Humanity is never thrown into so stark relief as when we journey into space. In that alien environment, we find out who we are. And even though space movies are often seen as pure adventures, the best space films are great personal dramas. Here are 12 powerful psychological dramas that happen to be set in space.
This tense, focused retelling of the Apollo 13 mission vividly portrays both the beauty and the terror of space, but it also always stays close to its characters—both on Apollo 13 and on the ground. Fun fact: in preparation for the film, Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton all went to Space Camp.
Yes, this 1972 eco-drama is reminiscent of a cross between 2001 and Cast Away. No, it has little notion of nuance — or restraint. Yes, there are two lengthy Joan Baez musical interludes (see previous sentence). Despite all that, Silent Running has a strange charisma, probably residing almost entirely in Bruce Dern's compelling portrayal of a broken botanist, somewhere over the edge of insanity, floating alone in a forest through the stars.
A desperate, taught, terrifying fight for survival, Alien is a master class in tension. There are many, many quiet moments—but never one that allows you to breathe. And Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, consistently found near the top of lists like the AFI's best heroes list, is efficient, smart, and no-bullshit without becoming one-dimensional.
Technically, this isn't set in space — as its name suggests, it's mostly set on the Moon. (If you leave off this film and the next one on the list, then we just have 10 movies, I guess.) But it's still very much a film about surviving in an extreme extraterrestrial environment, in which the solitude and impossible conditions push a person to their limits. Just like a lot of the other movies on this list, a single performance carries this entire film: Sam Rockwell as a man who's stuck on a lunar base, mining for helium-3, with just a weird robot for company.
And here's the other movie that's technically set on another world rather than space, although there is a lot of spaceflight in it as well. This beautiful movie is basically about a space war, in which humans and aliens are locked in battle, until one human pilot and one alien pilot are crash-landed on a planet together and have to learn to work together. The whole film is based around the relationship between the two downed pilots, and Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. form a bond that feels as real as any relationship. Fun fact: A huge chunk of this movie was filmed on location in Iceland — and then that director was fired, and that footage wasn't used.
We debated whether to include this film — on the one hand, the backstory about Sandra Bullock's daughter is the weakest part of the film. But at the same time, her journey of survival, as a lone human struggling to escape from an impossible situation, is incredibly compelling and deeply personal. And her arc, from terror to resignation to newfound competence, is amazingly well-drawn. For most of its running length, this is another film about a human alone in space, and it's a powerful portrait of humanity.
This is the most famous mind-blowing space movie of all time, and it's the film to which all other space epics are compared. The attention to detail in this movie's depiction of space travel grounds it in a quotidien world in which weightlessness feels like just another fact of life — and then we get to see believable humans thrust into the weirdest, most transcendent spectacle imaginable.
This documentary-style movie is something special. To quote from our review, it's the "psychologically intense story of the first humans to visit Jupiter's moon Europa." And it "captures both the dirty, awful realities of living in a can for years and the sheer wonder of discovery that can motivate humans to do almost anything. It's a heady psychological mix."
Despite a highly controversial third act, this British thriller about a crew on a mission to reignite the sun is touching, thoughtful, and even, occasionally, awe-inspiring. If Alien is a tale of personal survival, then Sunshine feels like a meditation about survival on a far grander scale.
This little known 1982 animation, directed by René Laloux with designs by Mœbius, is an enchanting, disturbing, completely bizarre little gem. It's about a small crew traveling to rescue a little boy stranded on a planet infested with enormous wasp-monsters, but the journey seems to be the point instead than the rescue, and they have a number of adventures along the way. Where other movies on this list emphasize the wonder of space, Les Maîtres du temps is more about the wondrous possibilities of space travel—each planet and interaction is more imaginative and strange than the next.
Consistently topping the best-of-Trek lists, the goal for this 1982 sequel was simple: be better and cheaper than the first one. And it was: a well-told, tightly paced story that never strayed far from the characters and the conflict at its center. Ricardo Montalban's performance stands out particularly—his complex, simmering, magnetic Khan rightfully continues to hold a place in our cinematic imaginations even today.
Roger Ebert once said that the Andrei Tarkovsky's films were "more like environments than entertainments," and Solaris—three hours long, hauntingly beautiful, slowly, deliberately, almost achingly paced—does indeed seem like an environment. The film combines the impossible mystery of alien life with the impossible mystery of the human mind, producing a reflective and unsettling work that's still unique in science fiction.