11. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
It's telling that when Disney sought to win fans over to its Star Wars sequel trilogy, it hired The Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan to pen the films. And with good reason; Empire is widely held to be the best of the series, adding shades of grey to the simplistic good-versus-evil struggle of the first film, and fleshing out its characters.
The film’s success has overshadowed the fact that it makes some brave – and counterintuitive – choices. George Lucas financed the film himself, going against decades of Hollywood wisdom. He appointed his old USC professor Irvin Kershner, known for small-scale character films - to direct the special effects-heavy blockbuster. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first film, is sidelined from much of the main action, spending most of the film taking lessons from a Muppet in a swamp. And the film ends on a downbeat note –a cliffhanger, which was unthinkable at the time.
Despite all that, it soared at the box office – and inaugurated the era of blockbuster franchises. Before Empire, sequels were low-budget rehashes of the first film; The Empire Strikes Back expanded the Star Wars universe, pointed the way towards further sequels, and subsumed the director’s vision to the needs of the franchise; from the title crawl on down, it’s positioned as Episode V – another entry in an ongoing saga.
And, with Disney buying up the rights to Star Wars – adding it to a stable of mega-franchises that takes in Pirates of the Caribbean and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the circle is now complete.
And we didn’t even mention that plot twist once.
12. Europa Report (2013)
Found-footage films are ten a penny these days, but Europa Report makes the most of the format. It’s a slow-burning tale of a space expedition gone horribly wrong – but where most found-footage films concentrate on the panicking and running about, Europa Report takes a more measured tone. The astronauts are professionals, after all – an international crew of six on a privately-funded mission to explore Jupiter’s moon, Europa. They’re not going to get into a flap at the first sign of trouble.
The film’s painstakingly accurate in its depiction of space travel – between that, and its minimalist tone, it’s a worthy successor to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. If you enjoyed them, you owe it to yourself to check this out.
13. Starship Troopers (1997)
Having satirised big business and capitalist excess with Robocop, Paul Verhoeven decided to turn his guns on militarism – and the vehicle he chose for his vision was Robert Heinlein’s gung-ho sci-fi novel, one of the books on the US Marine Corps’ reading list.
Growing up in the German-occupied Netherlands during World War II, Verhoeven had ample experience of seeing how militarism can curdle into fascism; with Starship Troopers, he played things straight, pitching the film as a propaganda movie designed to gee up humanity for a war against alien space bugs. The film was so convincing that some critics missed the joke, accusing him of creating a film that glorified fascism.
14. Galaxy Quest
A troupe of aging actors from a cancelled sci-fi show find themselves playing their roles for real, when they’re abducted by aliens who are convinced that they are their characters.
A stellar cast (arf) including Alan Rickman, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Rockwell, make the most of the premise – Rickman is particularly entertaining as a catty British thesp who rails at the indignity of strapping on a prosthetic alien forehead. “I played Richard III,” he snarls, as fans demand he repeat his catchphrase – “By Grabthar’s hammer!” at the autograph table.
It was authentic enough to win the praise of the highest authority there is – Star Trek’s Captain Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, who called the film “Brilliant.” He’s not wrong.
15. The Right Stuff (1983)
Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the early years of America’s space program is packed with square jaws and gruff voices, but it’s no propaganda piece. Kaufman explores the Mercury program’s beginnings as a military research project, and its transition to a public relations exercise – thrusting the pilots into the limelight.
It’s a transition from an age of individual exploration to one of team-based effort, and the pilots are acutely aware that while they’re being paraded around in the public eye, they’re regarded by the scientists as little more than human cargo. “Spam in a can” riding the rocket, rather than piloting it, as one of them puts it. But they prove they have the “right stuff” when Ed Harris’ John Glenn manages to save a Mercury Capsule by finding the correct angle of entry. Stirring stuff.
READ MORE: The 10 movies you need to see in 2014