Space has always drawn our eye; the night sky is a compelling aspect of life on earth. It’s no surprise that space is one of the popular destinations for movies, too.
Many “best space movies” lists include a variety of movies set in space but not actually about space. The Star Wars movies are a fantasy hero journey. Alien could take place anywhere. The Europa Report is a documentary-style horror movie. While these are all great movies set in space – they aren’t space movies.
On this list, you’ll find no aliens, no fantasy franchises, and no horror movies. Here are the best space movies – that are actually about space.
This post was originally published in February 2018 and updated in April 2020 with new movies.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It’s impossible to create a list of space movies and not include 2001: A Space Odyssey. Stanley Kubrick’s spectacular space epic is based less on scientific reality than many on this list, but it provides plenty of food for thought.
If you’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, strap in for the nearly 2.5-hour experience. In many ways, this is the movie that defined the space movie genre. You’ll still be astounded by the 50-year old visual effects.
The Right Stuff (1983)
The Right Stuff has long been considered a great movie – and one of the classic space movies. It covers the important first chapter of American spacefaring history, starting in 1947 through early 1963.
The Right Stuff follows the early air force pilots and men who would go on to become the Mercury 7. It chronicles their life and flights and provides a unique insight into the humanity behind the first humans the U.S. put in space.
Apollo 13 (1995)
When Apollo 13 was released, it became an instant classic. It covers the launch and mission of the same name, as well as the three astronauts aboard Apollo 13 when their mission went awry. It focuses primarily on mission commander Jim Lovell and why he fought hard to bring his crew home.
Despite being two decades old, Tom Hanks’ performance as Commander Lovell comes in his prime. Apollo 13 still wows audiences with the timelessness of its story.
October Sky (1999)
October Sky is set in 1957 in the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia. It follows the story of a young man (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) inspired to learn rocketry by the launch of Sputnik. Based on the true story of Homer H. Hickam, Jr. – who went on to become a NASA engineer –, October Sky puts us back in the dawn of the space age.
If you’re looking for an inspiring reminder of the magic of space and why we look skyward, October Sky fits the bill.
Gravity engages with the subject matter of every astronaut or space tourist’s worst fear: being alone in space, nearly out of control, when everything that can go wrong does go wrong.
It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the sole survivors of an accident on their space station. Gravity is visually stunning and stays long your mind after watching it. For this and many other reasons, Gravity swept the Academy Awards in 2013, winning Best Picture and Best Director.
Interstellar takes some scientific leaps that physicists may one day actually accomplish here on earth. Paired with director Christopher Nolan’s keen visual eye and commitment to scientific realism, make Interstellar a strong and compelling character story.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (with Jessica Chastain supporting and a cameo by Matt Damon), Interstellar is as much about exploring space as the planet we call home.
The Martian (2015)
Based on the Andy Weir book of the same name, The Martian chronicles the story of astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon), accidentally marooned on Mars. With strong scientific roots and engaging characters, The Martian is easily one of the best – and most realistic – space movies based in the near-future of space research.
Directed by space master Ridley Scott and backed by a supporting cast with amazing star power – including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover – The Martian hits the nail on the head and is an instant classic for your space movie collection.
Hidden Figures (2017)
Set only a few years after October Sky, Hidden Figures continues the exploration of America’s space race. In 1961, Katherine Johson is one of NASA’s human “computers,” working to calculate the complex math necessary to put a man in space.
Hidden Figures focuses on the start of Johnson’s spectacular career and how she overcame racial and gender discrimination to become one of NASA’s most accomplished mathematicians. It’s an inspiring story, especially for young women who dream of joining the aerospace industry.
First Man (2018)
More of a character drama than other movies on this list, First Man focuses closely – literally – on the first man to set foot on the moon: Neil Armstrong.
The film, like the book that inspired it, follows Armstrong in his personal journey to the moon, and offers an intimate peek at the costs he paid to be the ‘first man.’
Ad Astra (2019)
The most recent space movie on my list is worth watching only for the glorious visuals – it offers a breathtaking view of space and humans living across the solar system. The science is mostly fiction, but any of us who’ve spent time gazing at NASA’s Astronomy Photo of the Day will give it a pass.
On the other hand, the story itself and emotional tone is stilted and stale, so those looking for Oscar-worthy performances will be disappointed. Instead, just keep waiting for those epic shots of Neptune.
If you want to watch these movies in the order they happened instead of by release date, here’s how to do it:
- October Sky (Early American Rocketry)
- The Right Stuff (The Mercury & Gemini Programs)
- Hidden Figures (The Mercury & Gemini Programs)
- First Man (The Apollo Program)
- Apollo 13 (The Apollo Program)
- Gravity (The Shuttle Program)
- The Martian (Mars Colonization)
- Ad Astra (Future Space Exploration)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (Future Space Exploration)
- Interstellar (Future Space Exploration)
Which of these best space movies is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!