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Space Disaster Movies

Galactic enthusiasts will love the explosions, new frontiers, and aliens in these space disaster movies.

By Emily McCayPublished 8 years ago 13 min read

"Astronomy compels the soul to look upward, and leads us from this world to another." Plato's quote from The Republic is certainly becoming a reality. The Martian, a film released on October 2nd, 2015, looked at the possibility of a manned mission to Mars more extensively than moviegoers had ever seen. Based on Andy Weir's The Martian, a novel by the same name, the film is about astronaut Mark Watney who gets left behind on Mars after his team presumes him dead following an intense storm. All alone, he must create his own food and find water in order to survive while constantly trying to contact Earth to tell them he's alive. However, this isn’t the first space disaster movie and it will not be the last. The reason space disaster movies are so popular is that a majority of space is still unexplored territory for humans. With so much that is unknown, there are major fears about what happens if someone gets stranded out there. Some of the best space disaster movies involve the simple idea of getting disconnected from the space station while others involve hostile alien life forms attacking those in deep space.

Floating in space looks peaceful until you get detached from the International Space Station and fly off into the abyss. Gravity, a 2013 space disaster movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón, explores this idea as two astronauts go up in space and must fight for their lives. While there are a slew of other actors in the film, the two astronauts are played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Gravity was produced entirely in the United Kingdom, where the British company Framestore spent more than three years creating most of the film's visual effects, which comprise over 80 of its 91 minutes. At the 86th Academy Awards, the film received a leading ten nominations and won seven, including Best Director for Cuarón, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Visual Effects. The film was also awarded six BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and seven Critics' Choice Movie Awards. Although Gravity is often referred to as a science fiction film, Cuarón told BBC that he sees the film rather as "a drama of a woman in space." Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 97 percent with a review that reads, "Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity is an eerie, tense, sci-fi thriller that's masterfully directed and visually stunning."

In this 1979 film loosely based on the novel of the same name, humans living after a nuclear holocaust must fight a villainous dictator after he takes control of the drug they need to survive. It stars Jack Palance, Carol Lynley, Barry Morse, John Ireland, and Anne-Marie Martin. The film was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of such recent successes as Star Wars, and TV series, such as Space: 1999 and Battlestar Galactica. However, the film had only a fraction of the production budget of the ones it was trying to compete against so viewers often got caught up in the bad quality of set pieces and action sequences. G. Noel Gross of DVD Talk said, "Released in 1979, the sets and FX look more akin to 1959.” One of the worst reviews of this film was from Nicholas Sylvain from DVD Verdict who said, "Embarrassing acting, mysterious script writing, and ultra-cheesy effects are potentially forgivable, but the worst sin of all is that The Shape of Things to Come takes itself seriously." That being said, this film has become a cult classic as time has gone by because of the storyline and the characters. The book it is based on has also become a classic, and is transitioning from the print of the past to the sound of tomorrow in an audio rendition created by Big Finish Productions.

Only one man and his crew can save the world once it's discovered that an asteroid is about to collide with Earth. Bruce Willis plays a renowned driller who must go into space with his crew. Their mission is to drill a hole into the asteroid and detonate a nuclear bomb inside it before it can destroy Earth. Besides Willis, the film stars Billy Bob Thornton, Liv Tyler, Ben Affleck, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Steve Buscemi, and many more. Armageddon was an international box-office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1998 worldwide and surpassing Saving Private Ryan. However, the film was panned by critics all over the world. In his original review, Roger Ebert stated, "The movie is an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain, common sense, and the human desire to be entertained." Nevertheless, the film received four Academy Award nominations at the 71st Academy Awards, including Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects Editing, and Best Original Song ("I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" performed by Aerosmith). College students have even gone on to write dissertations on the science behind this space disaster movie, discussing whether or not blowing up an asteroid in this fashion is possible.

What happens when you wake up in space and can’t remember who you are? In Pandorum, Dennis Quad and Ben Foster play astronauts who do just that and begin to explore their spaceship for clues as to where they are in space. However, it turns out that they are not alone as humanoid creatures have climbed aboard the ship. Other actors in the film include Norman Reedus, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Andrew Hennicke, and Wotan Wilke Mohring. The film's title is a nickname of a fictional psychosis called "Orbital Dysfunctional Syndrome" (ODS for short) caused by deep space and triggered by emotional stress leading to severe paranoia, delirium, and nose bleeding. Critics panned the film on its release but it has since garnered a cult following. In 2010, fans started a Facebook group with 500,000 users urging a Pandorum sequel. Director Christian Alvart later became a member of the group but there is no news about a sequel yet. The science fiction magazine SFX wrote a positive review of the film, saying, "Pandorum is the finest interstellar horror in years," and awarded the film four stars out of five.

This 2000 film explores what happens during the first manned mission to Mars in the year 2020. When the first mission ends in disaster, another team is sent to the red planet to find any survivors. However, the new team finds that there might be life on Mars other than the survivors they're looking for. The film stars Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, Don Cheadle, Connie Nielsen, Jerry O'Connell, and Kim Delaney. Extensive special effects surrounding certain aspects of the film—such as the NASA spacecraft and Martian vortex—were created by a number of digital effects companies including ILM, Dream Quest Images, Tippett Studio, CIS Hollywood, and Trans FX. Despite the fact that Mission to Mars employed the use of numerous extensive special effects, it failed to garner any award nominations from mainstream motion picture organizations for its production merits. Elvis Mitchell of the New York Times stated that the "visual design is spectacular, and the scenes on the Martian surface look so real that the picture could have been made on location. A holographic sequence detailing the evolutionary link between Earth and Mars is staggeringly well staged." The film ranked 41st at the box office in 2000.

Prometheus is the prequel to the iconic Alien franchise. While the making of Alien redefined sci-fi horror as a subgenre, Prometheus returned to "science fiction with gusto." Directed by Ridley Scott, this 2012 space disaster movie follows a team from Earth that travels into deep space to find the origin of mankind. Actors in the film include Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, and Charlize Theron. Prometheus contains approximately 1,300 digital effect shots with Moving Picture Company producing 420 of the shots and other studios such as Weta Digital, Fuel VFX, Rising Sun Pictures, Luma Pictures, Lola Visual Effects, and Hammerhead Productions producing other special effects shots for the film. Rotten Tomatoes said, "Ridley Scott's ambitious quasi-prequel to Alien may not answer all of its big questions, but it's redeemed by its haunting visual grandeur and compelling performances—particularly Michael Fassbender as a fastidious android." Reviews frequently praised both the film's visual aesthetic and design, and Fassbender's performance as the android David received almost universal acclaim. James Cameron said, "I enjoyed Prometheus. I thought it was great. I thought it was Ridley returning to science fiction with gusto, with great tactical performance, beautiful photography, great native 3D. There might have been a few things that I would have done differently, but that's not the point—you could say that about any movie."

Sunshine is a 2007 film about the dying Sun, and is considered by many to be one of the most underrated sci-fi movies. A crew of eight men and women venture into space with a device that could revive the star, but an accident and a long-lost spaceship interfere with the team’s mission to save Earth. This film by Danny Boyle stars Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, and many others. Sean Axmaker, writing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said the film presented a "visionary odyssey with a grace and awe and visual scope that calls to mind Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for a new millennium, with echoes of the industrial grunge and crew friction of Alien, the greenhouse ecology of Silent Running, even the unraveling sanity of Dark Star." Writing for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis viewed director Boyle as a "first-rate, seemingly sweat-free entertainer" who always "sells the goods smoothly, along with the chills, the laughs and, somewhat less often, the tears." The film won the award for Best Technical Achievement from the British Independent Film Awards in 2008 and was nominated for several other awards.

Apollo 13, a 1995 film directed by Ron Howard, is one of the best space disaster movies of all time. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert go into deep space and the oxygen tank on their spaceship explodes. With the moon landing canceled, the astronauts must fight to survive and safely return to Earth. The film stars Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise, and Ed Harris. Apollo 13 garnered critical acclaim and was nominated for many awards, including nine Academy Awards (winning for Best Film Editing and Best Sound). In total, the film grossed over $355 million worldwide during its theatrical release. To prepare for their roles as the three main astronauts, Hanks, Paxton, and Bacon all attended the US Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. While there, astronauts Jim Lovell and David Scott, commander of Apollo 15, did actual training exercises with the actors inside a simulated Command Module and Lunar Module. The actors were also taught about each of the 500 buttons, toggles, and switches used to operate the spacecraft. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film in his review, saying: "A powerful story, one of the year's best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics."

Everyone knows about the chestburster even if you haven’t seen Alien. The 1979 film is about a team woken from their cryo-sleep capsules halfway from their journey home by distress signals they soon realize are warnings of hostile alien life forms. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Ian Holm, and many others, it was directed by Ridley Scott. The alien in the film is so frightening because Scott chose not to show it in full through most of the film, instead revealing only pieces of it while keeping most of its body in shadow. This heightens the sense of terror and suspense because the audience could thus project their own fears into imagining what the rest of the creature might look like. Reviews by Variety, Sight and Sound, Vincent Canby, and Leonard Maltin were initially mixed or negative. However, the film won the 1979 Academy Award for Visual Effects and was also nominated for Best Art Direction, Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Direction for Scott, Best Supporting Actress for Cartwright, and a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. The franchise is still going strong, with 2017's Alien: Covenant getting great reviews. It has spawned a series of sequels and a prequel in 2012’s Prometheus as well as novels, comic books, video games, and toys.

In the not too distant future, Interstellar tells the tale of how humans must find another planet to live on once Earth is consumed by a second Dust Bowl. A NASA physicist decides the only way people will be able to live is if they find another planet through a wormhole. However, the physicist must send a former NASA pilot through the wormhole first to find a habitable planet. The 2014 film stars Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn, and Michael Caine. At the 87th Academy Awards, the film won the Best Visual Effects award and was also nominated for Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design. Interstellar grossed $188 million in North America and $487 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $675 million. Scott Foundas, chief film critic at Variety, said that Interstellar is "as visually and conceptually audacious as anything Nolan has yet done," and considered the space disaster movie to be more personal than Nolan's previous films. New York Times columnist David Brooks concluded that Interstellar explores the relationships among "science and faith and science and the humanities" and "illustrates the real symbiosis between these realms."

The Martian was one of those movies which was so hyped for its compelling story, remarkable environment graphics and apparent realism – not to mention the stand-out performance of Matt Damon – that it couldn’t possibly make the grade, right? Wrong. It totally did. This film tells the harrowing story of astronaut, botanist, and engineer Mark Watney (played by Damon) who is abandoned on the surface of Mars with nothing but pre-packed vitamins, limited water and his razor-sharp wits to keep him company. And alive. For a while everyone on Earth believes he is dead but Damon is eventually joined on screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain, and Jeff Daniels once they realize their mistake and do all they can to bring him home.

Directed by visual effects master Ridley Scott, the movie has set imaginations ablaze across the world whilst racking up numerous awards and 16 Oscar nominations. The film received great praise for its collaboration with NASA, providing a pseudo-accurate scientific foundation and served as a great inspiration for all those interested in space travel. Screen Rant wrote that “The Martian hits a powerful sweet spot: blending tense action, captivating science, and beautiful 3D cinematography into an emotional character story.” And that’s exactly what it does – the gasps when Watney is in trouble, the awful silence of his solitude and the palpable relief when he survives another day are testament to a truly gripping feature where it feels like you are the one stranded in a Martian wasteland.

Leading from the front in this deep-space thriller are stalwart actors Laurence Fishburne – as Captain Miller, Commanding Officer of the Lewis & Clark – and Sam Neill, the creator of the alluring, mysterious spaceship, Event Horizon. Lost in space for seven years, the ship is rediscovered. When unfortunate circumstances force a small crew to board, they begin to understand what drove the former astronauts to the borders of absolute insanity and self-mutilation…

Whilst not a timeless classic like many of the others on this list, Event Horizon checks a bunch of boxes: the haunting idea of a ship which launches brutal psychological attacks on its passengers, excellent effects with hard-and-fast man vs machine action and the brutally unanswerable question: alone and hunted in farthest reaches of space – how can we possibly survive?

When released, the movie endured some hard-hitting negative reviews, however, it is now seen by many as a unique contribution to the sci-fi genre, and it a highly enjoyable – if unnerving – piece of cinema.

Serenity is the brainchild of the brilliant screenwriter/director Joss Whedon and the fruit of incessant demand from the near-cult following of his prematurely canceled TV show Firefly. The movie takes the talented cast of Firefly – namely Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, and Summer Glau – and sets them off on an interplanetary adventure on the smuggling spaceship Serenity (captained by Fillion) whilst The Operative (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hunts them down in relentless pursuit. More or less, Serenity picks up where Firefly left off.

Serenity won many positive reviews – particularly from its impassioned following – and racked up several notable awards including the Prometheus Special Award (an accolade of libertarian sci-fi) and the Nebula Award for Best Script. The film doesn’t hesitate from diving deep in to the unknown world of outer space. From cannibalistic savages called reavers to the semi omniscient “Mr. Universe”, this space adventure is laced with moral conflict, complex characters, and excellent cinematography: a truly worthwhile watch.

When an asteroid the size of Mount Everest is thundering through space on a direct collision course with your beloved planet, there are only two choices: accept the extinction of the human race, or fight fire with a rocket ship filled to bursting with atomic bombs and blast a big enough hole that it veers off-course. Led by iconic astronaut Spurgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) in the air and President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in the Oval Office, Deep Impact is a roller-coaster ride which forces us, the viewers, to face the stark reality of an impending Extinction-Level Event: best case scenario, we aren’t all wiped out.

Grossing over $340 million, Deep Impact was cast in shadow by the blockbuster hit Armageddon, released that same summer. Consequently many believe it to be a pale imitation of a true space disaster movie, but this is unfair. For one, Deep Impact defies the easy convention that “the good guys always save the day” in many respects and force the viewer to feel a genuine, unsettling panic as the movie progresses. In terms of SFX and cinematography, the penultimate scene is utterly jaw-dropping. It’s a superb thriller, and a cold reminder of the incomparable power of outer space.

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Emily McCay

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