Jet off into space with shows that are out of this world
For as long as humans have gazed up at the night sky and contemplated the stars, the moon, the planets and in turn their moons, we have found them and the mysteries they hold fascinating. Space travel and exploration are normal now, although the obsession with Mars is still puzzling; billions have been poured into learning about this inhabitable planet with a view to colonisation instead of fixing the one we have. Go figure.
Here is a list of some of the space-related movies, series and documentaries to stream.
A World Without Nasa (Showmax)
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is synonymous with everything space-related. It’s right there in the name. It’s been responsible for sending astronauts to the moon and the Rover to Mars, and bringing us amazing photographs from the outer reaches of our solar system. But what you might not know is that NASA’s technology has a far-reaching impact on our day-to-day life – from water filtration systems that date back to the Apollo era to firefighter suit applications, and even improving your cell phone selfie game. Learn more here.
Apollo 13 (Netflix)
Made all the way back in 1995, this is still one of the best moon movies, starring Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris. It tells the story of the doomed mission, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and made the phrase “Houston, we have a problem” part of our lexicon.
How much of it is true? “Experts agree that Apollo 13 is a largely accurate depiction of the true story,” says Looper. “While it may be easy for filmmakers to play with facts, Ron Howard committed to portraying events in Apollo 13 as true to life as he could, which many experts agree that he did.”
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars in this series as Emma Green, leading the first crewed expedition to Mars. While the journey forms the backdrop for the show, the human dramas of life back home on Earth, between Emma, her husband Matt (Josh Charles, The Good Wife) and her daughter Alexis (Talitha Bateman, no relation to Jason) form a highly emotional chunk of the narrative. Up in space, Emma has to deal with her crew being skeptical about her abilities.
“Space is secondary to Away’s focus on human drama but is used well in bursts, from a dazzling spacewalk to the crew drinking bubbles of vodka from syringes,” says Empire. “Its spectacle never distracts from Emma’s inner battles, though, and Away proves one of the better balances of genre-infused character-study TV in recent memory.”
Challenger: The Final Flight (Netflix)
The “explosion” of the space shuttle Challenger on 28 January 28 1986, 73 seconds after launch, remains a defining moment of the 20th Century. Anyone old enough will be able to recall where they were when they heard about the tragedy, or saw the footage.
This four-part docuseries was executive produced by JJ Abrams and Glen Zipper, with interviews and rare archival material. Among the seven crew members was teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian in space.
Europa Report (Showmax)
This “found footage” film revolves around the fictional mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Found footage is a sub-genre that refers to the use of footage made for other purposes, sometimes real, sometimes not. Think Blair Witch Project.
Common Sense Media says this is one of the best. “It gets by on sound, suggestion, mood, and the power of the unseen, rather than shock or gore. It uses its time to build a generous rapport between the astronauts. They gently tease one another, but there’s very little vulgarity or sexual innuendo to turn things sour. When things start to happen, each tragedy is deeply felt.” Because of course, in any space movie, things always go wrong.
First Man (Netflix)
Ryan Gosling stars as Neil Armstrong (5 August 1930 – 25 August 2012), famously the first man to step foot on the moon on 18 July 1969, closely followed by Buzz Aldrin (born 20 January 1930 and still of this earth). The third astronaut on Apollo 11, Michael Collins, passed away just this year (born in Italy on 31 October 1930, died 28 April 2021).
“It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet,” says The Guardian.
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Before leaving, the crew members of Apollo 13 left a plaque on the moon, inscribed thus: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, AD. We came in peace for all mankind” in capital letters. The Apple TV+ series has two seasons to stream, and it’s superb. It’s an alternative telling of history, cleverly setting achievements in the past rather than the future, like everyone else does, and thereby making them somehow more believable.
I binged Season 1 and then I binged Season 2 (after waiting for all the weekly episodes), and it had me stuffing my knuckles into my mouth while sitting on the edge of my seat. “With its Cold War tensions and Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D Moore on board as co-creator, For All Mankind had the kind of pedigree to match its big-picture implications,” says The Ringer (article contains spoilers).
Look out for Easter eggs like the inclusion of Sally Ride, the first American woman in space (in 1983, but not in the series). Season 3 began filming in February 2021.
Gravity (DStv online)
Sandy Bullock and George Clooney co-star in this movie in which – gasp! – things go wrong: the astronauts are stranded in space when their shuttle is destroyed and they must try to get back to Earth. Gravity was nominated for seven Oscars, and won seven of them. It got six Baftas, the Golden Globe for Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón, who also co-wrote it, co-edited it and produced it), and various other awards.
“Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, about astronauts coping with disaster, is a huge and technically dazzling film,” says RogerEbert.com, which awarded the film four stars. “Watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s spacefarers go about their business, you may feel – for the first time since The Right Stuff perhaps – that a Hollywood blockbuster grasps the essence of a job that many can’t imagine without feeling dizzy. The panoramas of astronauts tumbling against starfields and floating through space stations are both informative and lovely.”
Lost in Space (Netflix)
This series is a reimagining of a previous series by the same name, which in turn was a reimagining itself – of The Swiss Family Robinson – in a tale about a family stranded in an unknown and potentially hostile environment.
“Lost In Space continues to be a show about leveraging expectations. Season 2 of Netflix’s visually astounding sci-fi series has a lot of heart and plenty of breathtaking vistas, but for all its galaxy-spanning potential, it also plays things frustratingly safe,” says Indiewire. “Like … Season 1, the sheer predictability means that its appeal will be mostly limited to younger audiences and sci-fi diehards, but for those who fit either of those categories, Lost in Space is still consistently enjoyable light entertainment.” Sometimes we all need a bit of reliable safety in our lives.
“Set in 2199, Pandora stars Priscilla Quintana as Jax, a young woman whose parents disappear from some distant planet under mysterious circumstances. Basically orphaned, Jax returns to Earth, where her ultra-affluent uncle is able to get her a coveted position in the Space Training Academy, which definitely shouldn’t be confused with Star Fleet Academy,” explains The Hollywood Reporter.
Both seasons are available to binge-watch on Showmax.
Star Trek, 2009 (Showmax)
Created by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek The Original Series (three seasons available on Netflix) made its debut in 1966, spawning nine spin-off series (five of them on Netflix) and a massive film franchise. This is the 2009 movie, the 11th in the franchise, starring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock. JJ Abrams directed.
“The overall impression is one of unbridled enthusiasm on the part of the film’s makers, both for its predecessors and for the brave new universe Abrams and his crew are exploring,” says Time Out.
Star Trek Beyond, 2016 (Showmax)
In number 13 in the franchise, Pine and Zachary reprise their roles. Abrams moves into the producer’s chair making way for Justin Lin (Fast & The Furious, True Detective) to direct, while co-writer Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) appears, as do Idris Elba, Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin (who died a month before the movie was released in 2016). Yelchin was in the 2009 film too, and Star Trek Into The Darkness in 2013.
“Star Trek Beyond is no embarrassment to the franchise. Rather, it’s a proud addition to a canon that even the ghost of creator Gene Roddenberry would appreciate,” says The Washington Post. “It may not boldly go where no Star Trek film has gone before, but it gets there at warp speed, and with a full tank of fresh ideas.”
With a distinctly low-budget feeling, this movie has four characters inside one set/green screen, being a ship on its way to, surprise, Mars. Even the communications with Earth are unvoiced from the ground. The premise: some hours after launch, a stowaway is found on board. If it was an accident, it sure is a rude surprise. Thing is, with these trips, everything is measured and counted out and there’s only enough of everything, from oxygen to food, for the number of crew members. Oh, and then more stuff goes wrong, and something – or someone – has to give.
“Stowaway introduces an ethical dilemma that turns around and around in your head. Is Michael’s life less important because he’s not one of the crew members? Of course not. Yet saying that doesn’t solve the problem,” posits Variety. “Because if the sanctity of his life – of everyone’s – is respected, then all four people aboard will die. What would you do?”
The Mars Generation (Netflix)
At this point it’s almost a relief to get back to a documentary. “Through amazing archival footage of the space program as well as interviews with a number of scientists and astronauts – including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Sunita Williams – [Michael] Barnett provides an overview of the history and current state of space exploration. The film juxtaposes this with a revealing and intimate look at participants in NASA’s space camp for youth,” says Sundance Institute.
Note: the film was released in 2016. It “is the definitive look at mankind’s future journey to Mars, as told through the eyes of the teens who will be the first ever to set foot on the Red Planet,” says American Film Showcase.
The Martian (DStv online)
This one puts humans already on Mars. Something Goes Wrong and the mission is abandoned – along with an astronaut the rest of the crew thought hadn’t made it. But old Matt Damon as botanist Mark Watney is indeed alive, if not all that well. He – and the folks back home – have to figure out if he can survive until the next scheduled Mars landing…in four years’ time.
“What makes The Martian such a brilliant, captivating film is that it has more science fact than science fiction. This may sound counter-intuitive – a nerdy, science-heavy plot is a turnoff for a lot of moviegoers. Luckily, all the science in The Martian is executed by a charming, hilarious character who makes it feel real and accessible,” says Business Insider. Bonus: it was Barack Obama’s favourite movie in 2015.
Interstellar (coming to Showmax on 17 May 2021)
Christopher Nolan (Inception, with Leo DiCaprio, also coming soon to Showmax on 17 May 2021) directs Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine and, yes, Matt Damon. The setting is the future, and it involves a wormhole into a distant galaxy in the search for a new planet for humans to mess up.
“With Interstellar, Nolan’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. That’s fine: These days, few other filmmakers dare reach so high to stretch our minds so wide. And our senses, all of them,” says Time. “At times, dispensing with Hans Zimmer’s pounding organ score, Nolan shows a panorama of the spacecraft in the heavens – to the music of utter silence. At these moments, viewers can hear their hearts beating to the sound of awe.”