Our Ten’s List: To The Moon!
We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing by setting our sights on ten moon movies.
This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on our lonely satellite, the moon. From the earliest days, the moon has fascinated storytellers. It’s no surprise that many of the very earliest films were about journeys to the moon, including Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon in 1902. Since that pioneering film, we’ve never really looked back. While much of the century was filled with speculative science fiction and goofball adventures (looking at you, Hercules Against the Moon Men!), things changed rapidly once we…you know…actually went to the moon! (Yes, you wackadoodle conspiracy theorists, we’ve actually been there.)
Here we select ten of our favorite films about the Moon. From adaptations of ancient folk tales, to whimsical jaunts to our nearest neighbor, to riveting dramas about the actual men and women who visited it, we take one small step for lovers of film and one giant leap for the history of lunar cinema!
10. A Trip to the Moon (1902).
A group of explorers head on up to the man in the moon (ungraciously crash landing right in his eye!) by way of a gigantic canon. Once there, they discover selenites, who try to chase away the invaders. Perhaps they were well read up on the legacy of European explorers? Our intrepid trespassers manage to subdue one moon dweller and return to Earth, to much fanfare.
This is one of those films that absolutely galvanized the budding film industry. Georges Méliès broke all the boundaries with a film that was of astronomical length for the time, featured mind blowing special effects and cinematography tricks, and captured the zeitgeist of Jules Verne’s story. It’s hard to overstate how important this film was in proving that film could deliver stories and images that were only previously dreamt about. While it may be a bit campy and ludicrous by today’s standards, the effects and ambition still shine through more than a hundred years later.
9. Moongirl (2005).
A young man capturing fireflies is summoned by a young girl to the moon. Along with his pet squirrel and her giant pet cat, they need to thwart evil entities that are trying to extinguish the moon’s light. The boy’s fireflies are the key to keeping the night sky lit for those back home on Earth.
This was a very early short film from Studio Laika, who would go on to make another moon-themed stop-motion film with Kubo and the Two Strings. The animation is a bit less impressive than later outings, with the children looking a bit like the odd figures from Paranorman. The story is fun and breezy, though the moon monsters may startle younger audience members. What impresses about this film, besides the creative stop-motion and imaginative settings, is the final twist. The film is short enough to not spoil it, but there’s a revelation about the moongirl that makes the story surprisingly bittersweet and resonant.
8. The Dish (2000).
An unlikely group of astronomers in the Australian outback become NASA’s only hope to capture the iconic images being beamed back down to Earth from the Apollo moon landing.
This jovial film, based on actual events, charms with a stellar cast. Sam Neill pulls off the cantankerous scientist with a heart of gold role in his usual style, and Patrick Warburton keeps the proceedings light. The actual conflict between the American scientists at NASA and the “provincial” crew of the Aussie satellite dish provide cultural commentary to lend weight to the humor. The science is solid, turning The Dish into a lighthearted reflection of the “do or die” engineering scenes from Apollo 13. Overall, a satisfying and engaging blend of science, politics, and sheep. Lots of sheep.
7. Countdown (1968).
During the space race, NASA learns that Russia is one month away from beating the Apollo program to the moon. This forces the Americans to launch the Pilgrim program, where a lone astronaut will be sent to the moon in a one-way pod based on the older Gemini program. That astronaut will be reliant on a separate delivery to keep him alive until the Apollo program is completed and he can be brought home. Chiz (Robert Duvall) assumes he will be the lone man, as he has the most experience. Unfortunately, the government wants to send a civilian as a PR boost, so Chiz must give the chosen candidate (James Caan) a serious crash course in space travel.
This “what-if” scenario really captures the ugly side of the space race. Both sides constantly cut corners and endanger their astronauts just to win the pissing contest that the moon landing was fast becoming. Duvall and Caan play two fantastic and complex characters. Chiz drives Lee unmercifully, partly because he resents the man for taking his spot but mostly because he knows that it’s the only chance Lee has of getting there and back alive. Caan’s character has so many motivations to get to the moon, some noble, some selfish, some foolhardy. Once he’s actually in space, the movie really turns the screws. Everything that can go wrong does, and watching how everyone reacts and perseveres is riveting. Countdown is a bit of a forgotten gem, check it out.
6. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013).
A humble woodcutter finds a tiny girl inside the bamboo he is harvesting. He takes her hope to his wife, and the girl quickly grows in size and beauty. Returning to the grove, the poor man finds gold and silks, and determines to make Kaguya into a true princess. Unfortunately, the girl is actually from the celestial race on the Moon, and despite her desires to experience mortal life, she will eventually be taken back there.
This Studio Ghibli film really wows with its visuals. The lines and colors mimic traditional Japanese styles instead of the iconic exaggerated cartoon style Ghibli is famous for. The cast, both Japanese and English, are fantastic, bringing the whimsical characters to life. Based on a folk tale, Princess Kaguya has the bittersweet tone common to many traditional fairy tales. Layered into the fantasy are morals about simplicity, family, autonomy, and the ephemeral nature of life. It’s a great tale, worthy of the many awards showered upon it.
5. The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988).
An inveterate tall-tale teller, Baron Münchhausen (John Neville) regales a war-weary theater filled with refugees about his many implausible adventures, including a trip to the moon where he wooed the Queen of the moon and drew the ire of the King (Robin Williams.)
We’ve covered this fantastic farce from Terry Gilliam in greater detail when we looked at his body of work earlier this year. Focusing just on the sequences on the moon, we get prime Gilliam spectacle, with gigantic moon people and Robin Williams’ disembodied head sailing around on a flying platter. Besides being a laugh riot, it recalls story elements from both Jack and the Beanstalk and Homer’s Odyssey. The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen is inspired lunacy at its best.
4. Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon (2005).
There is no shortage of breathtaking documentaries about the Apollo program, but Magnificent Desolation hits the sweet spot. This Tom Hank’s project covers much of the Apollo series of moon missions, and features Hanks narrating and an A-list cast creating re-enactments. While there is a quite a bit of CG visuals and re-enactments, there is also a wealth of NASA footage and stills to ground the retelling in reality. If you were lucky enough to catch this in 3D during its theatrical release, the imagery was just eye popping. Put this on the widest 4k screen you can find and be ready to blast off to the moon with the 12 astronauts of the Apollo program.
3. Moon (2009).
Sam (Sam Rockwell) is the sole worker at a lunar facility mining Helium-3 to power a post-fossil fuel Earth. One day out in a rover, he has an accident and falls unconscious. He wakes mysteriously in the med bay, with the facility AI telling him that he’s just now beginning his 3 year stint on the station. Confused, he heads back out to the rover and finds…himself. As Sam and his doppelganger try to unravel the mystery, the facility tries to thwart them every way it can.
Moon is a fantastic, minimalist science fiction story. Director Duncan Jones makes his first feature film pop with excellent pacing and dialogue. Sam Rockwell turns in some of his finest work as both Sams, desperate to discover how long he’s really been up there on the moon and what has become of his family back planet-side. The sets and tone are reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but Jones puts a darkly satirical tint to his lunar vision that is all his own. What’s even better, this great film is currently free on IMDB TV. Grab it while you can.
2. First Man (2018).
First Man got overshadowed last year on its run to the Oscars by all of the musicals that swamped the season. It also may have been lost amid many of the other fantastic space themed movies of the last three years such as Hidden Figures and Gravity. It’s a shame, since this film engages you with a good story and soaring visuals (the only category it managed to earn a statue for.) The story may appear fairly cut and dried (he went to the moon, nothing blew up!) but really digs deep into all of the harrowing moments and heartbreaking losses that Armstrong suffered personally and professionally, including losing his daughter to cancer and several close friends to accidents. We haven’t lost a man in space, but we sure as heck killed plenty of pilots on Earth. The ending would be a bit of anticlimax except its just so wonderfully shot and scored. If you missed this last year, put it on your VOD list to catch up with this weekend.
1. Apollo 13 (1995).
On their way to the moon, the Apollo 13 mission suffers a catastrophic explosion that leaves them barely functioning. Commander Lovell (Tom Hanks) tries to keep his crew together while his original number 2 (Gary Sinise), who got scratched from the mission at the last moment, desperately tries to model a safe landing procedure for the spacecraft back on Earth.
It’s a bit ironic that the best movie about the moon is the one where the astronauts never get there. Ron Howard and Tom Hanks team back up a decade after working on the comedy Splash, and just knock this one out of the park. The cast is excellent top to bottom, and it’s a shame neither Gary Sinise nor Ed Harris got the best supporting award that year. The visuals are solid, with Howard deftly recreating the saturated visuals of era appropriate television in several sequences. The constant slow-burn tension of the film is a masterclass in pacing and plot structure. It’s a story so gripping that if it hadn’t actually happened, somebody would have had to imagine it. More than 20 years later it still stands up as one of the best space dramas ever filmed and our favorite moonshot movie.
*Want more great movies that are out of this world? Check out our ten favorite movies about Mars!