This article is part of Apollo: A Lunar Legacy, a multipart series that explores the technological advances behind Apollo 11, their influence on the modern day, and what’s next for the moon.
Humans were fascinated with the moon long before Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind, and that interest has held long after the landmark Apollo 11 mission that touched down on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969.
Along with the myriad advances in science and technology that have come out of mankind’s interest in the moon, we’ve also been given some great cinematic explorations of our lunar fascination. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, here are some of the best movies about the moon.
Ron Howard directed this Oscar-nominated 1995 film inspired by the Apollo 13 lunar mission that was intended to be the third moon landing for the U.S., but instead turned into a life-or-death struggle to bring its crew home safely. Critically lauded for its attention to technical details and NASA’s involvement as a consultant on the film, Apollo 13 chronicles the 1970 mission that experienced an accidental explosion en route to the moon, leaving the trio of astronauts aboard with minimal electrical power and oxygen.
Tom Hanks wi joined by Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton in portraying the Apollo 13 crew, with Gary Sinise and Ed Harris joining them in the ensemble cast as members of the ground team determined to get the astronauts back to Earth safely. A critical and commercial hit in theaters, Apollo 13 was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including a nod in the coveted Best Picture category. Perhaps most importantly, it made even more famous one of the most popular catchphrases of our time: “Houston, we have a problem.”
A Trip to the Moon
This 1902 silent film from director Georges Méliès is widely regarded as not only one of the first science-fiction films ever made, but also one of the most influential movies of all time. The short film (you can watch the entire movie above), follows a group of scientists who travel to the moon via a ship shot out of a cannon. During their expedition, they explore the moon’s surface, encounter a new species living there, and eventually return home with a captive lunar inhabitant.
A Trip to the Moon became a wildly successful feature around the world, celebrated for its groundbreaking special effects, set design, and fantastic story. Film scholars regard it as one of the formative genre movies in cinema, having influenced countless filmmakers whp followed with its emphasis on storytelling and fantasy. The famous shot of a ship landing in the blinking face of the moon is one of the most iconic images in cinematic history.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle managed to capture lightning in a bottle not once, but three times in a row, with a trio of critical and commercial hits that began with 2014’s Whiplash, continued with 2016’s La La Land, and most recently included 2018’s biographical drama First Man. The latter film casts Ryan Gosling as Apollo 11 astronaut and aeronautical engineer Neil Armstrong, and follows the events leading up to and including his famous walk on the moon.
Chazelle’s uncanny knack for pulling his audience into a moment using carefully crafted sound and imagery earned First Man heaps of praise as one of the most authentic, immersive films ever made about the first lunar landing. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film took home a well-deserved Oscar in the Best Visual Effects category due to the groundbreaking techniques Chazelle used to perfectly re-create some of history’s most iconic footage, bringing Armstrong’s experiences as both a test pilot and astronaut to reality on the screen.
The Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe’s bestselling 1979 novel of the same name inspired this film about the test pilots who would become the Mercury Seven — the crew of the first manned spaceflight by the U.S. pioneers in the international space race and the daring pilots became national heroes as they competed to prove they had “the right stuff” to make the country’s aeronautical ambitions a reality and lay the groundwork for mankind’s journey to the moon a short time later.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards (and a winner in four categories), the 1983 film features an impressive ensemble cast that includes Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Sam Shepard, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, and Barbara Hershey. The importance of The Right Stuff was formally recognized in 2013 when the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
This entry could probably get into this list on its title alone, but it’s also a great watch. Sam Rockwell plays a lunar miner living an isolated life on the far side of the moon in this 2009 film that earned critical acclaim for first-time director Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son) and high praise for its star’s performance. Rockwell plays Sam Bell, who is nearing the end of his three-year contract mining resources on the moon, only to experience an existential dilemma after an injury causes some strange events to unfold around him.
The film is essentially a one-man show, although Kevin Spacey voices Sam’s robot assistant, GERTY. Well-regarded for its scientific plausibility, Moon was a hit on the film festival circuit, winning multiple awards for its intriguing, mind-bending narrative.
Honorable Mention: From the Earth to the Moon
Although it isn’t a movie, the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon ideserves inclusion on this list, as it’s one of the most compelling, comprehensive, and enjoyable explorations of the Apollo space program during the 1960s and ’70s. Tom Hanks serves as the series’ co-producer (along with Ron Howard) and host, introducing each chapter in the docudrama that chronicles mankind’s pursuit of the means to journey beyond the stars.