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From 1900 to 2013: The evolution of outer space on the big screen

From a man on the moon to space wonderlust, black holes and incredible aliens.

WITH THE RELEASE of Alfonso Cuaron’s movie Gravity this weekend, it appears the portrayal of outer space in science fiction is about to take another huge leap forward.

Every few years — and sometimes every couple of months — a movie comes along that pushes the boundaries of what we believe is possible on screen. Ever since the first science fiction films hit the screen in the 1920s audiences have been wowed by visions of venturing into the great black and beyond.

Our understanding of science and technology have advanced along with filmmaking techniques and storytelling since the early 1900s, as has the movie medium’s portrayal of space.

This is a look at how outer space in film has changed over the years. The films here represent leaps both in the technology behind making outer space happen, bringing outer space to life on the big screen, the current understanding of science and how it is presented on the screen, and the movie’s ability to inspire awe or wonder.

We may see giant space battles or giant space balls that “brake for nobody.” There might be realistic movies that detail a historical event or even films that have moved us to laugh or inspired childhood delight.

These are some of the films that make a difference when it comes to outer space.

1900 – 1929

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902)

While the French silent film directed by Georges Méliès wasn’t known for breaking much technical ground as far as editing, props, and filming technique, the silent short’s portrayal of the moon and space is still widely recognised as iconic to this very day and it is one of the earliest representations of outer space on screen.

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Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars) (1918)

A Trip To Mars is a 1918 Danish silent film Phil Hardy of The Overlook Film Encyclopedia says is “the film that marked the beginning of the space opera sub-genre of science fiction”. *In the gif above, the fearless explorers gear up their space suits to explore Mars, where a humanoid alien population awaits. Themes in early science fiction involving the moon and Mars were both popular concepts at the time. We knew Mars was there, but we had no way of knowing what was on the planet or what it was like.

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Another notable film from this era is the 1929 Woman in the Moon, which centres on searching for gold inside of the moon.

1930s

Flash Gordon (1936)

The ’30s were the era of the serial. Flash Gordon was actually told in 13 installments and featured the comic book hero on the screen for the first time, as played by Buster Crabbe. Flash used animals as aliens (iguanas!) and popularised the use of sparklers as rocket exhaust.

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Buck Rogers (1936)

Buster Crabbe returned as Buck Rogers in the 1939 serial which had a shoestring budget. To save money they actually re-used background shots from the futuristic musical Just Imagine (1930). They also likely literally used those shoestrings to hold up the model rockets with sparklers.

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Another notable film from 1936 is HG Wells’ Things To Come. The film focuses more on humanity seeing space travel as its ultimate goal, and they don’t even get to outer space until the very end (by firing a spaceship out a giant gun).

1950s

The War of the Worlds (1953)

While this might be the most famous science fiction film of the ’50s — perhaps one of the most famous of all time — there was actually only a small portion of the movie that showed outer space, and that was the opening sequence (below) which set the tone for the entire movie: We’re gonna get hammered, and hammered hard, and it’s something from outer space that’s coming.


This Island Earth (1955)

While the spaceship might have looked like a bedpan and the planet it was trying to avoid a racquet ball, This Island Earth was a great movie aliens coming to earth to find scientists to help them with their war that had advanced special effects for the time.

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And if you want to see one of the first movie representations of the “flying saucer” UFO, check out the 1956 film Forbidden Planet.

1950s honorable mentions: Destination Moon (1950), The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959).

1960s

Journey to the 7th Planet (1962)

Heading into the ’60s we get more awesome space suits as evidenced by the blue and yellow far out man suits worn by the crew on the 7th Planet. The “getting there” part was comprised of actual rocket launch footage and a quick, lame, animated cut scene. This was framed by a scene leaving the 7th Planet using a camera pull-back shot of a static image of a planet-moon-type-thing. No, the best part of this movie is the suits. Those fantastic-looking ’60s astronaut suits.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

As far as science fiction film, special effects, and outer space goes, there is everything before “2001,” then there is everything afterward. The Stanley Kubrick film based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke was a sea-change in film. This was the first true space opera. It was serious, hard sci-fi that dealt with the origins of humanity itself — origins which were influenced by beings from outer space.

The special effects in this movie were so far beyond anything else at the time that they still hold up today. The blend of realistic and functional sets with incredible model work was a pre-computer graphic generation revelation. It was a revelation — full stop. The spacecrafts were inspired by engineers, not Hollywood.

This is a film that presents outer space as an experience in and of itself. It draws viewers into the void and gives it a personality without shoving anything down your throat. It’s probably best to listen to Lucas and Spielberg explain the importance of “2001.”


1960s honorable mentions: Countdown, Planet Of The Apes, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun

1970s

Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)

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Star Wars was made possible by “2001,” and where “2001″ brought a reality and a seriousness to outer space, Star Wars brought in the fantasy. It took the visual exquisiteness of Kubrick’s work and turned it on its head by establishing a universe in a “galaxy far, far away.” The sheer variety of creativity on display in the outer space reaches of Star Wars helped make it the classic and beloved franchise that it is today. Outer space provided the platform to bring together so many of the wonderfully imaginative characters and civilisations Lucas created.

Outer space in Star Wars is meant to be explored, conquered by evil, and saved by good. The fate of an entire galaxy is at stake. Space is vast in Star Wars, and the possibilities are endless.

Capricorn One (1977)


This is the movie that made NASA the bad guys. When they lose funding to a mission, they decide to fake the whole thing, keeping the astronauts on the ground and out of space. When the astronauts don’t take to their plan, they try to escape and are hunted down one by one by the government.

Great premise for a movie with decent execution. Like a few other movies on this list, Capricorn One brings space down to Earth and gives it a sinister, conspiritory bent. It’s hard to choose a movie like this over Silent Running, but Capricorn One did bring something new to the table, the “space chase on the ground.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)


There really isn’t much outer space to be seen in this film, as the aliens come down to us, playing the electric keyboard with scientists on a mountain.

But Close Encounters deserves to be here above other similar movies as it made aliens less terrifying, made space less scary. What if the beings that are out there weren’t evil? They just wanted to get to know us a little?

Alien (1979)

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Space is not endless in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien. Space is claustrophobic, it is terrifying. Outer space is where horrible things lurk and where you can fall victim to said horrible things.

When Alien was released in 1979 — two years after Star Wars — audiences expected another fun romp through the cosmos. What they got instead were chest-bursters. My father saw the film on opening night and has often recalled how once the chest-burster scene hit, people were running from the theatre in horror, crying, in disbelief. They expected the fanciful allure of Star Wars but received nightmares instead.

Space in Alien is explored and exploited by what we assume are fleets of gigantic industrial spacecraft, transporting their cargo across vast distances while their crews sleep. The “other” things that lurk out there are the inspired madness from the mind of HR Geiger brought to life in gooey detail.

The Black Hole (1979)

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1979 was a great year for outer space in film. Disney’s The Black Hole wasn’t a great movie, but it was an entertaining one with good special effects and a sense of adventure, the main star of the movie being an evil robot and the menacing black hole itself.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

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“Space, the final frontier.” Having made the jump from cheesy TV series to the big screen, Star Trek brought with it the ability to inspire awe, only this time with improved special effects. If there ever was another series of films that had outer space as more of a central focus than Star Trek, then I don’t know what it is, well at least aside from the TV series Battlestar Galactica.

Star Trek is essentially about the humanity of man, and staying true to that humanity no matter the odds and obstacles. Outer space provides the main basis for those obstacles in Star Trek. The spaceship Enterprise is as much of a character as the humans. Outer space in Star Trek is the platform for the Enterprise and its crew to spread the gospel of humanity. Space is cold but full of possibility and it is portrayed that way.

Note: Consider The Wrath Of Khan as part of Star Trek.

1970s honorable mentions: Solaris, Dark Star and er, James Bond in space in Moonraker.

1980s

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983)

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The Falcon and the Death Star

Look, this is Star Wars we’re talking about here, aside from Star Trek, space epics don’t get any more epic than this, especially The Empire Strikes Back. Return Of The Jedi leaned more on the space battle than did Empire, but because Empire is the better movie, they deserve equal billing here.

But think about that final space battle in Return Of The Jedi; it was incredible in 1983, and it is still impressive today. Lucas stepped it up a notch with each installment in the series, pushing the boundaries of special effects.

Explorers (1985)

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Ethan Hawke! River Phoenix! Joe Dante! This mid ’80s adventure movie really had it all. It is right in line with “The Last Starfighter,” “Space Camp,” “Enemy Mine,” or “Flight of the Navigator.” Three boys discover they’re having dreams that are providing them with the instructions to build a spaceship out of a Tilt-A-Whirl car they name “Thunder Road.” They blast into space and visit another alien kid who’s just lonely. So ’80s.

Aliens (1986)

Ripley is BACK! And this time she has space marines to take on that nasty alien. Only now there are multiple nasty aliens, hence “Alien(S).” Space in James Cameron’s interpretation of the “Alien” universe is governed by Marines. Space Marines with cool militaristic spaceships and large guns — which they need because there are also many aliens with acid blood. This movie spawned a generation of copycat special effects and space design in both film and other mediums like video games.

Think “Halo” would look the way it does without “Aliens”?

Space was still scary, but “Aliens” provided the tools to kick outer space’s ass.

Dune (1984)


David Lynch does space. And as one would expect from the creator of Twin Peaks, it is dark, apocalyptic, stunning and slightly freaky.

1980s honorable mentions: ET (of course), The Last Star Fighter, 2010, The Right Stuff, Enemy Mine, Flash Gordon, Outland, The Thing, Ice Pirates, Star Trek: The Search For Spock, Cocoon, and Flight Of The Navigator.

1990s

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and Star Trek: Generations (1994)


The early ’90s didn’t hold much for outer space, with Star Trek really holding up the mantle with two films sandwiched around the movie that changed the game as far as special effects: Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park wasn’t geared around outer space, obviously, but the leap in technology and what could be done with computer graphics would have a direct impact on special effects in movies.

Apollo 13 (1995)


In the post-Jurassic Park era, Apollo 13 showed what was possible when it came to showing just how realistic outer space could be — and is. Much like The Right Stuff, it followed the true-life exploits of US astronauts as they fought to survive in a tiny capsule on their way to the moon, where they were supposed to land, but couldn’t. So again, not really science-fiction, but because of what this film did for outer space in film, it deserves to be here regardless.

Independence Day (1996)


Back from realism to aliens again, this time with Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum saving the day at the end with a trip into space to deliver a computer virus to the alien mother ship.

What?

Never mind the plot. The space stuff was cool, and really it brought back the outer space menace to Earth again, with what was probably the first great “Earth is under attack!” movie since War Of The Worlds. Well, at least along with Mars Attacks!

Starship Troopers (1997)

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Paul Verhoeven’s take on Robert A. Heinlien’s novel by the same name brought the big space battle back to the screen, with space Marines kicking ass in ways not seen since “Aliens.” “Starship Troopers” was essentially a satire, but a satire with damn good special effects of sweeping space battles between man and bug.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

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Critics and just about everybody else loves to hate on The Phantom Menace. Rightfully so. It was a bad movie, and it let down a generation of “Star Wars” fans. That said, this was the first all-digital film and George Lucas was dead set on pushing film-making in this direction.

He succeeded. The Phantom Menace opened the doors for new filming techniques and levels of realism, that if used appropriately could make outer space look more real than ever. There were some outstanding space scenes in The Phantom Menace, and they ended up looking better than the computer-generated characters in the long run. The Phantom Menace today looks dated with the overuse of computer imagery before its prime.

1990s honorable mentions: Total Recall, Gattaca, The Fifth Element, Dark City, Stargate, Fire in the Sky, Men in Black, Event Horizon, Dark City, Lost in Space, Galaxy Quest, Armageddon, Contact, and Star Trek: Insurrection.

2000-2009

Mission to Mars (2000)

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Humanity returns to Mars once again. Every couple of years there’s a new Mars movie and Mission To Mars heads to the red planet to find out what happened to a missing crew.

The film takes the Apollo 13 approach to realism and the Close Encounters of the Third Kind approach to aliens at the end of the movie. It doesn’t work very well, but what is there looks pretty and inspires a little bit of space wanderlust.

Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

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Ah the continuation of the Star Wars prequels, leaving so many wanting so much more. Still, the fact remains that as an outer space fantasy adventure, there’s not much out there quite like Star Wars, and Lucas did at least continue to up the goods special effects-wise.

Attack of the Clones wasn’t a huge step above The Phantom Menace, but Revenge Of The Sith was easily the most impressive-looking of the three. By the third movie Lucas had a better handle on the digital special effects process he was so keen on using, and it showed.

Where The Phantom Menace looks dated now, Revenge Of The Sith looks much less so. What can we say, this is Star Wars. By the time J.J. Abrams helms the newest installment, we can expect — or at least we can hope — for another major leap in taking audiences on new galactic adventures.

Serenity (2005)

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Joss Whedon, now of The Avengers fame, once started off a little bit smaller with some very popular television series and a little movie called Serenity back in 2005, which was based on the sci-fi cult classic, Firefly. This was a good movie — a great adventure in space with some very cool outer space scenes, particularly at the end with a giant space battle.

Sunshine (2007)


Take a little Event Horizon, 2010 and Mission To Mars (and star Cillian Murphy), mash them up a little bit and you have Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a tale of a spaceship crew racing to re-ignite the sun before it goes out and dooms humanity.

Outer space is out to kill us again, and it is a cold and dangerous place. The realities of how difficult it would be to make the trip to the sun are explained well, and while the climax doesn’t fit in with the tone of the movie up until that point, it does provide quite the stellar spectacle. You start to notice a trend over the years with these ventures out into our solar system. They go to more and more exotic locations: the moon, then Mars, then Jupiter and the Sun.

Sci-fi films continue to revisit the most well-known planets in our solar system, but as we learn more about the rest of it, expect movies that focus on trips to places like Neptune, Venus, and Mercury as well.

Avatar (2009)

Avatar gets a lot of flak for a variety of reasons, but the reality is the movie was a groundbreaking achievement in special effects and 3D. And that’s where the ship is heading out to Pandora — pure space porn.

Like 2001 before it, there is pre-Avatar and post-Avatar when it comes to space in science fiction film.

Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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Say what you will about J.J. Abrams and lens flare, but the rebooted Star Trek — along with Star Trek Into Darkness — was one hell of a renaissance of the franchise. It took what many considered niche and nerdy and turned the series back into the powerhouse franchise it once was, giving the final frontier a new life. The special effects were outstanding and the Enterprise never looked so good.

2010 and beyond

Prometheus (2012)

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Prometheus got hammered for being too confusing and not making enough sense (and they made Michael Fassbender an android). Regardless, Ridley Scott’s sort-of prequel to the Alien series did impress, especially on the big screen. It took the look and feel of the original Alien and updated it to today’s standards, much in the same way Star Trek did in 2009. What is especially impressive about Prometheus was Scott’s use of actual sets that seamlessly blended with CG effects.

Elysium (2013)

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2013 is a great year for science fiction and outer space. Neil Blomkamp, who made waves with his first theatrical release District 9,”returned with his sophomore effort. Elysium pits Matt Damon against Jodi Foster in class warfare; those on what’s left of the Earth against those living in luxury and privilege on the space station Elysium.

Blomkamp put his gritty, realistic style on display in “District 9″ and took it into Earth’s orbit. This was a fantastic looking movie and the ringworld-style design of the space station is a classic of science fiction. It was great to see it come to life in such detail.

Here’s hoping this might provide some inspiration and motivation for an adaptation of Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” novels.

And that brings us to …

Gravity (2013)


Many are hailing Gravity as the finest and most incredible portrayal of space since “2001″ more than 40 years ago. It currently sits at a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes after 149 reviews. Alfonso Cuaron has been at work on this movie for four years.

Gravity takes place entirely in Earth’s orbit and follows Sandra Bullock as she struggles for survival after the space station meets with disaster. Cuaron is known for setting up incredible shots, and from the reviews of Gravity he uses his skill in this area in combination with computer graphics to achieve what some are saying is “the closest you can get to being in space without actually going.”

2000s honorable mentions: Solaris, Pitch Black, Chronicles Of Riddick, Space Cowboys, Moon, Europa Report, District 9, Red Planet, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Signs, Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Sorry, no Transformers; Michael Bay had his installment with Armageddon.)

- Chris C Anderson

VIDEO: What happens when you wring out a damp cloth in space?>

Did you know you can see these things from space?

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