Ever since the very first Star Wars film made its debut, sci-fi cinema has seen its fair share of space adventure or space opera films. Boasting brash heroes, larger-than-life villains, cool spaceships, exotic worlds, strange aliens and grand adventures, these films tried to recapture the magic of Star Wars. Admittedly, many of these were just poorly executed Star Wars knockoffs. But there are many gems that were nifty, exciting and had a lot of heart or were just so goofy that they’re fun to watch.
10. Battle Beyond The Stars: Despite its bargain-basement production values and other flaws, this film is arguably the best of the early grade-z Star Wars ripoffs. The script (by John Sayles) is an outer space reworking of Seven Samurai with young Shad (Richard Thomas) setting out in a sentient ship (with a front shaped like a woman’s breasts!) to search for mercenaries to defend the peaceful planet Akir. The film features special effects done by James Cameron (yes, that James Cameron) and a score by James Horner that predates his work on Star Trek II.
9. Flash Gordon: This attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze by dusting off the famous Alex Raymond comic strip character is a campy delight. Football player Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) is hijacked to the planet Mongo and has to stop the planet’s ruler Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow) from destroying the Earth. The film doesn’t take itself seriously and it shouldn’t since its ladled with gaudy sets and costumes, cheesy special effects and a script with lines like “No! Not the bore worms!” Still, Flash Gordon is a great guilty pleasure to watch.
8. The Fifth Element: Bruce Willis is your not-so-average Brooklyn taxicab driver in the 23rd century who is burdened with the responsibility to protect a beautiful but kooky damsel (Milla Jovovich) that is fated to save the Earth. The Fifth Element like so many of these films has a silly but infectious quality while being a thrilling joy ride chock full of weird aliens and a scene-stealing, out-of-left-field comedic performance by Chris Tucker. He plays a flamboyant talk show host that gets caught up in the pyrotechnic mayhem and his screaming adds to the laughs!
7. Titan A.E.: There are many animated space adventure films, but Titan A.E. is the best of them. This Don Bluth animated film takes place fifteen years after Earth was destroyed by aliens in the 31st century and humanity now lives as ragtag refugees in space. Salvager Cale Tucker (voiced by Matt Damon) sets out on a quest with his friends to find the Titan, a humongous starship that holds the key to humanity’s survival. Titan A.E. is energetic and awe-inspiring with eye-catching galactic visuals, which is why it’s an underrated animated classic.
6. The Last Starfighter: Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your typical teenager looking for some excitement in his life. He gets it when he is unexpectedly whisked to the planet Rylos to join its Star League and defend it from enemy aliens. At the time of its release, one of The Last Starfighter’s selling points was its then-revolutionary CGI effects, which are woefully dated. It resonates to this day because of its heartfelt performances, sincere execution, and a central theme about a nobody filled with wanderlust who makes a difference.
5. Serenity: Joss Whedon’s directorial debut is a sequel to his cult TV show Firefly. Serenity reunites that show’s cast and continues the adventures of quick-witted space cowboy Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his quirky crew onboard the space freighter Serenity as they stay one step ahead of the law in the ‘verse, the hated Alliance. The film carries on with the same endearing traits from the show such as witty banter, appealing characters with nuanced histories, and a believable and detailed ‘verse filled with high-tech and backwards colony worlds.
4. Avatar: Filmmaker James Cameron’s labor of love is a visually stunning and grand space epic with an imaginative and well-conceived alien world populated with exotic aliens, flora and fauna. The planet Pandora looks like what it’s supposed to be: an alien world. This impression is sold thanks to its floating mountains, giant six-legged creatures and translucent forests. The story updates the standard sci-fi pulp adventure and follows Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic who integrates himself with the planet’s Na’vi population via an artificially grown Na’vi body. Over time, he becomes their greatest protector and the stuff of legendary sci-fi space heroes.
3. John Carter: It’s too bad Disney dropped the ball in promoting this terrific adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter books. Taylor Kitsch plays the title character who is a Civil War veteran that is transported to Mars (or Barsoom as the natives call it) and gets entangled in a grand adventure to save a beautiful princess (Lynn Collins) from a rival kingdom. John Carter was the quintessential space adventure film with haunting and wild alien locales, thrilling scenes, great special effects and a dashing hero. It captured the swashbuckling tone of Burroughs’ works perfectly, and although it died in the box office, it deservedly has its legions of fans.
2. Guardians Of The Galaxy: Marvel Studios’ entry into the space adventure sub-genre is an exciting and fun-filled romp with very endearing heroes that captured our hearts. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a.k.a. Star-Lord, the legendary outlaw (in his mind at least), teams up with a group of misfit alien thugs and killers to prevent an evil alien from using a power-enhancing stone to destroy the peaceful planet Xandar. Guardians Of The Galaxy perfectly balances drama, action and humor while displaying lovingly detailed out-of-this-world places from the pristine and futuristic Xandar to the seedy and raucous criminal outpost Knowhere. But most of all, the film has a sense of wonder and pulp-inspired fun.
1. Star Wars films: Starting from the very first film (Episode IV: A New Hope or just plain Star Wars) in 1977 and continuing with the new installments coming our way, the Star Wars films are the epitome of space adventure/space opera epics. Even the flawed entries like Episode I: The Phantom Menace presented audiences with richly detailed and imaginative worlds and characters. Capturing and enhancing the excitement from early sci-fi movie serials, they’re a tribute to those blustering sci-fi pulp adventures on film and print. More importantly, the Star Wars film changed the sci-fi film landscape forever thanks to eye-popping special effects, fast-moving, cliffhanger-laced stories and most of all, unforgettable characters like the Skywalker family, Han Solo, Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Lewis T. Grove