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Ryan Gosling takes one giant leap for mankind as Neil Armstrong in First Man, opening this week. Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle’s look at the life of the iconic astronaut and the legendary space mission that led him to become the first person to walk on the moon is another in a long line of space travel movies that focus on the trials and tribulations of astronauts.
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Chazelle and Gosling are at their height of the creative powers, so it will be interesting to see if First Man does to space travel movies what La La Land did for musicals. In fact, we may already have lift-off as The Challenger movie starring Michelle Williams as Christa McAuliffe was recently given the green light.
Here’s Mandatory’s list of the 10 greatest astronaut movies that explore space, the final frontier.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s poetic, sci-fi symphony is a master class on space movies past, present, and future.
2. The Right Stuff
Writer-director Philip Kaufman’s All-American epic focuses on the original Mercury 7 astronauts, detailing the highs and lows of the elite brotherhood that would define the space program in its earliest and ballsiest days.
3. Apollo 13
“Houston, we have a problem…” Ron Howard’s best film stars Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon as the ill-fated Apollo 13 crew whose lives are put in jeopardy when their lunar mission has to be aborted. Howard’s technically accurate film looks and feels like a documentary, but plays out as a thriller as NASA must devise a seat-of-their-space-pants plan to bring the astronauts home.
4. The Martian
Matt Damon plays a stranded astronaut who must rely on his ingenuity to survive and signal to Earth that he is alive. Director Ridley Scott is a sci-fi master but plays it cool, relying on Damon’s charm to make this Robinson Crusoe in space, a thrilling, smart, and funny popcorn film.
This masterfully crafted, nerve-wracking space ballet (Alfonso Cuarón won an Oscar for Best Director) revolves around an (inter)stellar performance by Sandra Bullock.
This eccentric psychological thriller from Duncan Jones (a.k.a David Bowie’s son) is a slow burn, carried in part by a breakout performance by Sam Rockwell. Astronaut Sam Bell is a burnt-out astronaut miner in the last leg of a three-year stint. As he counts down the days to his return home, he realizes the life he has created may not entirely be his own.
Any cinephile worth his weight in Criterion Collection DVDs knows the Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris from the Steven Soderbergh remake. The 1971 Soviet version is a haunting and hypnotic mind-fuck that plays out like a sci-fi existential crisis.
Christopher Nolan shoots for the stars in this thought-provoking depiction of humanity’s decline, but the sum of its parts just don’t make for the all-time great we were hoping for. Still, Nolan’s ambition wrapped up in Matthew McConaughey’s emotion is worth a watch.
9. Space Cowboys
Your grandpa’s favorite astronaut movie is a yarn built around its geriatric stars (Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, James Garner) who team up for one last ride into space.
In this film, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland tell a surreal tale of eight doomed astronauts trying to save Earth by racing towards the sun. It’s easy on the eyes but bogged down by a convoluted plot.