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In Honor of the Final Space Shuttle Mission, Our Favorite Space Movies

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 8, 2011 7:00PM

At 10:26 a.m., the final Space Shuttle launch went off without a hitch, leaving Cape Canaveral for the International Space Station at a brisk 2,600 miles an hour when the broadcaster on the NASA feed noted: "the Space Shuttle spreads it wings a final time for a sentimental journey into space." The Atlantis' final mission is a 12-day jaunt, and we can't help but feel a little nostalgic for the end of an era. When you're not checking out the live mission coverage from NASA fire up your imagination with one of our five favorite movies about space:

5. Apollo 13 - If you've ever wondered what to do if your car breaks down and you are 200,000 miles from the nearest service station, or where the phrase "Houston, we have a problem" came from, this one is for you. A big-budget, glossy Hollywood rendition of one of the most dramatic real-life events that ever unfolded in the era of television, Apollo 13 is crafted as meticulously as NASA's own vehicles and leaves as little to chance. Even the most-cynical Ron-Howard-phobes and anti-Tom-Hanks-ists will find themselves in its grip. The stakes of manned space flight and the enormity of effort involved have never been made clearer.

4. Forbidden Planet - Director Fred Mcleod Wilcox's CinemaScope gem marshaled a forward-thinking aesthetic and jaw-dropping special effects to perfectly capture the anxieties that always attend our extraterrestrial ambitions as well as any movie before or since. The performances of Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen (in his most famous straight-guy role) are topped only by that of the iconic Robby the Robot. From faster-than-light hyperdrives to the exploration of mysteriously abandoned space colonies, staples of subsequent science fiction movies abound in this quirky adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was the perfect fuel for a generation of space-obsessed children who would help make a Moon landing a reality a mere 13 years later.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey - At the very height of the space race, the psychedelic era, and the relentless cultural self-investigation which was the 1960s, Stanley Kubrick's imperial, visionary imagining of the forthcoming role of space in the evolution of the human race was itself a cultural event with impact beyond the movie houses that showed it. As in the characterization of scientist-sage Carl Sagan, who advised Kubrick and co-writer Aurthur C. Clarke on the film, space exploration is here cast definitively as the destiny of our species, which always needs something new to figure out. Immaculate, epic, at times almost virtually still, here is a masterpiece whose ponderous bits will forever leave us scratching our heads or spinning our own half-baked theories. Just the way we like it.

2. Star Wars - Leaving aside the irrevocable changes it wrought on the movie industry, George Lucas' irresistible casserole of Joseph Campbell's myth components was prepared with just enough fastidiousness, cooked exactly long enough and garnished with the perfect flair to trigger a culture-wide binge that to this day may not have exhausted the world's appetite. Top billing should go to the film's special effects, which dazzled even as they blended right in with a credibly imagined world and charismatic ensemble of actors. Its encapsulation of outer space as the space of fantasy wish-fulfillment may never be topped.

1. The Right Stuff - Enfolding the sweaty urgency of the 1960s space race into the notions of manifest destiny and exploratory pioneer spirit which play powerfully into the optimistic and rugged American self-image, this adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book about our very first astronauts is, as of today, more essential than ever. Its 193-minute running time gives you an idea of the epic scope of the portrayal of the Mercury program's recruitment and training of what were to be the first humans ever to go into space, the furious sprint to outpace the Soviet program, the life and death stakes of each mission, and the enormity of the scientific enterprise undertaken. As a behind-the scenes look at why we started sending people into orbit and what it took to do it, the film is satisfying, and as an artful evocation of the cocktail of patriotism, exploration and bravado that we burned up to achieve escape velocity, it is matchless.