5 movie sci-fi epics that shot for the moon, and 5 that missed it

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The McConaissance continues: Matthew McConaughey stars in Chris Nolan's Interstellar. Photo: Legendary Pictures
The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey stars in Chris Nolan's Interstellar. Photo: Legendary Pictures

Like many movie fans out there I couldn’t be more excited about the release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a spectacular-looking space epic from one of the greatest filmmakers working today. While I’m not going to get to see it until this weekend, its release gave me reason to revisit some of the best movie space epics in history — and dwell on a few of the worst, too.

Are you ready for a guide to both the best and worst the galaxy has to offer? Check out our picks after the hyper jump:

The Good

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Taking you from the dawn of civilization through man’s perfect final state, 2001: A Space Odyssey is science fiction at its most captivating. As an example of classically narrative Hollywood filmmaking it’s arguably a miss. As a sci-fi masterpiece to be experienced in all its grandeur, it’s utterly unmissable. Coming up to half a century later, some of its visuals remain unmatched.

Leave it off this list entirely? “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Solaris (1972)

Okay, so 2001 is an undisputed classic, but I’ve always preferred Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Why? As great as 2001 undoubtedly is in its visuals, Solaris is the story with the more human center to it.

The movie is a psychological drama set aboard a space station orbiting a strange planet. Strange things happen. So far so normal, right? The result is a masterpiece, and a movie that belongs on the shelves or iTunes accounts of anyone that considers themselves a movie fan. Ignore the disappointing 2002 remake, and go for the 1972 original instead.

It also just happens to be the movie that introduced the “cluttered future look” which would later become synonymous with Ridley Scott films Alien and Blade Runner.

Moon (2009)

Directed by Duncan Jones, a.k.a the onetime Zowie “son of David” Bowie, Moon was a movie that took everyone by surprise. Telling the story of a lone astronaut at the tail end of a three-year mission, Moon evokes 2001: A Space Odyssey, but like Solaris, also feels a more human film. I won’t give plot spoilers here, but it’s well worth seeing if you’re a fan of hard sci-fi. If only all science fiction could be so intelligent.

Aliens (1986)

Fans are always going to debate which was better out of Ridley Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel. As brilliant and nightmarish as Scott’s movie remains today, my money is on the follow-up. Not only is the cast of characters as well defined as the original, but it perfectly meshes large action set pieces with smaller, more intimate moments.

On top of this, it fleshes out the Alien universe perfectly — from giving us a good look at human civilization to expanding the xenomorph lifecycle way beyond what we saw in the original. Arguably the most rewatchable movie of all time.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

For an entire generation, seeing Star Wars was a life-changing experience that ushered in a way of intergalactic space epics. As great as Episode IV: A New Hope certainly is, The Empire Strikes Back represents the absolute high point of the Star Wars franchise. Directed with assurance by Irvin Kershner, the movie perfectly straddles the line between (appropriately enough) darkness and light, while also pulling off both big battle scenes and small, intimate character moments equally well.

Star Wars would have been a great standalone film without Empire, but it likely never would have become the classic franchise it is known as today.

And the Bad

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Can two separate films in the same franchise really be considered both the best and the worst that space epics have to offer? The answer, as the much maligned Star Wars Episode 1 demonstrates, is a resounding yes. Gone is the charm of the original trilogy, replaced by soulless CGI and a palpable lack of joy. I mean, trade embargoes? Seriously? The best thing about Episode 1 is Darth Maul, and sadly he’s given way too little to do. Too little, too late.

Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)

Another great series turned train wreck, Aliens Vs. Predator Requiem promised to be the R-rated clash of the movie monsters fans had wanted after 2005’s crushingly disappointing AVP movie. Sadly it wasn’t to be. Requiem’s plot was nonsensical, its cinematography far too dark, its editing unnecessarily frenzied. If Freddy vs. Jason made you remember why you enjoyed the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises, Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem made you question whether you’d been wrong about the Alien and Predator series all along.

Aliens vs. Avatars (2011)

Ever since Nosferatu purloined the plot of Bram Stoker’s then-fresh novel Dracula, movie history is full of ripoffs. But there are few titles more shameless than Aliens vs. Avatars, a film which quite literally takes two James Cameron movie titles and smashes them together with all the subtlety of a brick to the face. The movie itself is dreadful, and doesn’t even draw the line at stealing from Avatar and Aliens, either — since its extraterrestrials owe a sizeable debt to the invisible hunter seen in Predator.

Perhaps its worst crime, however, is the fact that there are surely better pairings of Jim Cameron movies if you’re looking for a cheeky cult classic. My own money’s on Titanic vs. Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.

Star Quest: The Odyssey (2009)

Is Star Quest more subtle a steal than Aliens vs. Avatars? Almost certainly. Since its makers could obviously afford a thesaurus to look for synonyms for “trek” rather than just taking the name wholesale it also makes it higher budget. Sadly, that’s all that can be said in favor of Star Quest: The Odyssey which aims for post-Star Trek J.J Abrams levels of epicness and manages… well, there’s that one scene with lens flair.

Battlefield Earth (2000)

Unlike the two previous films, Battlefield Earth doesn’t have the excuse of a measly budget and no-name actors to fall back on as a way of explaining its awfulness. Instead, it cost $75 million, starred a post-Pulp Fiction John Travolta, and was based on what the trailer calls “one of the best-selling science fiction novels of all time.”

So why does it suck so irredeemably? Simply put: the effects are terrible, the plot nonexistent, and Travolta is buried under mounds of makeup that make him look like a bad cosplayer at Comic-Con. Then there’s the whole scientology factor that comes with a Travolta vanity project based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard.

As one studio executive famously put it: “On any film there are ten variables that can kill you. On this film there was an eleventh: Scientology. It just wasn’t something anyone really wanted to get involved with.”