It’s safe to say that NASA (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) has had a pretty impactful presence on the history of mankind (putting folks on the moon for one), and when it comes to Hollywood, there have been a slew of films over the years that put a spotlight on the innovative agency in one capacity or another.
Whether based on true events or complete works of fiction, NASA has featured in some of the best space-centric films of all time. So buckle yourself in and grab a can of Tang, because here are the best NASA movies.
The Best NASA Movies
10. Capricorn One (1977)
Conspiracy theorists should get a kick out of this 1977 NASA hoax movie starring Elliot Gould, James Brolin, and a pre-disgraced O. J. Simpson.
When the first manned mission to Mars is canceled, NASA decides to launch the craft sans astronaut, faking the landing footage in a studio in order to save face with the public. However, an ambitious journalist discovers the conspiracy and sets out to reveal the truth.
It might not be the greatest piece of space genre filmmaking, and unfortunately only added fuel to those who think the moon landings weren’t real in the first place (psst, the Earth isn’t flat either), but it’s a fun enough compliment to all the more outer space-y entries on the list and well worth a watch, even if you aren’t wondering why all the boats aren’t falling off the edge of the planet.
9. Space Cowboys (2000)
Clint Eastwood directs and stars alongside Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner in this light and breezy space drama that drains the geriatric comedy well for all it’s worth. If you’ve ever wanted to see four of the most miserable looking actors on the planet playing for laughs (and getting them), then this is the one for you.
After having their chance to go to space canceled in their youth, four ex-pilots are recruited by NASA some forty years later to assist with repairing an out of date part of a Soviet satellite and fulfilling their life-long dreams of going to space.
The chemistry of its leads and the sheer inoffensive joy of Space Cowboys makes for an entertaining, funny, albeit less remarkable entry in the space movie genre.
8. Armageddon (1998)
When a giant asteroid makes Earth its next holiday destination, NASA turns to the only man on the planet capable of stopping such a world-ending catastrophe: Bruce Willis (naturally). And if you’re ready to take leave of your senses for the near 2 1/2 hour runtime of this slice of all-American hero pie, then you’ll be rewarded with a rollicking rollercoaster of a ride.
The film centres on a team of deep-sea oil drillers brought in to aid with humanity’s last chance to save planet Earth. Their mission? Be shot into space, land on the asteroid and commence drilling a giant hole to the core, detonating a nuclear bomb big enough to split the thing in two and avoid planetary impact. Simple.
Getting by on pure bombast, and with an Aerosmith song that’ll haunt you for days, Armageddon leaves a noteworthy crater in the best NASA movies of all time.
What does it take to be an astronaut? Well, if this 1983 space classic is anything to go by, you’ll need Dennis Quaid in a shiny disco-looking number of a space suit. But then again, doesn’t everything?
The Right Stuff is a fictionalized account of the novel by Tom Wolfe of the same name and starred the likes of Sam Shepard, Dennis Quaid, Ed Harris, and Scott Glenn, chronicling the early years of the American space program and their quest to send man into space.
The film was considered by some critics as the best film of that year, collecting a few technical Oscars for its efforts and remaining one of the flag bearers of all space genre filmmaking.
6. Apollo 13 (1995)
Based on the famous aborted Luna mission of 1970 and made infamous by the line “Houston, we have a problem,” Apollo 13 is a well-crafted and suspenseful addition to the NASA movie archive.
Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon all hand in strong, charming performances as the core trinity and director Ron Howard does a masterful job of balancing the drama of the mission with the personal conflicts of the crew.
The final end product is a tense and throttling space drama that definitely sticks the landing, even if their Lunar module never did.
5. Hidden Figures (2017)
Hidden Figures tells the inspiring true-life tale of three African American women (each stand-outs in their chosen fields) brought in to work on NASA’s space task group and help send the first Americans into space.
Shining a spotlight on the tense race relations of the 60s and delivering just enough social commentary without losing its upbeat tone, Hidden Figures flies above its formulaic plot, resulting in a feel-good story about this previously untold story in NASA’s history.
Anchored by a trio of great performances, including Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer) as well as Best Picture, Hidden Figures is a film about intelligent, passionate women of colour who won’t be eclipsed.
Interstellar is an ambitious film to say the least, often struggling to juggle its multiple themes, plotlines, and even timelines. What the film does do extremely well, however, is ooze spectacle from every frame, delivering beautiful visuals, superb acting, and some of the most thought-provoking ideas since 2001: A Space Odyssey.
With a top tier director in Christopher Nolan, a lead actor going through the height of his ‘McConaissance,’ and a supporting cast featuring the likes of Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine, the film is a definite stand-out amongst similar sci-fi fare.
3. First Man (2018)
Damien Chazelle’s account of the 1969 mission to put man on the moon, based on James R. Hansen’s First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, is a fascinating character study of one the most famous and private men in history. It’s also the first mainstream feature film to commit the incredible story to the big screen.
Helming only his third feature film and coming off the heels of his Best Director nod for La La Land, Chazelle adds strong stylistic choices, manipulating the visuals with a saturated colour palate and grainy film effect giving the footage an aged, retro aesthetic.
Focusing more on the personal journey of Neil Armstrong and fuelled by terrific performances by Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy, First Man is a giant leap for the genre, bringing one of the biggest feats in human history to the screen with outstanding results.
2. Gravity (2013)
Sandra Bullock plays grieving medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone as she and fellow astronaut George Clooney race to get home following the destruction of their shuttle by orbiting space debris. While having to avoid more head-splitting metal than a Nickelback concert, Stone learns to let go of the past and embrace her new lease on life.
This (almost) one-person space-set disaster movie earned Bullock an Academy Award nomination in 2014 as well as nabbing six Oscars, racking up the most wins of the night.
Gravity was able to incorporate dazzling effect work and masterful direction to create a completely engaging cinematic experience, using innovative camera work and sound (or lack of) to fully engulf the audience and put them directly in Dr. Ryan Stone’s shoes, or in this case, space boots.
1. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott returned to the sci-fi genre once again in 2015 following the mixed reactions to Prometheus only a few years before, adapting first-time novelist Andy Weir’s book of the same name to the big screen. Gone were the diluted, industrial aesthetics of his H R Giger inspired Alien (1979), Scott instead opting to reverse his trajectory, swapping out the extra-terrestrial goo for recycling astronaut’s poo.
This science fiction drama/comedy (at least according to the Hollywood foreign press) told the story of Mark Watney (Matt Damon), who is presumed dead and left behind on Mars after a freak storm causes the crew of the Aries to abort their mission to the Red Planet. Having to survive on rations and utilizing ingenuity that would put MacGyver to shame, Watney, his crewmates and the NASA boffins back on Earth must find a way to ‘bring him home’ as the world watches on.
It’s a thoroughly entertaining film that manages to juxtapose the desperation of its characters with the determination of the human spirit, all the while balancing humour, heart, and suspense for a thrilling and uplifting end product.