Space travel has been a mainstay of human aspiration from the beginning. Who hasn’t looked at the night sky and thought, “Hey, I’d like to be up there!”? That’s why space travel movie and TV shows came into being, and won’t likely lose purpose any time soon. Here are 10 classic pieces of pop culture space travel, from between 1902 to 1978. To infinity and beyond and may the Force be with you!
- A Trip to the Moon (1902)
One of the most influential short films of all time, Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon was almost an epic-length film at the time, conveying a sci-fi space travel story back when all space travel was still science fiction. In some ways, A Trip to the Moon almost seems like a video game, only you don’t control the characters. The short is most famous for the scene of the space capsule striking the eye of the man in the moon. Also, consider all of the things Méliès did for his movies. He often acted as director, producer, writer, actor, designer, publicist, and editor. Talk about having one’s plate full!
- Buck Rogers (1939)
Based on Philip Francis Nowlan’s comic strip, Universal Pictures’s Buck Rogers serial from the late 19302 actually encapsulates many sci-fi themes ever since. You can most likely find these early space travel-themed episodes online. If you do, you might want a handy dandy checklist of just how many things you’ve noticed borrowed from Buck Rogers. You have characters who take their suspended animation situation in stride, the prediction of pilotless drones, and enough action to shake a stick at.
Refreshingly, Buck Rogers also has a strong female character played by Constance Moore. The valiant Buck Rogers is played by Buster Crabbe, accompanied by Jackie Moran as George “Buddy” Wade, who all face off against the notorious “Killer” Kane (Anthony Warde). Buck Rogers had an obvious influence on Star Wars, which you can easily see by comparing the famous opening credit sequences.
- The War of the Worlds (1953)
Still one of the scariest sci-fi movies of all time, Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds is a straightforward tale of the earth being under attack by hostile alien invaders. Based on H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel, this film has one of the coolest, most bad-ass alien spaceships out there. It’s also fun to hear earth-scientists ponder the alien life forms, such as hypothesizing that they could “smell color.” In addition to their freaky, sleek, and stylish spaceships, viewers can appreciate the alien’s “electric eye” technology and eclectic biology.
The War of the Worlds is also pretty neat because, although the military is present, it treats scientists almost like action stars, regarding them as heroic for their knowledge. In other words, it’s not just brawn but brains that we’d need (sort of an important message). In modern movies, you’re typically not a hero unless you’re injected with steroids and talk like a dufus.
Toward the end, an angry, panicked human mob punches our main scientist character, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry). We learn how chaotic things can get: “It became a giant stampede — without order and without goal.” Interestingly, Ann Robinson reprised her role as Sylvia van Buren for the gory, action-packed 1988 War of the Worlds TV series. It should also be noted that Dr. Clayton Forrester inspired the name for the mad scientist from “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” played by Trace Beaulieu.
- Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Do you want the worst? You got the worst! Well, okay…there’s still a debate over if Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space wears the crown for the worst film ever. Still, it has to make the list somewhere! Fortunately, the movie can be fun to watch, in addition to its notorious standing (and partly because of it). This sloppily arranged story asks what would happen if space aliens (who look remarkably human) resurrected the recent earth-dead to conduct random attacks, ostensibly to prevent humans from developing a superweapon that could destroy the universe.
Heavy stuff, right? There’s another way of looking at it, though: If the universe can be so easily destroyed, is it really all that great ayway? Really, you can say what you want, but at least Edward D. Wood, Jr. tangled with philosophy here and there. The plot might even remind one of of a famous Nietzsche quote: “…And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” In this case, though, the abyss is stuffed with cheese and features space travel with incompetent, wise-yet-evil aliens.
This cinematic monstrosity stars Gregory Walcott, Mona McKinnon, Tor Johnson, and “Vampira” (Maila Nurmi), who was baiscally the original Elvira. It was also weirdly narrated by an entertainment entity known to the cosmos as Criswell. Tragically, this was also Bela Lugosi’s last film, appearing only briefly in fleeting scenes (and, curiously, his character was also played by a blatantly inexact body double named Tom Mason). Watch this flick with caution, for it knows not what it does!
- Lost in Space (1965–1968)
Before it was a hit Netflix space travel series or individual films, Lost in Space was a fun little CBS series created by Irwin Allen. Inspired by the 1812 novel The Swiss Family Robinson and the comic Space Family Robinson, it’s hard to not like this series. Who are the Robinsons? You have John (Guy Williams), Maureen (June Lockhart), Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy).
Helping them is Don West (Mark Goddard) while Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) is often there to thwart them. Though it’s easy to dismiss Smith as a cartoon-like villain, it’s nevertheless true that the real world has its share of villains less redeemable than Smith. Lost in Space does come equipped with occasional aliens, of course, including some giant cycloptic ones. Then again, wouldn’t the Robinsons technically be the aliens?
- Star Trek: The Original Series (1966–1969)
It originally ran for only three seasons, but Star Trek‘s left a permanent imprint on the world of sci-fi. It first aired on September 8, 1966, on NBC. Star Trek has forever seared Captain Kirk and Spock into public consciousness, even without considering subsequent series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and numerous related films. The original series (TOS) had a memorable cast, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and James Doohan, and George Takei.
In some ways, Star Trek was the X-Files of its day, with more freaky occurrences than one could shake a stick at. It’s not too crazy to even regard “Star Trek” almost as an anthology series, as each episode could almost be considered self-contained. Sure, some episodes were cheesy as hell (Gorn, we’re looking at you), but that only adds to its charm! You can always say, “Hey, it’s Star Trek!”
- 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
It’s no easy task to interpret Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, so it’s best to not try too hard. That a seemingly simple story could be so puzzling is maddening in itself. Consider the opening sequence where our apparent primate ancestors discover a weird, alien monolith. It seems to influence their judgment, making them more intelligent somehow, triggering their violence. The sequence seems to suggest that any old wound of intolerance and hatred between creatures is of primitive origin, waiting to re-opened through renewed intelligence (or something like that). Still, it’s a head-scratcher. Either way, the movie ends up in space.
Though the main character’s name is Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea), he always comes across as a stranger This space travel mission seems to be doomed from the start, like the crew live under a giant bubble of loss, just waiting to be broken and set free. The apparent enemy is their super-intelligent computer, HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). The monolith figures into this as well, but no viewers will likely understand it, and perhaps that’s by intent of design.
There’s something godlike about it, and being under its control seems to require all intelligent creatures to confide their cosmic fears, turning existence into one giant trap. 2001: A Space Odyssey overs little more information to ease one’s mind. It seems up to the viewer to come up with the truth. The monolith is not merely some strange beacon that starts firing in an intrepid adventurer’s direction. In fact, this movie is tricky to investigate without continuing research into how the story itself was made.
- Planet of the Apes (1968)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes isn’t as impossibly deep as Kubrick, but it has surprising depth for what it is. After a space travel mission has George Taylor (Charlton Heston) crash land on a strange planet, he comes to find the exotic land populated by non-human primates. Fortunately, they happen to speak English, allowing Taylor to understand them. Unfortunately, Taylor’s voicebox is injured when he’s taken prisoner, making it easier for ape leader Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) to dismiss Taylor as a primitive. Indeed, any remaining humans are treated as lesser beings, either to be controlled or exterminated.
Along this bizarre journey, Taylor actually becomes friends with some eccentric apes, Lucius (Lou Wagner), Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), and Zira (Kim Hunter). Then, of course, Taylor also has his planet-bound human companion, Nova (Linda Harrison). By the end, a great secret is revealed about the planet, suggesting the asronaut’s original quest was doomed to failure. The movie is also a comment on the real world, where people can be torn apart by division, killed by bounty hunters, or imprisoned seemingly at will — in the finest tradition of wrong place, wrong time.
Indeed, scientific advancement itself threatens to swoop down like a vulture and pick away at us until all the meat is gone, and all that’s left is the bare bones of our hollowed out existence. In the ape world, you can be forcibly taken away by a doctor, told to stay away from “forbidden zones,” and all by overlord-types who assure themselves that “All is well.” Considering that this movie has such depressing themes, one might feel more cheerful at the average funeral. Then again, those ape masks do look silly by modern standards. Let’s be honest.
- Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)
Everyone and their dog has watched George Lucas’s Star Wars. Still, even non-fans likely return to this classic every so often, as it definitely has its fair share of layers. Sure, it was later “revamped” by Lucas, who added embarrassingly bad CG to scenes (especially the Jabba the Hutt sequence — eww!). However, let’s not let its decent aspects be overshadowed by that. You have classic characters like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whose innocence permeates the entire movie. Then there’s C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), who is too dang abusive to poor fellow droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker).
Ultimately, the original Star Wars examines issues of Force privilege, and we ponder minor questions like why stormtroopers are all so terrible at shooting. That aside, we see that the Dark Side is political in nature. It likes to murder good people to get what it wants. They will work with other evil people to create chaos, and regard fighting as “sport”. They create extreme situations and the very rebellions they despise.
Along with Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), you have Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) lead a daring counterattack against the Galactic Empire, as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) leads this mission of vital importance to the Rebellion. While you have endless followup films like The Phantom Menace, many will maintain that George Lucas’s universe never topped the original trilogy and that even the first could stand on its own, limited though its story may be.
- Superman (1978)
Richard Donner’s Superman has almost become an underrated superhero film, though it was definitely a defining effort for the genre. It also begins in space on the planet Krypton, where we meet Superman’s dad, Jor-El (Marlon Brando). We learn that Kryptonians are a peaceful, spiritual race and that the destruction of their world is imminent. Superman — whose original name is Kal-El — is soon sent to earth to become one of the most obnoxiously powerful superheroes in all of comic book lore. In fact, in this first film alone, Superman (Christopher Reeve) demonstrates so much power that there’s scarcely a doubt that he’ll emerge victorious against Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman).
Still, much of this movie is actually about Superman’s identity as mild-mannered Clark Kent, and his burgeoning love for his co-worker, Lois Lnae (Margot Kidder). Things are kept relatively simple. There isn’t much time devoted to concepts like the Phantom Zone.
Much of the action stays in Metropolis, with the story only occasionally involving outer space travel. Frankly, some of the best moments involve Luthor and his bumbling assistant, Otis (Ned Beatty). Luthor’s best line? It might be: “Some people can read ‘War and Peace’ and come away thinking it’s a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.”
It’s very possible we missed some key space travel movies/TV shows. Feel free to let us know in the comments!