A visionary epic that takes viewers from the barren dust bowl of a dying Earth to the furthest reaches of the universe, “Interstellar” is a rare film that combines speculative theory with a degree of scientific accuracy. Using realistic space flight technology to enhance the drama, Christopher Nolan’s deep-think adventure is closer to the spirit of “From the Earth to the Moon” than to pulp fantasy like “Star Wars.” As it prepares to launch on November 7, here are 10 space travel movies that exist within the realm of possibility.
Robert Altman directed this cold war thriller about two American astronauts racing to beat the Soviets to the moon, but was fired by Warner Brothers as the film neared completion for refusing to re-shoot the overlapping dialog that would become his stylistic trademark. Adding a sense of authenticity to the project, the National Aeronautic Space Administration granted the production unprecedented access to its facilities like Cape Canaveral.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Beginning at the dawn of man and ending in a cosmic netherworld, Stanley Kubrick’s colossal head-trip stands as one of cinema’s most painstakingly accurate depictions of spaceflight. Many of the film’s fictional technologies have proven eerily prescient in light of scientific advancements made since it first premiered. Obsessed with details, Kubrick enlisted technical consultants from over 50 aerospace organizations to achieve the level of reality he insisted on.
Preparing to return to Earth after spending several months in an orbiting lab, three astronauts discover their rockets won’t fire, stranding them in space. Released less than four months after the Apollo 11 moon landing, the highly realistic “Marooned” won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Working closely with Columbia Pictures, NASA provided the studio with authentic replicas of actual equipment, including an early mockup of the Skylab prototype.
“The Right Stuff” (1983)
Based on Tom Wolfe’s bestseller, this American epic about the formation of the original Mercury 7 astronaut program is filled with heart, humor and humanity. Beginning with Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in an experimental airplane, and culminating in Gordon Cooper’s historic solo flight on Mercury-Atlas 9, “The Right Stuff” blends dazzling effects and miniature model work with archival footage to achieve a near-seamless reality.
“Apollo 13” (1995)
It was the understatement of the century: “Houston, we have a problem.” Ron Howard’s docudrama about the ill-fated Apollo mission to the moon brilliantly recreated the claustrophobic tension of three astronauts unable to return to Earth when their capsule suffers internal damage. To achieve the effect of weightlessness, the cast and crew logged almost 600 flights in NASA’s KC-135 airplane (nicknamed the “Vomit Comet”), which is used for space training simulation.
“Space Cowboys” (2000)
Clint Eastwood’s adventure about a team of long-retired Air Force test pilots tasked with repairing a vintage Soviet satellite might sound like “Grumpy Old Men” in orbit, but with major sequences shot at the Kennedy Space Center and a Mission Control set built with blueprints provided by NASA its verisimilitude is remarkable. An audience of real astronauts who attended an early screening was notably impressed with the film’s authenticity and attention to detail.
A lone astronaut working at a lunar station makes a disturbing discovery with only days left on his three-year mission. A thoughtful look at the psychological effects of space life, “Moon” was screened for NASA scientists at Space Center Houston. While discussing the film’s bunker-like base design, director Duncan Jones was startled to learn that an audience member was currently working on a substance called “mooncrete” which would allow for just such a structure to exist.
A thematic cousin to “Moon,” William Eubank’s beautifully shot, micro-budget tale of a solitary astronaut stranded in orbit aboard an international space station took four years to complete and was filmed on sets built in the director’s parents’ backyard. A haunting examination of the fragility of mankind’s existence, “Love” is a sincere and uniquely challenging film that recalls the boldly experimental science fiction movies of the ‘70s.
“Europa Report” (2013)
When a secret ocean is discovered beneath the surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, a private space exploration company assembles an international crew of astronauts to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life in our galaxy. With its clinical, documentary-like approach, this modestly-budgeted thriller is considered by many to be among the finest examples of the “hard science fiction” genre, a category that emphasizes technological credibility.
Combining cutting-edge 3D cinematography, an adherence to the laws of physics and a powerhouse physical performance by Sandra Bullock, “Gravity” galvanized audiences with its meticulous recreation of a space disaster. The film’s terrifying chain-reaction sequence, in which a swarm of debris collides with an orbiting shuttle, is based on a scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome, first proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978.