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The 10 Best Space Opera Movies Of All Time

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Say the words “science fiction” and most people immediately think of outer space. It’s ironic then, that so few sci-fi movies actually set in outer space have ever been made. When they are made, far too often they turn out as disasters like Dune or enjoyable but ultimately forgettable movies like Supernova. Yet, the handful of big space operas which are made, have made more money at the box office than almost any other kind of film. Star Wars alone should have spawned a never-ending string of space adventures. Instead there was a brief gasp of wannabes which never really went anywhere followed by decades of silence.

Maybe there’s a reason space operas are so rare: They’re incredibly hard to do. Set largely in the future and in outer space, they require massive effects budgets, huge set pieces, and leaps of imagination almost unlike any genre. When a filmmaker gets space opera right he becomes a legend, like Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, and George Lucas. When he gets it wrong, he ends up on Hollywood’s shitlist for wasting the kind of massive budget required by the genre on a flop.

More than any other, truly great space opera is deserving of praise. Here’s a little of that right now, with our list of the ten greatest space operas ever put to film.

Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan

1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Not just the greatest space opera ever produced but also the greatest submarine movie ever made, Wrath of Khan substitutes the dark of space for the watery deep in telling the tale of two ship commanders locked in a battle to the death. In Khan Noonien Singh, actor Ricardo Montalbahn creates one of the greatest villains ever to appear on screen. His presence echoes throughout every movie that’s followed, even now you’ll hear filmmakers talk about wanting to make the villain of their new movie equal to Montalbhan’s. But Khan has no equal. Even without him, Wrath of Khan would deserve its place at the top of this list with gripping performances from everyone in the cast and one of the most wrenching, unforgettable deaths in movie history. The words “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” still echo in my head, and that moment at the end of the film when Kirk starts to fall apart at Spock’s funeral as he pronounces him “human”, is utterly heartbreaking.

Wrath of Khan is without question the best of Trek, but the franchise has contributed more to the space opera genre than any other. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock with brilliant performances from Shatner and Christopher Lloyd could easily have been included. So could Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with its Klingon allegory for the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the more recent 2009 Star Trek and it’s talent for boldly going into a universe of high adventure. For decades now Star Trek has defined what it is to be a space opera, leaving its mark on our culture in a way unmatched by almost anything else.

Here’s one of my many favorite Wrath of Khan moments. Share yours in the comments at the end of this article.

2. Star Wars: Original Trilogy (1977 – 1983)

Look up the definition of what a space opera is, and you’ll see the original Star Wars trilogy. All three movies of course belong on this list and everyone has their own way of ranking them. Personally I’d single out Return of the Jedi as my favorite, Ewoks and all. Most people seem to lean towards Empire. It doesn’t matter. All three movies were obviously cinematic landmarks, which makes it all the more depressing to realize that they no longer exist. Since the late-90s George Lucas, who directed one of the three films and generally claims all the credit for the others, has embarked on a one man mission to erase his work from history and replace it with something dishonest and less than. Unless you’ve managed to hoard an old VHS copy or still own a Laserdisc player, Lucas has managed to successfully remove his movies from the world and replaced them with inferior, heavily modified works which, truth be told, aren’t good enough to deserve a place on this list. If you think they do, please look at this.

But we’re not talking about the thing masquerading as Star Wars on DVD shelves today, we’re talking about the Star Wars which now, for the most part, only exists in the memories of the lucky few who saw the real movies. And those movies, were great. Maybe some day they’ll end up back in the public domain, allowing the release of the Star Wars which deserves to stand up and take its place as one of the greatest cinematic achievements in our cultural history. Until then, stay away from the new versions and keep them real movies alive in your memory.

In particular, keep this scene alive in your memory because it, like a lot of the best things about Mos Eisley, won’t be on the upcoming Star Wars Blu-ray:

3. Serenity (2005)

It’s amazing that this movie managed to get made at all, that it’s also brilliantly good makes Serenity an achievement of an entirely different level. Based on the cancelled to soon television series Firefly, the movie works by creating an entire world to play around in, and populating it with fantastically well-drawn and performed characters. Writer/director Joss Whedon’s sharp, witty banter quickly develops a sort of group personality for them, and best of all he does it in the midst of the action. There’s no mood-killing stop-down for a moment of a character development. Han kissed Leia for the first time in the middle of trying not to get blown up, not while taking a break to ride a cow, and that’s the sort of perfect character development you’ll see in Serenity. We get to know these people intimately while on the run, as it should be in anything resembling a good adventure movie.

Serenity’s so good, consistently, through and through, that picking out any one great moment amongst myriads seems impossible. Is it Chiwetel Ejiofor as one of the best villains on screen since Khan, that’s worth remembering most? Are you in love with Mal Reynolds (who isn’t)? Wash’s heart-wrenching death scene? It’s all perfect. Just re-watch the Serenity trailer. I aim to misbehave:

4. Alien (1979)

I’ve always preferred James Cameron’s sequel Aliens to Ridley Scott’s original movie… until I finally saw Alien in an actual movie theater, during the movie’s re-release a few years ago. Wow. The inky depths of space just don’t feel as big or as terrifying stuck at home on your couch. Most of the film takes place aboard a starship, with a group of humans struggling to survive while being stalked by an alien creature of malevolence beyond their comprehension. More than the sheer scare-factor of it, Scott creates an entire universe in his film, one which ended up being so much fun to run around in, we’re still making movies set it in now. But none of those movies captured the deep, dark of space the way Scott’s did.

What’s more terrifying than being stuck in space with a creature bent on your destruction? A creature bent on your destruction through creative pro-creation:

5. WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E isn’t Pixar’s best movie, but with all due respect to Titan A.E. it’s the only animated movie outside of anime to actually get space opera right. It starts in a garbage heap, the humblest of beginnings, and ends up in a massive journey to bring mankind back home from the stars. That a story this big centers entirely around a tiny robot who can’t even talk isn’t just incredible, it’s unprecedented. But WALL-E doesn’t need words to connect with the audience and the story of a little robot who refuses to give up is a pretty universal way to connect with just about anyone.

Personally, though, I’ve never found WALL-E’s vision of the future in which all people ride around in floaty chairs getting fat as terrifying as it’s supposed to be. Actually, the whole thing seems kind of relaxing. Maybe WALL-E should have left humanity out there, hanging around in space. Making them get up may not have been the right move. The ship’s captain sure doesn’t seem to be having much fun:

6. Galaxy Quest (1999)

Putting Galaxy Quest on this list is sort of like falling down the rabbit hole since, this Tim Allen vehicle actually starts out as a comedic parody of the culture that builds up around popular science fiction icons. Except somewhere along the way it takes a right turn and becomes a flat out brilliant outer space adventure itself. What if old Star Trek episodes were mistaken for historical documents by aliens, and William Shatner and his fellow Trek actors ended up on a real space ship asked to save the universe the way they did on TV? I’d like to think they’d do just exactly what Jason Nesmith, Gwen Demarco, Alexander Dane, Fred Kwan, and that guy who played the red shirt do: Kick ass.

Here’s a tribute to my favorite NSE Protector crew member, Crewman Number 6:

7. Starship Troopers (1997)

In theory this is based on the brilliant Robert A. Heinlein book of the same name, but in practice you’ll enjoy Paul Veerhoven’s film a lot more if you ignore the fact that Heinlein’s novel exists. Veerhoven’s vision of this world is completely different from Heinlein’s and, even if it’s not quite as good, it’s still really really good. Starship Troopers follows a group of soldiers in a far off future where humanity is at war with a vicious group of alien insectoids. Violent and completely fucked up at every turn, I think Veerhoven was trying to make some sort of social commentary, but most of that falls flat. Instead he ended up with a viciously R-rated, completely crazed, and a little ridiculous (in a good way) space-faring war movie.

What you really need to ask is, are you doing your part?

8. The Last Starfighter (1984)

In the 80s it seemed like video games were only a step or two away from reality, giving birth to movies like Tron and in this case, The Last Starfighter. A video game addict teen beats his local coin-op, only to discover the machine is actually a recruiting program for an alien defense force. Whisked up into the stars and teamed up with an alien pilot named Grig (played brilliantly by Dan O’Herlihy) he’s the galaxy’s last hope to save us all from a malevolent invading force. The film’s special effects are pretty dated but the plot is universal, hero stuff, and that’s the kind of thing space operas do better than almost anything else. It’s all the little details that make this one so special: Beta Alex the earthly robot replacement for our hero, the strange background of Grig’s family, and most of all Robert Preston as the enigmatic Centauri.

Ok it’s not perfect. That whole death blossom thing is kind of a copout. But even that seems pretty cool, in the moment:

9. The Fifth Element (1997)

The French aren’t usually known for their love of science fiction but in The Fifth Element Parisian writer/director Luc Besson took them into the future and beyond. Like some strange Blade Runner meets Galaxy Quest mashup, the movie starts with Bruce Willis as a futuristic flying taxi driver embroiled in some mystery surrounding a priest and a half-naked girl. Before long he’s launched into space alongside squeaky-voiced Chris Tucker fighting alien bounty hunters and protecting the girl, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), as she’s drawn inexorably to her destiny. The special effects are glitzy and eye-popping and the movie was a career maker for Jovovich and Tucker. And Luc Besson, if he knows anything, he knows how to shoot action.

Here’s how it all started, with the creation of Leeloo who, let’s be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure was a woman until they put those straps across her chest. I still remember the audible “ohhh…” reaction from my friends as she got her tape-bikini. Milla Jovovich is fantastically beautiful, but she’s not exactly well-endowed. Here’s The Fifth Element’s introduction to Leeloo:

10. The Black Hole (1979)

Originally greenlit by Disney only as an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Star Wars and much maligned in its time, The Black Hole might seem like a strange addition to this list, but I say look again. The story’s dark and strange, the story of a group of space explorers forced by their damage ship to take shelter aboard a gigantic vessel run by a missing mad scientist, hiding out in the unbelievable gravitic forces of a black hole. The movie’s special effects were groundbreaking (including the first ever use of computer animation on film, in the movie’s title sequence) and the starships themselves, in particular the Cygnus, are triumph of imagination. The script was written by science fiction master Alan Dean Foster and it shows, even if they tried to insert a cute robot for the kids. But even the cute robot, V.I.N.C.E.N.T., R2D2 clone that he is, sort of works.

Groundbreaking in its time and probably darker and smarter than Disney intended when they set out to snag a piece of the Star Wars audience, The Black Hole is worth revisiting, if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it.

Hey why’d you leave off…
The history of film is filled with great science fiction, but it’s surprising when you look back on it, how little of it’s actually set in outer space. Avatar for instance, takes place on one alien planet, and thus isn’t really space opera at all. The same is true for great movies like Stargate, Pitch Black, Total Recall, and Enemy Mine. Others like The Fountain, well I’m not really sure what they are. Is Hugh Jackman actually traveling through space and time, or is it all just happening in his mind? You decide.

Others you might notice missing I simply don’t think belong. I respect 2001: A Space Odyssey’s accomplishments, but when was the last time you watched it? Stanley Kubrick’s film is both tedious, tiresome, and long. Dune is based on a brilliant series of books, but David Lynch’s movie treads on the edge of disaster. Most of the space opera produced by Hollywood ends up simply being good, but forgettable. Event Horizon, Supernova, Titan A.E. and Sunshine are the kinds of movies that fit comfortably into that niche.

Comments

  1. Jason Wryta says:

    In regards to The Fountain, my understanding is that the original idea was for a story taking place in 3 different time periods, including a ‘spaceship in the future’.  The early film trailers even explicitly state this.  But since the budget for the film was cut – effectively nixing any digital effects work – they decided to do all the effects using organic film techniques and modest conventional stage sets.  Had the original film idea been produced, we perhaps would have had Brad Pitt onboard something more like the Nostromo and less Hugh Jackman in a snow globe.

    The end result sort of takes a life of its own and is clearly open to interpretation – especially if you disregard what D.A. and co. themselves say the film is about.  A film with literally twice the budget most certainly would have had bigger set pieces and been more of an epic.  The film we got is a good film, for sure, but it seems like it takes on its small, abstract, dream-like feel almost out of necessity – like they couldn’t afford to show us anything else.  I could be wrong about the background, but however it turned-out, The Fountain is ultimately nothing about space travel – or science fiction – in my opinion.

    • JT says:

      Yep I generally agree with your intepretation of The Fountain.  Though the outer space photography is so completely brilliant… achingly beautiful… I wish they had gone the more sci-fi route and done more with it.  Those images deserve to be used more.

    • Anonymous says:

      The conquistador storyline never happened. It was just her fictional story. The present is the present and the future is just Tommy using the tree for eternal life. The story is totally straightforward, it’s just presented as complex.

      • Jason Wryta says:

        That is my understanding of the The Fountain as well and it’s certainly the easiest way to approach the film.  My point is that ‘the present interwoven with 2 fantasy threads’ is not the way the film was originally conceived or written and that the original ‘3 timelines’ concept made it’s way into early trailers (which you can find on youtube) and and still inform debate about the film today.

  2. Sapper11_190 says:

    BATTLESTAR GALACTICA!!!

  3. Gigsontz says:

    Just a sec… Actually you  place Alien in space opera genre and left out Dune series just because is based on set of books when  Alien is more of a horror story placed in space.. Other than that i like your list but i can never place Alien in space opera simply because it lacks drama, specific character interaction and atmosphere.. On the other hand Wall-e also cant be classified as space opera because is somewhat lacking a lot of space opera elements and is more offbeat love story than SO.

    • JT says:

      That’s not why I left out Dune.  I left out Dune because David Lynch made a terrible movie out of it. You misread.

      • Mark Jobson says:

        So David Lynch’s Dune is a terrible movie and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is a great one?

        Riiiggghhhttt.

        • JT says:

          Absolutely.  You have a minority opinion.  Nothing wrong with having a minority opinion, as long as you recognize it for what it is.  I hold a few like that myself. 

          Recognize that Lynch’s Dune is reviled more often than it is revered while Star Trek is generally regarded as one of the best adventure/sci-fi movies of the past few years. It’s just reality.

          • You are still a faggot, Josh T says:

            The fact that you didn’t like it doesn’t make it a bad movie.
            Your arguments pretty much prove that you don’t know shit about movies.

            Also Star Trek is regarded the best by Star Trek fans who are far from reasonable opinions.

          • cwcpr says:

            And you know its a minority position because you’ve gone out and polled literally everyone? What a ridiculous thing to say. (I’ll leave your second paragraph alone, just out of mercy).

      • cwcpr says:

        Dune is a great movie, and its obvious defects (special effects) don’t really matter one iota. It gets rid of the really stupid and dated political crap in Frank Herbert’s novel, which is somehow regarded as some kind of sacrosanct text. And it probably has the best cast and best acting of any scifi space film ever made. Just because your mind is too narrow to appreciate it, don’t posit your opinion as some kind of fact or consensus. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

        As is obvious from your attitude toward 2001, which still, years later, has never been equalled as a meditation on space and technology.

  4. Jack says:

    I”d pretty much agree with this whole list. I think you got the rankings dead on for the most part. Wrath of Khan is THE definitive Sci-fi movie, followed closely by SW.

    I love that you put Galaxy Quest on here! That movie has been a staple in our house for years. Funny as heck and a kick-butt adventure! That movie makes me want to cheer every time at the end, as goofy as it is. 

  5. Jack says:

    I”d pretty much agree with this whole list. I think you got the rankings dead on for the most part. Wrath of Khan is THE definitive Sci-fi movie, followed closely by SW.

    I love that you put Galaxy Quest on here! That movie has been a staple in our house for years. Funny as heck and a kick-butt adventure! That movie makes me want to cheer every time at the end, as goofy as it is. 

  6. Anonymous says:

    Great list.  But when I saw a couple animated titles listed (Wall-E and in the good but forgettable list, Titan A.E.), I wondered why Heavy Metal wasn’t included?  True classic.

    • JT says:

      I like Heavy Metal, but wouldn’t consider it space opera.  It’s really just a collection of shorts and not all of those shorts are even set in space.

  7. Atto Buoy says:

    You left out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. How could you?!

  8. mostly lurking says:

    disagree severely on Sunshine.  That is truly a beautiful film that belongs on this list.  Unlike The Black Hole, the Last Starfighter, or the unwatchably bad Fifth Element.   So out of ten, you got about 5-6 correct. 

  9. midas68 says:

    2001 a All Time Classic is slow, but not as slow as some of your decisions!
    Dune is a Ambitious failure but a Perfect example of what Space Opera is as opposed to your Galaxy Quest pick, And compared to THE BLACK HOLE, its Citizen Kane.
    That disqualifies you as a Opinion Giver and more of a Opinion Pooper

    • Brian says:

      Hahahahaha…. I think I thought the exact same thing as a I read this. The only voice I could inagine saying the words I was reading was Dwight from the office. The cocky self assured attitude combined with the bizarre, dare I say “minority opinions”, was pure Dwight. And while I love Jedi and 5th Element and ‘like’ Abrams’ Trek, this is just a whack article. You nearly say that Star Wars doesn’t exist unless you saw it in its original run in the theaters (And I’m sure that was te logic for why Khan beat out the Star Wars films, as well at why the OT was lumped into one entry). Get over yourself bro.

  10. I would add Silent Running.

  11. Amerish says:

    Star Blazers. Best of them all.

  12. Will says:

    Forbidden Planet is better than most of the movies on this list.  Most are merely passable.  There just haven’t been many good, let alone great, space opera movies to begin with.  Also, the highest rating to Starship Troopers I’ve ever seen.  I like it myself, but as a satire, not straight up.

    • JT says:

      I’m not sure Forbidden Planet counts as space opera, like Avatar it all takes place on one planet, mostly.

      It hasn’t held up very well either, though it was pretty great for its time.

  13. JiC says:

    I saw (and liked) all of these movies except one – The Fifth Element.  That was one bad film.  Also not sure I can give Galaxy Quest and Starship Troopers spots on this list over, most notably, Outland, Sunshine and Event Horizon.

    Frankly, I don’t even understand all of the talk about The Fountain because I don’t think it belongs in this genre at all.

  14. Vidterry says:

    Topic so subjective.  Each SF fan’s list would be very different…as apparently is even the definition of ‘space opera’.  As an old fart SF guy — around from the beginning of SF (again depending on definition), my list would have only narrow intersection with this one.  But that’s why they play the game, after all.

  15. Kottonz says:

    I just wanted to say you get massive kudos for adding the music from Blade Runner as your background music. Have you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

  16. Kottonz says:

    I meant to comment on the list of space ships… I don’t know wtf I was doing haha

  17. tom cotter says:

    It’s a strange kind of love. When I was 8 years old, TV was the place I discovered films about space travel. And it was a magical world, robots and far way planets, smart people doing adventurous things.
    And finally getting around my preteen years to the other medium; print. The texture of ideas and the writer’s vision of life, struggle and wonder… sometimes fatality and despair. You have to assemble  a lot of skills and talents to make a space film work. Now that I’m older, I tend to watch how the story balances with the total performance. Could anyone bare seeing stories without people? Maybe 2001 would have been better if Dave was an android and HAL was the man behind the curtain? How would Star Wars have worked if Chewbaca and R2D2 were the only ones to escape the Death Star?
    Or R2 single handedly put the Death Star’s main reactor on critical overload and everybody escaped?
    Too much intelligence and lesser action isn’t entertainment, you get a documentary.
    Great space movies have plenty of room to develop; You have the whole of the Universe to set a story. The medium isn’t necessarily the message; A setting should be where the characters in a story live, not what drives them… unless you plan to treat the Universe as a ‘barrio’ and try to scale the actors to the stars themselves? This is when a 2001 monolith because more than a plot device. Gene Siskel said that a space movie fails when it is a bunch of ‘techno-babble’ in front of wall screens. But ‘my dinner with Andre’ wasn’t about table etiquette or dinner placements or chandlers… the restaurant didn’t lose the characters in the movie… though I think it   makes the actors more on que with how to speak politely.
    You could put an astronaut or scientist in any movie; the trick is not to have that part of the character’s life irrelevant to the story or overstated in the interactions with the moments of what’s going on.
    You don’t make space movies for just astronauts, no more than you make ghost stories for ghosts.
    I’m surprised that ‘Solaris’ didn’t make the list? There were 2 versions of this story, I liked both for different reasons. Maybe when we actually get into Space, the space movies will go the same way as westerns? Cowboys and ranchers who actually work are the best critics to those kind of films. I had an acquaintance with a trucker who actually used to ‘break’ horses when he was a younger man; he thought the best cowboy flick was Eastwood’s ‘Bronco Billy’. My favorite was ‘Little Big Man’.
    I think the best space movie will be about a character (man/woman/robot?) who wanders the Milkyway Galaxy because humanity is disappointing and just wants to get lost and live forever without worrying where the journey will lead. Only to find out, where ever you go… life will always find new ways to make you challenge what’s out there! And maybe on the way there will be friendship and maybe even a place to where you can finally call ‘Home’? But isn’t that every story, one way or another? 

  18. Wes Holland says:

    What – no Outland?

    Best space based film noir gritty cop movie ever – and a big
    sleeper at the box and home video market. 
    Poor Sean Connery.

    My guess is that this movie was left off the list due to it
    taking place entirely on an off world mining complex and the only “space” scene
    is the arrival of the hit squad.  I still
    feel it should hold pride in place in the forgettable niche part of the list.   
    Just MHO…

  19. Hey, you forgot the real Space Opera: http://www.spaceopera.it 🙂

  20. MoreLikeGiantFreakinCrappyList says:

    2001 was a masterpiece in subtlety. If you are struggling to grasp it’s nuances and think it’s tedious and long, you may need to eat more eggs and bump up that brain power. Stargate movie sucked, as did Enemy Mine, Star Trek 3 and The Black Hole. Solaris (old one, not that shitty Clooney vehicle) should have made it.

  21. You are a faggot, Josh Tyler says:

    DUNE

    IS

    NOT

    A

    BAD

    MOVIE

    It’s actually pretty decent.

  22. TxtOS says:

    But what about the beauty of sunshine?

  23. Nya! says:

    No offense man but if you think that the social commentary in Starship Troopers falls flat, then I really hope you aren’t a professional critic.