Most movies that involve space travel belong to the science fiction genre. These movies will often be set in the future or sometimes in an alternate version of the past. They will usually feature some form of technology that has yet to be invented or fully developed in real life, and as such it is a genre that often speculates on where society might be at any given time. given. Not all sci-fi movies are fantastic, and some are crazier than others. However, they all have something that sets them apart from the real thing – after all, that’s what the “fiction” part of “science fiction” refers to.
Since space travel became a reality in the 20th century, not all movies about characters going into space will be science fiction. Historically accurate or more down-to-earth films about going to space are much rarer than their more distant counterparts, but are not unheard of. These movies all show that more realistic takes on space travel movies can be just as exciting as those that belong to the sci-fi genre.
“Hidden Characters” (2016)
hidden numbers is a film that spends time with characters on the ground while discussing space travel. Namely, it examines those who worked behind the scenes at NASA in the early 1960s, around the time American astronauts first traveled to space.
The film’s story focuses on three black women who worked at NASA as mathematicians during this time and how they were looked down upon or overlooked in a male-dominated workplace and at a time when things were separated by race. It focuses on racial and gender issues, but is based on a true story of how these mathematicians were instrumental in the early years of NASA, showcasing space travel in this way .
“Space Cowboys” (2000)
An underrated and overlooked film in by Clint Eastwood filmography, space cowboys, is the rare space travel film that is neither science fiction nor based on true historical events. It centers on several old men who were pilots/astronauts in their youth, who are asked some 40 years later to undertake repair work on a satellite in space that no one else is so qualified to do. .
It’s something of an action-adventure movie, but not to the extent that it ventures into science fiction. As such, it follows an interesting line in the pantheon of movies set in space, as it could have happened in the year 2000 without actually having happened.
“The Good Things” (1983)
Focusing on the very first American astronauts in history, The good thing is mostly set in the 1950s and therefore does not feature a huge amount of space travel. Rather, it’s the first steps in preparing a group of pilots to become astronauts, with the main characters all battling to make the dream of taking a spaceflight a reality.
At over three hours in length, it’s certainly a long film, but it’s rewarding. The characters are memorable, the pacing is great (thanks to the story spanning a ton of ground/years), the score is iconic, and it looks great visually. It’s a film that indeed has it all, although it was unfortunately less successful at the box office upon release.
“In the Shadow of the Moon” (2007)
A critically acclaimed documentary with a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, In the shadow of the moon, is one of many documentaries about the various Apollo missions to the moon. It should also not be confused with the 2019 film of the same name, a sci-fi themed film that doesn’t exactly focus on space travel.
As great as biopics or historical films about trips to the moon may be, few things beat the actual footage of NASA and its astronauts on the moon. As such, In the shadow of the moon offers many images of the surface of the moon and also benefits from many interviews conducted with former astronauts of the Apollo missions who were still alive in 2007.
“The Dish” (2000)
A movie without a villain that still has stakes, The dish presents a unique story about space travel by choosing an unexpected group of people to focus on. The film is set in a remote town in Australia as the Apollo 11 mission to the moon is underway. The city’s gigantic satellite dish is to be used to broadcast images of the moon landing worldwide on live television.
It’s a historical drama that also functions as a comedy, given The dishits light tone and humorous characters. A lot of things go wrong while making sure everything is perfect for the world to see the first moon landing, but thankfully history tells us that everything finally worked out when it came to the broadcast.
‘Apollo 13’ (1995)
While there’s no shortage of films that begin with the word “Apollo”, few are as well known as Apollo 13. This film depicts the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission which was to take its astronauts to the moon, but which had to be interrupted due to an explosion in space.
As such, those on Earth had to think quickly to bring those on board home, which is what Apollo 13 ends up dramatizing. Its star-studded cast and ambitious production made it a huge hit, and as far as non-fiction space travel films go, it remains arguably one of the most famous.
‘Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood’ (2022)
Certainly the underrated and overlooked Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Childhood in the Space Age veers close to feeling like science fiction. After all, part of this coming-of-age movie set in Houston in the late 1960s involves a child being trained as an astronaut to be sent to the moon, which isn’t based on historical events.
Still, it’s easy (and arguably necessary) to read these scenes as unbelievable or imagined by the film’s main character. After all, every other part of the film is very down-to-earth and feels inspired by the director (Richard Linklater) actual childhood. The idea of someone going to the moon has gotten a lot of people – especially kids – excited, so who can blame the film’s protagonist for imagining himself as one of the astronauts?
“Cosmos: A Personal Journey” (1980)
As its title suggests, Cosmos: a personal journey takes a more intimate and metaphorical view of space travel/universe exploration. It was a mini-series written and presented by the astronomer Carl Sagan and took an approach towards space-themed subjects that were educational, entertaining and imaginative at the same time.
It takes more than one sitting to go through all 13 parts, but for a miniseries made over 40 years ago, it was very cinematic and eye-opening. Part of that comes from the innovative special effects and music, largely through Vangeliswho often composed film scores (one of his best known being blade runner).
“First Man” (2018)
What Apollo 13 did for the actual mission of the same name, first man made for the Apollo 11 mission. It focuses on the career of the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrongas an astronaut at NASA, starting well before 1969 but preparing for that flight to the moon, using the spectacular Apollo 11 mission as the culmination.
It’s a film that feels a little slow, in part because of the 141 minute runtime, and its tone is quite cold and detached. It’s intentional, helping to show how stern and calculating those at NASA sometimes had to be, but it can make the emotional investment a bit more difficult. Still, much can be forgiven for the last half hour, as the dramatization of the Apollo 11 mission is spectacularly done.
‘Apollo 11’ (2019)
Apollo 11 would make a great double feature with first man. This film also explores the Apollo 11 mission (obviously) but does so in a documentary format. Not only that, but it does it in a way that doesn’t use a traditional narrator or interviews, and as such does a great job of making you feel like you’re back in 1969.
For anyone born after 1969, the best way to understand the excitement and nervousness around the first manned trip to the moon. Images and audio have also been incredibly cleaned up, with a striking and immersive presentation.
KEEP READING: The Best Sci-Fi Movies That Don’t Set in the Future