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Not sure what to watch tonight? If you're looking for an exceptional film with substance and one that offers a glimpse into the unknown then look no further. I've compiled a shamelessly biased list of the five greatest space movies ever made. All of the films here are visually jaw dropping thanks to the finest cinematographers of their respective times. Their stories are such that you'll be talking about them days later, and each ones deserves a spot in your collection.
Release Date: 2014
- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Cinematographer: Hoyte van Hoytema
- Cameras: Imax MSM 9802, Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2
- Lenses: Panavision C Series Anamorphic, Panavision E Series Anamorphic, IMAX MK-II Hasselblad Lenses, Mamiya Large Format Lenses
- Film Stocks: Kodak Vision3 500T 5219, Kodak Vision3 5207, in 35mm and 65mm.
Christopher Nolan is a master filmmaker who creates movies that challenge the audience without any hand holding or spoon feeding the storyline, and Interstellar is no exception. Although it is stunning to take in, this movie is far more than just cinematic eye candy. It is a beautiful narrative about time, sacrifice, love of family, regret, deception, and desperation. In fact, it might just be the best film he's ever made.
Exposition (no spoilers)
The story opens with Joseph A. Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) as a widowed single dad to two young children who he raises in partnership with his father in law. Once a NASA trained pilot and an accomplished engineer, Cooper is now a corn farmer out of necessity due to a massive worldwide food shortage. Staple crops such as wheat and okra are dying from a fungus called blight, while corn remains resistant for the time being. People everywhere are getting chronically ill from an over accumulation of dust being lodged deep into their lungs, and major dust storms are a common occurrence.
Cooper comes home one day and finds books lying all over the floor of the family study room. This isn't the first time, as his daughter Murph calls it the "Ghost". She's brilliant just like her father and tries to communicate with it using morse code. Another time in the room, dust gathers into various organized piles on the floor after a severe dust storm. Cooper determines that the dust piles on the floor are binary code, and he suspects that they might be real world coordinates. Cooper decides to drive to the coordinates while unbeknownst to him, Murph tags along by hiding under a blanket. After a long journey, the coordinates lead them to a private government military base. It turns out to be NASA, which now operates in secret because the general public would never approve of space exploration when the population is going hungry.
After a brief interrogation, they reveal to Cooper that corn will likely die off soon as well. They also predict that the earth will eventually run out of oxygen, as the blight continues to take over by thriving on nitrogen. Given the high stakes, Dr. Brand (played by Michael Caine) tells him mankind is meant to leave the earth, and asks Cooper to pilot his craft. The scientists at NASA have discovered a wormhole near Saturn that could be the gateway to inhabitable worlds, and they've already sent twelve astronauts on a high risk one way mission to twelve different planets to find out which world shows promise.
Cooper decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to leave his children with his father in law, and command the NASA mission. He has no choice but to leave while Murph is still upset, and they never share a proper goodbye. Not everything is at it seems when the team arrives into space, nor was the reality of the situation as promised. They were not prepared for what they would find.
Why You Need To See It
Interstellar makes the supernatural experiences in this film convincingly plausible, regardless of what your beliefs are. It never gets cheesy even when the plot is revealed in its entirety, which isn't something that can be said of all sci-fi movies. Not only that, but the film causes the viewer to question good and evil, as nothing in the story is black and white.
Even with it's nearly 3 hour run time, it's a guarantee that you will not be left bored. The jaw dropping 65mm IMAX film that Interstellar was shot on adds an immersive sense of realism that can't be replicated with any other medium. The soundtrack, which was composed by Hans Zimmer is a masterpiece in it's own right.
Interstellar is an incredibly emotional film. The concept of time lost is heartbreaking, and he uses it perfectly to tug at the viewer's heartstrings. I freely admit that I cry every time without fail. Like all of Nolan's films, it's best to watch it at least a couple of times to fully grasp the universe that he's created.
Dune: Part 1
Release Date: 2021
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Cinematographer: Greig Fraser
- Cameras: Arri Alexa LF IMAX, Arri Alexa Mini LF IMAX
- Lenses: Panavision H-Series and Ultra Vista Lenses
- Film Stocks: shot on digital cameras, then transferred to 35mm film, and scanned back to digital.
Based on the 1965 science fiction novel by author Frank Herbert, Dune: Part 1 is an exemplary gift to cinema courtesy of director Denis Villeneuve. As soon as the movie starts, there's a feeling of tension. The viewer is immediately aware that this story isn't going to be a casual viewing, and there's a constant sense of unease throughout film's 155 minute run time. This is something that Villeneuve excels at, and is a common thread in all of his films. At its core, Dune's story is a spiritual journey that combines themes of chaos, betrayal, embroilment, messianic beliefs, selflessness, and bravery.
Exposition (no spoilers)
The year is 10191, and Arrakis is a desert planet that is plentiful with a valuable spice. It is a rugged, hot, and unforgiving land to foreigners, while deadly giant sandworms known as Shai-Hulid rule the desert. Only the native tribes known as the Fremen have adapted well enough to survive. They live in the furthest remote regions of Arrakis, and long exposure to spice has given the Fremen uniquely blue eyes. The spice is a sacred hallucinogen for the Fremen, preserving life and providing enormous health benefits.
The outsiders known as the Harkonnens have owned the spice fields for 80 years. They are a brutal people with enormous wealth due to their monopoly on spice production. They are cruel to the Fremen, and both sides attach each other frequently. The Harkonnens have come to harvest spice from the land and take as much as possible. They make use of spice for the navigators of the Spacing Guild to find safe paths between the stars. Without spice, interstellar travel is impossible. This makes it the most valuable substance in the universe. But one day by imperial decree from the Emperor, the Harkonnens were gone.
Caladan is the homeworld of House Atreides. Atreides is always training to prepare for potential conflict with the Harkonnens at anytime. Paul Atreides (played by Timothée Chalamet) is the son of Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) and Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson). Paul is the future ruler of House Atreides. He has also been raised by his mother's religion The Bene Gesserit, and has a special power that he's in the process of honing. This unique ability that he wields can compel another person to do something using voice commands.
The Emperor who rules the universe, sends a convoy to Caladan to inform House Atreides that they are to take control of Arrakis, including spice production. House Atreides accepts, but the Harkonnens are deeply upset that the Emperor decided to give Arrakis to House Atreides. At the same time, Paul has been having vivid recurring dreams of Arrakis and the Fremen people from his home on Caladan. He asks his father to go to Arrakis with the first fleet, but his father warns that it is far too dangerous, and that he'll arrive along with everyone else once the land has been secured. Duke Leto plans to make an alliance with the Fremen.
When House Atreides arrives on Arrakis, Duke Leto realizes that the spice production equipment that the Harkonnens left for them is in dire disrepair. House Atreides begins to question why the Emperor sent them to take over Arrakis when it seems that they've been set up to fail. Everything begins to unravel very quickly from there.
Why You Need To See It
Director of Photography Greig Fraser is one of the most talented cinematographers of our time. Every frame of Dune could be its own award winning still photograph, which makes sense given that he took an early interest in photography. Fraser takes a minimalist approach to lighting with his brilliant use of negative fill, which involves subtracting light in order to create shadow and contrast in the frame. He's able to achieve this effect thanks in part to the high sensitivity to light of modern digital cinema cameras (Arri Alexa LF IMAX) allowing him to forgo the need for traditional powerful lighting setups that analog film still requires. Although Dune was shot digitally, the footage was then transferred to 35mm film stock, and later scanned back to digital. This gives the movie a completely unique look, as the digital image feels modern and familiar, while the beautiful grain structure of analog film adds a noticeable element of artistic realism.
The use of large scale military imagery and repeating patterns on screen throughout the film induces a persistent sense of dread. This is a very effective technique, as it causes the viewer to feel the fear of those on the receiving end of a violent encounter. On the other hand, the production design is incredibly beautiful. For example, the Caladan interiors have a distinctly beautiful Japanese influence. The world that the audience becomes immersed in is both awe inspiring and downright terrifying, all in perfect balance.
The way in which director Denis Villeneuve reveals major events in the story is nothing short of remarkable. He effectively uses eerily subtle signs of conflict that have yet to unfold to persistently keep the viewer on their toes. Rather than being a space focused film, Dune: Part 1 is an incredible political and religious narrative that just so happens to take place alongside the backdrop of space travel. It is simply not to be missed.
Release Date: 1979
- Director: Ridley Scott
- Cinematographer: Derek Vanlint
- Cameras: Panavision PSR R-200, Panavision Panaflex
- Lenses: Panavision C-Series and Cooke Varotal Lenses
- Film Stocks: Eastman 100T 5247 in 35mm
Ridley Scott's 1979 triumph, Alien is a heart pounding game of cat and mouse stripped down to rely on the core elements of great storytelling. There's no filler or gimmicks here. The aesthetic in Alien is absolutely iconic, and many other films have taken inspiration from it for decades now with good reason. It's arguably the best survivor horror movie ever made, even if it is a little bit light on character development.
Exposition (no spoilers)
The MU-TH-UR 6000, known as "Mother" is an AI computer onboard the Nostromo spaceship which houses a crew of seven. While the Nostromo is en route back to Earth, "Mother" receives a transmission of unknown origin from a nearby planetoid and the crew is obligated to investigate. The recording of the transmission is mysterious and unsettling, thus making the crew uneasy. Instead of completing the journey home, they have no choice but to set course for the planetoid due to contract obligations which states that any systematized transmission indicating a possible intelligent origin must be investigated.
Unfortunately, the planetoid has nasty environmental conditions, and something causes the ship to break down the moment they land. Communications are dead. Three crew members brave the elements outside and walk towards the signal, which leads them to an unknown structure. They investigate the interior of the building. Inside, they find a dead alien life form. One of the crew examines it closely, and it appears that something exploded out of its bones from the inside.
One of the other crew members goes down into a cave within the structure. He finds eggs. He investigates one of the eggs closely and sees movement within. The egg opens up, and without warning the alien life form violently latches onto his space helmet. They rush back to the ship to try and save him. When they take the space helmet off, they see that the alien life form has broken through the helmet glass and latched onto his entire face. They try to remove the life form by cutting into it, but the acid from the alien's blood literally burns through a few floors of the ship.
At some point when the crew isn't watching, the alien life form appears to have left the affected crew member. What happens next is genuinely horrifying.
Why You Need To See It
Even though it was released back in 1979, Alien still looks incredible to this day. There was no CGI available back then, yet the practical effects still hold up well. For example, the spaceship models are beautifully crafted pieces of art and the alien life form is timelessly convincing. It has the perfect color palette for a dark space movie, with cool shadows contrasting against rich warm skin tones in a way that only analog film can deliver. Frequent and tastefully executed camera movement adds a sense of intimacy, and the first person perspective handheld shots make the audience genuinely feel the fear on screen.
Sound is used sparingly well in this movie. Oftentimes you can only hear the astronauts breathing hard on board the ship or in their spacesuits which only adds to the suspense. The classic film score is both suspenseful when it needs to be and playful when the audience needs a break from the action.
The stunning set design can easily be overlooked by the stressful story, but it is quite beautiful to take in. Speaking of visuals, the scariest part of this movie is what isn't shown, leaving the audience to use their imagination in horror. I may or may not have jumped out of my seat a couple of times. Even though we're exposed to a huge volume of imagery in our modern culture, some parts of Alien are still completely unexpected, downright shocking, and definitely worth seeing.
The cast in this film is very much a treat. Dialogue between crew members is quite funny, and they're a sassy bunch. True to the times, they enjoy a ton of coffee and cigarettes throughout the film. Sigourney Weaver plays the ultimate strong female lead and is the true star of Alien. It's hard to compete with a woman who effortlessly wields a flame thrower and has a sailor's mouth to match. Also noteworthy is getting to see the incredibly talented Ian Holm (of Lord of The Rings fame) still in his prime.
In short, they don't make movies like this anymore. Alien is a slow paced horror film set in space with a totally unique storyline, especially for its time. Stunning visuals, captivating characters, and wildly unexpected events make Alien a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Just don't watch it before bedtime.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: 1968
- Director: Stanley Kubrick
- Cinematographers: Geoffrey Unsworth and John Alcott
- Cameras: Mitchell BFC 65mm, Mitchell FC 65mm
- Lenses: 65mm Super Panavision Lenses, Super Panavision 70 Lenses
- Film Stocks: Eastman 50T 5251 in 65mm.
2001: A Space Odyssey is the original gold standard to which all other space movies are measured against. The film which was released in 1968 remains a cinematic masterpiece. Personally, I've never been so bored while simultaneously been in absolute awe of a film. Much like its director Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey is unapologetically eccentric, and some parts are just plain weird. There's nothing else like it. Yet despite its idiosyncrasies, somehow it is still fitting to proclaim it the best space film ever made.
Exposition (no spoilers)
It needs to be said upfront that the plot is difficult to explain without giving away too much of the film. This is a rare instance where I'll say it's better to see the film then to be told. This is not a cop out. Rather, due to the unhurried pacing of the film, it would ruin the plot if I go into great detail here.
There are multiple acts to the story and the first one (Dawn of Man) outlines the origins of mankind evolving from apes. The opening scenes demonstrate how these primitive creatures learned to use tools to their advantage and to overpower their enemies with weapons.
Millions of years later in the second act, Dr. Heywood Floyd from the National Council of Astronautics is called up to the moon to investigate a mysterious situation at Clavius (a large crater on the moon), gather a report on the findings, and come up with recommendations as to how the news should be announced to the public.
Forty five minutes into the film and few plot details are revealed, so let's move on.
Why You Need To See It
Visually speaking, 2001: A Space Odyssey is absolutely gorgeous. It still looks incredible today just as it did when it was first released, in part thanks to the fact that it was shot on 65mm film, just like Interstellar. This is a massive image surface capture area for cinema, and the quality is stunning because of it. The use of color in this movie is particularly noteworthy, especially the deep reds and cool cyans for the interior of the spaceships. Not only is it beautiful to look at, it sets the correct tone for how the audience needs to feel in the scenes. Stanley Kubrick is a master of photographic composition, and 2001: A Space Odyssey is so full of award winning imagery that this may be the most compelling reason to see it. Lastly, the visual transitions from one scene in a time period to another completely different timeframe are incredibly well done. It quickly becomes apparent that Kubrick was gifted with a very creative and brilliant mind.
On the audio front, the opening scene and its unmistakeable music are an iconic moment in cinema history which have been often imitated or parodied. At times the movie is reminiscent of a ballet, with the musical orchestra paralleling the ships elegantly flying through space. At other times the music is often quite chilling, effectively portraying the mood of the scene. It's also worth mentioning that the voice actor for the HAL 9000 computer (Douglas Rain) delivered an incredible performance. HAL's voice is almost too calm at times and it couldn't have been done better.
Interestingly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is more relevant today than ever because of its commentary on sentient artificial intelligence. The HAL 9000 computer can reproduce or mimic most of the activities of the human brain, but with greater speed and reliability. In the film, it's declared that no HAL 9000 computer has ever made a mistake, and is incapable of error. The space crew's questions parallel the same concerns that we have today. Does AI have true feelings, is it capable of human emotion, is it possible for AI to turn on us and subsequently destroy us?
It is quite amazing to think that this movie was released a year before man landed on the moon, and yet it doesn't come off as ridiculous or unrealistic. Even Ipad-like tablet technology makes a cameo in the film. Even more impressive is the film's prediction about our reliance on technology. What happens when artificial intelligence makes a serious mistake? Or worse still, doesn't want to be shut off. Will it become sinister?
It's not a stretch to say that 2001: A Space Odyssey is an exercise in patience, so it's understandable that it didn't resonate with audiences when it was first released. Stanley Kubrick is a unique filmmaker who tells stories in his own way as he takes the audience on a very specific journey with him. Contrary to modern filmmaking, his cuts are quite lengthy at times, hammering home the point he's trying to make. Many scenes are drawn out so long to the point where it would be fair to say even excessively. He truly is equal parts brilliant and a mad scientist.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a film that needs to be experienced. You can't describe it to someone, they have to see it for themselves. Absolutely nothing is rushed, and this may be difficult for younger viewers with low attention spans due to our modern quick fix culture. It is cinematic art in that it leaves many questions unanswered or open to interpretation. And it is so bizarre towards the end. Bring an open mind when you see this film, because 2001 is going to expand it.
Release Date: 2016
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Cinematographer: Bradford Young
- Cameras: Arri Alexa XT M, Arri Alexa XT Plus
- Lenses: Camtec Vintage Ultra Prime, Kowa Cine Prominar and Zeiss Super Speed Lenses
Arrival is the second film by director Denis Villeneuve in this list, and for good reason. Arrival is admittedly not set in space, but it is very much otherworldly as much of the film takes place inside of an alien spaceship. It is an emotional story about first contact, and more importantly our fear of the unknown. Arrival shows that vulnerability is often needed in order to establish trust. It is a beautiful metaphor for bridging the gap between cultures, and embraces the idea that building mutual understanding is something to be prioritized in order for effective communication to take place.
Exposition (no spoilers)
In the opening of the film, Dr. Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) is a college professor who loses her daughter to a rare illness. One morning, she walks into her classroom where there are very few students. The students who are in attendance are distracted from the notifications going off on their phone, and one of the students asks Dr. Banks to turn the TV on to a news channel.
The news is reporting that a UFO has first touched down in Montana, but there are reports of the same occurrence at 12 locations worldwide. The unidentified object is at least 1,500 feet tall and hovers a few stories off the ground. Shortly after, an alarm is set off in their school and the entire college campus is sent home as panic ensues on campus. Fighter jets can be seen flying overhead, the US government declare a state of emergency, borders are closed, flights have been grounded, and people everywhere are panic buying groceries. Unrest is happening all around the world.
Dr. Banks is an excellent professional translator. Two days after the UFOs arrive, Colonel G. T. Weber (played by Forest Whitaker) from Army Intelligence shows up at her office asking for her help. He brings with him a recording that he asks her to translate for him. On the recording is an alien communicating with a human. She tells him that it's impossible to translate from an audio file, and that she would need to be in their presence to interact with them. He scoffs at her requirements, and abruptly leaves.
Colonel Weber later shows up in the middle of the night on her property via a military helicopter and agrees to her request to interact with the aliens in person. On behalf of the Army, Weber formally requests that Dr. Banks work as a translator to communicate with the aliens. While onboard the helicopter, she meets Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner) who is a theoretical physicist. She's told that she'll be working with him when they're in the shell of the alien spaceship. Colonel Weber makes it clear that their priorities are as follows: What do they want? Where are they from? How did they get here?
They soon arrive at a makeshift military base a few hundred feet away from the UFO. Ian and Dr. Banks are equipped with hazmat suits and shuttled from the base to the UFO. Every 18 hours the door opens up at the bottom of the ship allowing them in. The bottom opens up and they're forklifted inside. Gravity works differently inside of the UFO, in that it is nominal in a similar way to the gravity on the moon. They are in disbelief as to what's happening. It's a long dark hallway into the ship. As they walk further, it becomes apparent that they're now upside down in the tunnel.
The aliens slowly approach the glass from the opposite side. Overcome with fear, Dr. Banks is advised that she can begin her work.
Why You Need To See It
The cinematography of Arrival is best described as delicate. DP Bradford Young takes a realistic approach to lighting, which is to say that it's practical but still aesthetically pleasing. The exposure is consistently low key, colors are subdued, and cool tones are predominate throughout the film. While most of the film is quite steady, handheld shots with a wide aperture are used effectively for the most intimate moments of the film. I particularly admire his frequent tasteful use of silhouettes.
Arrival's interpretation of aliens is refreshing, a reimagining of what intelligent life from another planet might look like. It's unlike anything audiences have seen before. While the storyline may seem simple at first, as the film progresses it becomes especially compelling. Dr. Banks has visions of her daughter as a little girl, and though it haunts her it also inspire her work. There's a spiritual connection with the aliens, and the visions she's having are somehow free from the constraints of time. The future affects her past and vice versa.
Arrival speaks to mankind's tendency to jump to violent conclusions when something is not fully understood. It is an accurate portrayal of how humanity would likely react to a real life alien arrival. At the same time, it also reveals the power of an extending an olive branch when in conflict. This is a lesson many of our world leaders could learn from. Arrival is a truly unique narrative about the full journey of life from a nonlinear perspective. The movie advocates that life is precious, that family is precious. Denis Villeneuve didn't just make a sublime cinematic experience here, but in fact, he created a means for the viewer to begin soul searching after the credits have rolled.