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.
Maybe there’s a reason real 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.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
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.
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 original 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 digitally convert 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. Maybe someday Disney will bring them back.
But we’re not talking about the thing masquerading as Star Wars on Disney Plus 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.
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 Serenity right now. 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. Interstellar (2014)
Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is not a perfect movie, but it’s so utterly ambitious you can forgive it’s minor missteps. The movie takes place in a far off future where Earth has been blighted, and man needs to escape the planet. Efforts to construct a ship which could take us somewhere else are underway, but first we need a place to go. Interstellar follows the crew sent to find our new home. What they find along the way is both more and less than they expected. It’ll test the very limits of human endurance and nature, wrapped around the even horizon of a black hole.
Capped by brilliant performances, incredible cinematography, and one of the best scores of all time, Interstellar is an undeniable work of art. There’s nothing else quite like it, and I hope you saw it on the big screen. Because like all great space operas, that’s where it thrives most.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
It’d be easy to dismiss the Guardians films as just another entry in the Marvel universe, but since it doesn’t take place on Earth, it’s more of a galaxy spanning adventure. The movie follows Peter Quill, a human taken into space by aliens as a boy, and raised there. He’s grown up to become a space-faring Indiana Jones style character, and this first Guardians movie follows his adventures to save the galaxy and build a family with his crew.
The banter between the film’s characters carries the story and the movie’s stunning visual effects turn its fantasy version of outer space into a feast for the eyes. Guardians of the Galaxy, even more than it’s also pretty good sequel, is perhaps the most absolute fun you’ll have with any movie on this list.
7. 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 gets 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, 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t this a superhero movie? Sure, technically Thor: Ragnarok is one of Marvel’s superhero movies. All the Thor solo movies contain some element of taking place in a fantasy version of outer space though, and this one is not only the best Thor movie it’s the spaciest. Where the other Thor movies are largely confined to one planet besides Earth, Thor: Ragnarok is a Galaxy-hopping adventure which sees both Thor and Hulk leaping through space on a wild and incredibly funny adventure.
It’s directed by Taika Waititi who also directed one of the best episodes of The Mandalorian and who Disney is rumored to be planning to hand the entire Star Wars franchise over to. He has a flair for space opera, especially funny space opera, and he first proved it here in the incredibly unconventional Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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 an odd 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. Other recent 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.
Did I get it right? Let the world know.