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The Final Frontier is a Harsh Mistress: A Look at Space-Disaster Movies

GravityThe stunning, vertigo-inducing trailer for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (opening in theaters next month) has been shaking up audiences for the past few weeks with hair-raising footage of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts cast adrift during a disastrous spacewalk. The Final Frontier captures the human imagination like nothing else, but often we forget that it is the harshest and most unforgiving environment there is. Fortunately, though they don’t always get the details right, Hollywood is there to remind us. Here are some notable — and mostly noteworthy — entries from what has become a sub-genre in its own right. Remember: In space no one can hear you scream, but Houston knows when you have a problem.

Destination MoonDestination Moon (1950). The first major US film to (more or less) realistically explore the inherent dangers and difficulties of space exploration, produced by legendary George Pal (The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine) and co-written by sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein. When government funding collapses, an engineer, industrialist, and an Air Force general unite to build the Luna rocket and launch a privately funded expedition to the moon. A mishap leaves the crew facing the very real possibility of having to leave one of their number behind in order to return to Earth. This classic heralded the dawn of the Space Age, though its notion of space travel driven by the private sector is still in its infancy.

2001 A Space Odyssey2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Sure, the first half takes place in the prehistoric era, and the finale is an extended, ambiguous psychedelic sequence, but the Jupiter Mission portion is a chilling look at what equipment failure means to space travel. The ship’s A.I. computer, HAL 9000 (voiced superbly by Douglas Rain), is designed to mimic human thought processes and have a personality of its own — something it does a little too well, to the point that it begins to make errors and exhibit erratic and eventually homicidal behavior.

MaroonedMarooned (1969). Known mostly for his westerns and action movies (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), John Sturges dabbled in science fiction for this drama released just four months after the Apollo 11 mission put a man on the moon for the first time. Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, and James Franciscus star as astronauts who become stranded in orbit while on their way to an orbital space station, and the mission to rescue them is hampered by setbacks up to and including a hurricane. The movie won the 1970 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and is believed to have in part inspired the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

SpaceCampSpaceCamp (1986). Four teens, a 12-year-old Joaquin Phoenix, and a flight instructor attending NASA’s Space Camp are launched into space for real when a systems failure threatens the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and returning to Earth becomes a life-or-death struggle. A box-office bomb, the movie became a PR nightmare when the Challenger exploded after take-off just five months before the film’s release.

Apollo 13Apollo 13 (1995). Ron Howard’s award-winning docudrama of the ill-fated lunar mission raised the bar for realistic action-dramas. Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton star as the crew of titular spacecraft, on what had become another routine NASA moon landing when an explosion cripples their vessel and puts their lives in jeopardy. Howard went to great lengths to achieve accuracy, arranging NASA training for the cast and shooting scenes aboard an aircraft that simulated zero gravity.

Red PlanetMission to MarsMission to Mars/The Red Planet (2000). Released just months apart, these big budget flops fueled the conventional wisdom that movies about the Red Planet tend to suck. The first is a 2001 Lite tale of a manned mission to Mars. Gary Sinise, apparently having learned nothing from Apollo 13, leads a mission to rescue a stranded Don Cheadle, and in the process discover the origins of life on Earth. The second covers a mission to Mars undertaken in a bid to save a dying Earth. Of course, all goes to hell and the crew (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Carrie-Anne Moss, Terence Stamp, Benjamin Bratt, and Simon Baker) are systematically done in by a solar flare, crash landing, infighting, and a robot run amok. (It was so full of scientific inaccuracies that NASA refused to serve as a technical advisor.) Both are disasters in their own right.

Space CowboysSpace Cowboys (2000). It’s Grumpy Old Men in Space when Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland star as four aged ex-test pilots and engineers lured out of retirement to repair a Cold War-era Soviet satellite in a decaying orbit. It turns out to be a treaty-violating orbital nuclear weapons platform, and some shady shenanigans leave it and their shuttle both on the verge of flaming re-entry. A bizarre combination of geezer buddy-comedy and disaster-in-space drama directed by Eastwood, it manages to be as much entertaining as it is preposterous.

SunshineSunshine (2007). British autuer Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours) sends an international ensemble cast on a mission to re-ignite the Earth’s dying sun in the year 2057. A side trip to examine the remains of the failed mission that preceded them proves to be fateful. Though riddled with scientific inaccuracies, it does succeed in capturing the psychological rigors of extended space travel, and explores some weighty metaphysical implications.

The Last PushAstronaut: The Last Push (2012). This obscure gem by Dallas native Eric Hayden features Khary Payton as an astronaut forced to endure a three-year journey in solitude after and accident damages his vessel and kills his crew mate during a botched voyage to Jupiter. Impressively realized on a miniscule budget,. Well worth seeking out, it can be found on DVD and VOD — and a big-screen viewing is not to be missed.

Europa ReportThe Europa Report (2013). Yes, it’s a found-footage flick, but this tight little indie production is no Apollo 18. Six astronauts — including Sharlto Copley (Elysium) and Michael Nyqvist (the original The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo film series) embark on a privately funded mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa, the place in our solar system most likely to have extraterrestrial life. Cue a series of malfunctions, environmental hazards, and strange encounters. The movie was shot on an appropriately alien landscape — a soundstage in Brooklyn — with some impressively rendered CGI landscapes.

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About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.

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