back to life, for instance. It's all really creepy.
Slow and frustrating as the movies are, I think they (and the novel they're based on) get at a fear of space as the unknown. The movies ask some pretty terrifying questions. What waits for us after death? What freaky stuff lurks in the dark?
Before he entered the A-list stratosphere with "Avengers," Joss Whedon brought his cult series "Firefly" to the big screen. Starring a pre-"Castle" Nathan Fillion as the leader of a band of space-traveling mercenaries, "Serenity" both ties up some loose ends of the show and stands alone as an action-packed sci-fi swashbuckler.
So Danny Boyle's ("Slumdog Millionaire") space thriller goes a bit bonkers in its final stretch. Surprise, it's a horror movie!
But the lead-up is awe-inspiring and exciting enough to make up for its stumbles.
It concerns a group of astronauts on a mission to reignite a dying sun with a really big bomb. If they don't, humanity will be extinct within 50 years.
7. "The Right Stuff"
This rousing 1983 movie, adapted from the book by Tom Wolfe, follows the original U.S. Mercury 7 astronauts and the humble beginnings of the space program.
The topic and a cast that includes Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward make "The Right Stuff" as awesomely American as an outdoor country concert on the Fourth of July.
Sam Rockwell stars as the sole (human) inhabitant of Earth's moon. Working alongside a Kevin Spacey-voiced robot, he mines for an energy source and ships it to Earth. Coming up on the end of his three-year stint, Rockwell discovers something really awful about his circumstances.
A corporate satire under the guise of a sci-fi movie. And just about perfect.
5. "Apollo 13"
Before "Gravity," the best and best-known of the disaster-in-space genre. You can't do better than Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton working mad problem-solving skills to get home. When they break back through Earth's atmosphere and the control room bursts into applause and you burst into tears because it's so life-affirming? Yeah, that's a good scene.
Sure, not primarily a space movie, but it does contain one of the most beautiful moments in all of space cinema: WALL-E and EVE's zero-gravity dance around the space station.
It has its problems. The dialogue and character arc are a little hokey. The musical score's a little too much.
But these are minor flecks of flaws. With its revolutionary effects and transcendent visuals, "Gravity" is one of the most deeply immersing experiences ever seen on the big screen. See it big and see it in 3-D, and it might be one of the best film-going experiences of your life. I'm guessing at home on Blu-ray, not so much.
What should have been a cheesy, cheapie throw-away ended up one of the most enduring and dread-inducing horror movies of all-time. The movies have given us plenty of reasons not to explore space. "Alien" made a pretty effective case.
1. "2001: A Space Odyssey"
You have the monkeys and H.A.L. 9000 and the bone/spaceship cut and the space child that might be a new hope for humanity or its demise. You have a cold, methodically paced masterpiece that intentionally breaks itself in its final act and somehow manages to be all the better for it.