Thanks to “First Man,” the Damien Chazelle film starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong that was released Friday, we have yet another space movie.
People love space movies. There’s something about watching humans struggle in the unforgiving, mysterious and undiscovered realms of the universe that satiates a particular craving.
But what, exactly, makes a movie a space movie? Is it merely the location? What if only a few scenes are in space? What about the involvement of aliens? Is it a space movie if the movie title has a space-y word, like “galaxy” or, say, “space”?
Space movies cross genres — some are action flicks while others are more meditative dramas — but they all have a similar appeal. Perhaps it’s how they’re the most extreme man vs. nature story, in which the harshness of space exposes the best and worst of the human spirit. Or maybe it’s the enjoyment of witnessing the grit, hard work and scientific genius needed to get to space and survive there. And you can’t forget those iconic scenes showing our home planet from the heavens and how this inspires us to be better to each other, and to the Earth itself. Space movies, like space itself, spark introspection about humanity’s place in light of the expansiveness of the universe.
These are the kinds of questions you have to grapple with before you even try to rank the best space movies. So, in the accompanying illustration is a system on how to tell whether your favorite movie is actually a space movie — including a handy, totally professional flowchart!
We’ve eliminated sci-fi from consideration. These movies, which are immensely enjoyable, undermine crucial characteristics that make space movies appealing. Technological advances totally outside of the realm of possibility are treated as givens, afterthoughts. In sci-fi, traveling at the speed of light, which is not possible, is just chop-chop, smack that button on our space jet panel and let’s get moving, I got places to go and warp drive to get me there.
Also, space ain’t so bad in science-fiction movies. Watching them doesn’t make you feel the fear that the celestial environment should provoke in your heart, like how if you’re in space without a proper suit, your body will expand to twice its size and you’d suffocate pretty instantly. Also it’s crazy cold.
By freeing sci-fi from the expectations we have from space movies, you can enjoy them even more. No more “Whoa! Bombs falling in zero gravity in ‘The Last Jedi’? That’s not possible!”
“We did all go, ‘How do bombs drop in space?’ “ Ben Morris, visual effects supervisor for “The Last Jedi,” told Nerdist. “And we sat there for ages. And then [director] Rian [Johnson] said, ‘They’re Maglev [magnetic] bombs. It’s Star Wars. Let’s not worry. Let’s move on.’ “
Sorry, the “Star Wars” movies aren’t space movies.
The presence of aliens is usually a clear signal that we’re deep in sci-fi territory, in which case, refer to the section above. If aliens are walking, talking characters in the movie, it’s not a space movie. If the aliens seem realistically scary and real and shriek or chase you around, then it’s an alien movie, not a space movie. This includes aliens invading Earth.
If it’s based on a true story about people trying to get to space and we see at least one or two scenes in space, it’s a space movie. Any realistic movie about space travel should contain some essential space-movie elements, such as how difficult it is to get there and how harsh a place it is. “Apollo 13″ is the quintessential space movie.
But we’d also argue that “Hidden Figures” is a space movie. It’s about NASA and the ordinary people needed to get to space. But more importantly, the entire plot is about solving the complicated puzzle of orbiting the Earth and returning, in addition to how ignorance (racism) holds us all back. We get the climactic scenes of John Glenn in space and humans looking up at the sky from Earth. And “Hidden Figures” makes space math look thrilling, which should count for something.
In true space movies, space itself is a character and essential to the story, not merely a setting. The characteristics of space prompt all of the other drama or action. The entirety of “Gravity” is about how awfully difficult space can be. While “The Martian” is about something that hasn’t happened yet, it could maybe one day, and the story — both on Mars and on Earth — is driven by the attributes of space and our desire to explore beyond Earth. Both space movies!
You could argue either way with a handful of movies.
“Interstellar” has sci-fi elements, but the most outlandish (spoiler!) are reserved for the end of the film. Much of the movie is about the science of black holes and exploring space-time, and to get the needed visual effect, a famous astrophysicist helped create “the most accurate simulation ever of what a black hole would look like.” (Likewise, “Contact,” from what I’ve read, appears to be a borderline space movie. But I haven’t seen it.)
“Armageddon,” it can be argued, is a space movie. Sure, the idea that NASA would send oil drillers to bore into an asteroid propelling toward Earth may seem insane. But it’s all about sending some guys to space and them trying to blow up a space thing. “Deep Impact,” while more scientifically accurate, is more of a the-world-is-ending movie.
Despite its misleading title, “Space Jam” is not a space movie. It has nothing at all to do with space. It did, however, give us an incredibly catchy space song.