My favorite “serious” space movies

In a Facebook thread, Brad R. Torgersen and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (my fellow Galaxy’s Edge authors) asked about my list of “serious” space movies (fiction or fictionalized history, not documentary films). These aren’t necessarily good films, but they’re films that in some way tried to make space travel in the near future (or in some cases near past) feel believable. And for that I enjoy them despite any flaws.

And boy, do some of them have flaws! I’m sure some of you will point them out in the comments. Go ahead; but realize I. Don’t. Care. The list is sooooooo short, a space junkie like me has to take what I can get. This list contains everything I could find after looking at every single page of Amazon’s science fiction DVD category. Out of nearly 8,000 titles, I found only 20 or so that even attempt to have believable space travel. With numbers that small, I have to look for reasons to include a film, not jump on reasons to exclude it.

And if you know any that I missed, please let me know! Here’s what I’m looking for: verisimilitude. As Harlan Ellison explained in an essay I can’t find right now, verisimilitude means it isn’t perfect, but it feels real enough to suspend your disbelief for the course of the story. What I look for in a “serious” space film is:

  • Some sense of realistic physics, though I don’t mind corners cut for the sake of pacing. But no teleportation, no FTL, no inertialess drives. Travel through space should take time, and the rocket equation and orbital mechanics should rule.
  • Light-speed delay when communicating across space.
  • No artificial gravity. It’s spin, boost, or zero G!
  • No magic.
  • No psi.
  • No supernatural. It’s OK if the characters believe in the supernatural; but the viewer shouldn’t have to in order for the story to make sense.
  • Vacuum, radiation, acceleration, resources, and life support should be serious issues that characters must plan for.
  • No replicators or holodecks (though nanoassembly and microassembly and 3D printing might be a good substitute for replicators).
  • No artificial intelligences that might as well be human. If there must be AIs, they should be recognizably computers (like HAL in 2001), bound by programming rules even if those rules are unclear.
  • No aliens (with some slack cut if the whole point of the film is first contact).

Some of these films will fail some of these criteria. Some will fail most of them, even. But if the filmmakers made an effort to follow just a couple of them and be consistent, then the film is on my list.

Here’s the list, in alphabetical order.

  • Apollo 13. Not science fiction, of course, though it is fictionalized to a degree. Any student of Apollo can tell you all the corners they cut to keep the story a manageable length. But director Ron Howard, star Tom Hanks, and the entire crew were fanatical about realism here.
  • Apollo 18. This is a found footage fake documentary about a secret Apollo mission and what goes horribly wrong with it. The menace turns out to be predictable by anyone who knows SF horror, and there’s a 250,000-mile-wide logic hole in the ending; and I. Don’t. Care. The entire film is set in a realistic Lunar Module and Command Module and on a realistic Lunar landscape, and I loved every nut and bolt of it.
  • Astronaut Farmer. Billy Bob Thornton plays a former astronaut named Farmer who gave up his career to go back and take care of the family farm. (No, subtlety is not their strong suit.) He decides to use salvaged gear to make and launch his own space mission with the help of his wife and kids. Yeah, wildly implausible, but they dressed it up nicely. When he finally launches, it has much of the feel of an old Mercury mission; and frankly, I do believe a small group of private individuals could launch a modern Mercury mission if government didn’t shut them down first. Maybe not a single astronaut in a barn; but let’s face it, this blog post uses more computer memory than the original Mercury guidance computer. No, I’m not exaggerating: I took a backstage tour of Kennedy Space Center, and they took us to the old Mercury guidance control station, and through the guidance computer. It was the size of a walk-in closet, and it had a whopping seven kilobytes of memory. With all the advances in computing power, materials science, rocket fuels, communications, and space technology, recreating Mercury should be a breeze, if anyone wanted to pay to do it.
  • Contact. OK, this one breaks a whole bunch of my rules: there’s FTL, there’s aliens, there’s artificial gravity, and more. And I. Don’t. Care. Jodie Foster as Dr. Arroway is so good, and the depiction of scientists as real human beings with aspirations and failings is so believable that I have to include it here. The space technology depicted is unbelievable, but the space program and the politics surrounding it are entirely believable. Plus I like the ambiguous ending, including an ending that rather surprisingly leaves room for faith. And besides: it may not have realistic spaceships, but all those radio telescopes, man! I just wanted to jump in there and play with them!
  • The Conquest of Space. This is probably the worst of the list, with a jumbled storyline and some improbable space collisions. I only picked it up after I had cleaned Amazon out of better titles. Still, it was an early film to use a rotating ring station for spin gravity.
  • Countdown. Fair warning: ignore the improbable, almost mystical ending. Just turn it off and believe that the protagonist died, because that makes more sense than the way he saved himself. But up to that point, director Robert Altman made an almost documentary film about what happens when NASA tries to accelerate their Lunar plans to beat a surprise Russian mission.
  • Destination Moon. Yes, it’s dated. Yes, the comic relief scenes are a bit embarrassing. But this was a story by Robert Freakin’ Heinlein! And he also served as technical adviser! They really aimed for accuracy as best they knew it then.
  • Destination Space. A very obscure film about another ring station and an accident aboard that threatens the station. This was apparently a pilot for a series that was never picked up. Again, dated, but not bad for the period.
  • Europa Report. A 2013 film in found footage documentary style, telling of a mission to search for possible life on Europa. They did a nice job with the hazards of space, the long tedious stretches between planets, the spin gravity, and the exploration of Europa.
  • From the Earth to the Moon. After Tom Hanks did Apollo 13, he convinced HBO to do this miniseries on the Apollo program; and he applied the same attention to detail here as they did in Apollo 13. This series is brilliant. Go watch it. Now. Twice.
  • Gravity. Yeah, some of the orbital mechanics were pretty screwy, but the hazards of vacuum and collision and separation and life support were handled very well.
  • Marooned. Apparently this one did not sit well with some astronaut’s wives, because it put their worst fears up on the screen. It tells of a NASA mission that goes wrong, and Mission Control’s desperate attempts to send up a rescue mission.
  • Mission to Mars. Yes, it has a cheesy ending taken straight from 2001 (breaking one of my rules as well). Yes, the protagonist’s flashbacks to his dead wife are a bit heavy handed. Yes, the one character who sacrifices himself seemed to die pretty needlessly. (Mind you, that could’ve been a great scene with just a few tweaks.) But the mission prep and the zero G scenes and a lot of the ship operation scenes felt right to me. And some of the Mars exploration felt right as well.
  • Moon. OK, the economics of the film make no sense. I won’t spoil it here, but there are cheaper ways to man a Lunar base. But oh, man, what a Lunar base! Everything about it felt real to me (other than the gravity – Lunar gravity was beyond their effects budget). And the miniatures for the outside shots! Want! Want! WANT!
  • October Sky. Again not science fiction, but rather fictionalized history about a group of boys who study rockets as a way to escape their coal town. The scene where Homer proves mathematically that he has been unjustly accused is a masterpiece of serious SF: math saves the day! And the ending… Well, the ending makes me wish my dad were still alive, so I could give him a hug. For that reason alone, this one goes on the list.
  • Outland. All right, so it’s just a cheesy High Noon in space; but it’s a cheesy High Noon in space, with Sean Connery! Plus the sets and wardrobe for the mining base just convinced me: this was what life on a mining base on Io would be like. (Actually I suspect the radiation level on Io is too high, but still…)
  • Race to Mars. In 2007, Canadian TV did a strange double-feature: they filmed a science “documentary” and a science fiction mini-series at the same time, with the same footage. The documentary, Mars Rising, describes the known science of Mars and what a Mars mission would be like, including staged footage from a hypothetical mission; and then the miniseries takes that exact same footage (plus more) and weaves it into a story. This obscure little double-feature is as good as it gets for “serious” science fiction. I also have a nostalgic attachment to it: I bought these discs specifically for inspiration so I could write Mars stories; and while watching these discs, I was struck with how difficult it is to land on Mars. Suddenly I imagined a way that mission planners might get around that: send astronauts to Mars orbit, but then have them control robots and landers without ever going to Mars themselves. That became the inspiration for “Not Close Enough”, the first story I sold to Analog. (And to show how great my lucky idea was, Buzz Aldrin himself has suggested exactly that approach!)
  • Red Planet. Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy. I would’ve liked it better without the crazed cyborg. But some of the zero G was nice, and I liked the exploration of Mars. (The less said about the ending, the better.)
  • The Right Stuff. Another fictionalized history, this time of the Mercury program. It’s very focused on the astronauts, but some of the mission planning and training is excellent.
  • Space Cowboys. Some of the things they do with a shuttle are wildly implausible. Reaching the Moon with the missiles at the end makes wildly implausible look pretty good. But I liked how this film captured the spirit of the astronauts and the training program.
  • Space Truckers. OK, this film is not a “serious” film of any kind. It’s humor, and sometimes way too broad even as humor. The spaceships look like semi-trucks. They haul genetically engineered square pigs (for easier stacking). The ship’s computer has a southern accent. There’s an explosive decompression scene that defies belief. (Seriously, there’s no way George Wendt is fitting through that tiny hole.) But it makes me laugh. And more important, the lunch counter built around a rotating ring of a space station made me smile, because in that one little detail they were trying to get it right. (Let’s just not talk about the cyborg with his sex toy with the pull starter… No… I said let’s not talk about that!)
  • 2001:
    A Space Odyssey. For some, the gold standard for believable space travel. It’s dated in some ways, but it’s still fun to droll over the spacecraft and the space scenes. Just don’t try to make sense of the ending…
  • 2010:
    Odyssey Two. In which they try to make sense of the ending. If anything, the rocket technology in this one is a lot more nuts-n-bolts. In 2001, you just accepted “This is how it works.” In this film, “how it works” becomes a critical plot element. Also the computer technology of HAL here felt very real to me as a programmer. (Damn users gave him contradictory requirements!)

Two notable absences from this list are Armageddon and Space Camp. I haven’t seen either one. In the case of Armageddon, I’ve been warned away by people who say it won’t pass my nonsense filter. Space Camp is just one that never catches my eye when I’m shopping.

Opinions? Suggestions? Jokes at my expense? All are welcome.

2 thoughts on “My favorite “serious” space movies”

  1. In Europa Report: we learned in Destination Moon not to go EVA unless tethered. And why didn’t they send down a probe or use radar to determine ice thickness and integrity before landing on a frozen surface?

    So many SF movies could be so much more accurate if they would just hire us writers as consultants (and screenwriters).

  2. Armageddon, like the movie Starship Troopers, is a guilt pleasure. Violates any number of rules, but damn it’s fun.

    And Apollo 18 was unexpectedly a surprise. The Apollo era tech was better presented than in most documentaries.

    The series Defying Gravity is worth watching. Also there’s an article online about what would have been in the second season.

    Dr. Phil

    Dr. Phil

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