10 Underrated Space Movies
The sci-fi movies that deserve a little more attention.
By John Wenz
The Empire Strikes Back and 2001: A Space Odyssey have inarguable places in the science fiction canon as fantastic space films. But there are other movies that are divisive or derided or otherwise unseen that are in need of a reappraisal.
Interstellar is a divisive movie. Some people love it, others say it's too high-concept or drags on too. But frankly, Christopher's Nolan's flick is one of the best space epics of this century. It draws you into a world of hope from hopelessness, creates a plausible (if far-fetched) scenario for interstellar travel thanks to input from Kip Thorne, and draws on climate anxieties of the near future.
There's also a subtext to it (spoiler alert) in that the women in the movie are always right. Anne Hathaway's character has her ideas downplayed but ultimately vindicated, and Jessica Chastain is able to come through when she needs to in the midst of ego and hubris.
If you watched Interstellar and hated it, rewatch it. It has a slow burn that ultimately adds up to a brilliant whole and also somehow visualizes a tesseract and gives you a slight idea of what it might maybe, possibly look like. If nothing else, it's gorgeous.
The Black Hole (1979)
Sure, The Black Hole is hokey and a bit of a Star Wars cast-off, but so was essentially every science fiction film from 1977 to 1980. The Disney film is also dark. Really, really dark. Possibly darker than a Disney film has any right to be.
The basic plot: an interstellar mission is coming back to Earth when it comes upon a black hole and a derelict ship full of creepy robots and a mad scientist. There's a creepy twist followed by a deeply dark ending. The robot design is interesting, if definitely reminiscent of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.
This movie isn't a grand revelation, it's worth a second look as, if nothing else, a time capsule of its era.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
PARAMOUNT PICTURES / CBS
You've probably heard the trope that the even-numbered Star Trek moviesmoviesare good and the odd-numbered ones are bad. But that idea is wrong, because The Search for Spock is great; it just has the misfortune of being stuck between two of the best three films in the franchise.
Picking up nearly immediately after The Wrath of Khan, the plot of the film is given away in the title. The Enterprise crew realizes Spock is alive and in need of a rescue, as the genesis planet stands on the verge of collapse. Where Wrath of Khan was high-stakes, Search for Spock is fittingly resigned to the fate of the Enterprise crew as Starfleet seeks to put them out to pasture and foist Kirk into retirement. Where Wrath of Khan was about Kirk as the master tactician, Search for Spock is about the subterfuge expert rebel.
The film's visuals are suitably dark, matching the light insurrection in the plot. And, (apologies here if you don't want a 33-year-old movie spoiled) there's something incredible about watching the destruction of the Enterprise, something that Generations tried and failed to capture.
Is it the best Star Trek movie? No. But Search for Spock succeeds as a Star Trek film in a way that's not worthy of calling it a bad movie.
20TH CENTURY FOX
Predators never quite found the audience it wanted, which is a shame. It's got the best premise you could come up with for a Predator sequel: Go to the planet of the predator species and have them play The Most Dangerous Game with you. That's it. That's all you need.
The original Predator movie wasn't exactly a cerebral masterpiece so much as a relentless action film, and Predators succeeds as another action movie with a semi-mindless plot and great visuals. Other sequels (I'm including AvP films in there) are bad, even if the ending of Predator 2 is hilarious.
There are certain quirks to the movie that are odd. For instance, Topher Grace and Adrien Brody aren't necessarily natural fits to the action genre, but the film doesn't really let you stop to think about that as the human prey are hunted down one by one. I'm not calling it Citizen Kane here, but it's worth a bowl of popcorn and a few beers on your Friday night.
Controversial opinion: Prometheus isn't that bad. While often savaged by critics and fans of the Alien franchise, it adds interesting bits to the mythology of the series, and sets up Alien surprisingly well. It's well acted and well designed with interesting visuals and great special effects. It also has loving callbacks to Alien(s) without needing to overstate things.
The problem with Alien movies is that Aliens is a hard one to top, sequel-wise. Movie studios run interference and dilute the more interesting ideas (as happened in Alien³ and Resurrection) and it's hard to jump off from either of from there. The logical answer is to go backward, exactly what Prometheus and Covenant did.
Both movies are more reviled by fans than either deserves. Give the movie a fresh set of eyes without feeling the need to set it to the standards of Alien or Aliens. If nothing else, admit it's one of the better examples of a franchise prequel, and that it tries to stay within the confines of the existing mythology while trying to do its own thing.
Solaris is critically beloved, but criminally under-watched. The Russian movie captures the spirit of the Stanislaw Lem novel, and capturing the spirit of a Stanislaw Lem novel is rather ... difficult.
Lem himself wrote science fiction as a stand-in for philosophy, writing a few movies about why humans may fail to connect with other species: they'll be so alien as to be unrecognizable, and that includes one giant superorganism ocean with telepathic abilities that draws long-forgotten memories out as hallucinations.
The film was created behind the Eastern Bloc wall by the USSR, which is perhaps why it wasn't a massive success with American audiences as it played the art house circuit. It's as dense and cerebral and weird as 2001, nearly measuring up to the former's greatness. If you're not a subtitles person, Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake is a capable, if lesser, film.
Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)
I could defend David Lynch's adaptation of Dune, but let's talk about the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, the story of what could have been if Spanish surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky had the funding to make his vision of Dune.
The film would have had a spectacular soundtrack, special effects by the same guy who did Alien (Dan O'Bannon, who directed the horror-comedy classic Return of the Living Dead), Orson Welles, H.R. Giger scenery (also of Alien), and comic book artist Moebius' concept art come to life. It could have been one of the greatest films, or at least weirdest. Instead, we have to settle for this amazing documentary, which is a fine consolation prize.
Light Years (1988)
ACTEURS AUTEURS ASSOCIÉS / MIRAMAX
The 1970s and 1980s brought plenty of adult-oriented animated films to the screen, but few as interesting as the space-opera fantasy that is the French film Gandahar (known as Light Years on our shores.)
The plot is somewhat standard: a planet of beauty and light is assailed by the forces of darkness. But the film makes up for the pedestrian storyline in rich visuals. While the animation is a bit more standard than director René Laloux's groundbreaking work, Fantastic Planet, the visuals are no less rich, featuring character design that almost certainly wouldn't work in live action.
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The American Astronaut (2001)
The American Astronaut is an indescribably weird, low-budget space-western-musical by Cory McAbee. Imagine the gold rush of 1849, but with asteroids. Working class miners have colonized the solar system as a space merchant makes his way through the planets.
The film will at first seem nonsensical (probably because it is), but it will grow on you, and by the end, every beat of the soundtrack will be stuck in your head. There's no good way to summarize the film, but it is well worth a viewing. Be prepared to be confused.
Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987)
A few anime films like Ghost in the Shell and Akira have clicked with U.S. audiences and become cult hits over here. The Wings of Honnêamise should have been one of those films. There's plenty of space dogfight action to please Star Wars fans, and a vision of the future that accelerates the present of the mid-1980s in interesting ways. For fans of Starship Troopers, it's an essential viewing — and one that shouldn't be confined just to Japanese animation fans.