5 Great Little-Known Screen Space Operas

What’s better than a bit of space opera? A bit of space opera that you’ve never seen before, that’s what.

Who doesn’t like a little bit of nepotism? Not us, that’s for sure. We here at CinePunked HQ are all about the nepotism – for this month at least, since it’s book birthday time for our very own Dr Rachael Kelly, who has only gone and released her second novel on 3 May. On the Brink is the follow up to her Arthur C Clarke and ESFS Award-nominated Edge of Heaven, and in the spirit of celebrating the little wins in this vast, uncaring universe, we’ve themed this month’s blog entry around Stuff Related To Rachael’s Novel. The novel is set in space. Stuff that’s set in space is fun. Therefore, we’re going to unearth, for your reading and viewing pleasure, five great space-operas* that you and your mates probably haven’t seen and probably should. Here they are…

1 Europa Report (dir. Sebastián Cordero, 2013)

Guys. Guys. You have got to see this movie. Hardly anyone has seen this movie, and we have no idea why. We literally went to a free screening of this movie a few years back and we were the only people in the cinema. Help us out here. You won’t regret it.

Made for peanuts, and still somehow managing not to earn back its budget, Europa Report is the found-footage account of a manned mission to Jupiter’s titular moon, in search of the tantalising possibility that the (scientifically verified) presence of water there might have given rise to life. The selectively non-linear narrative progression is occasionally confusing, but the film’s close attention to accuracy (okay, but within reason) and the claustrophobic tension of putting six very breakable human bodies on a years-long mission out of the reach of any conceivable help when things inevitably go tits up makes for gripping viewing, from the knowing Kubrick reference as the ship departs Earth right up to the panic and heroism of the final act. Found footage ought to have been dead and in its grave long before Europa Report’s 2013 release, but this one proves that rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated. You just need a director that knows what they’re doing with it, is all.to Jupiter’s titular moon, in search of the tantalising possibility that the (scientifically verified) presence of water there might have given rise to life. The selectively non-linear narrative progression is occasionally confusing, but the film’s close attention to accuracy (okay, but within reason) and the claustrophobic tension of putting six very breakable human bodies on a years-long mission out of the reach of any conceivable help when things inevitably go tits up makes for gripping viewing, from the knowing Kubrick reference as the ship departs Earth right up to the panic and heroism of the final act. Found footage ought to have been dead and in its grave long before Europa Report’s 2013 release, but this one proves that rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated. You just need a director that knows what they’re doing with it, is all.

2 Hyperdrive (dir. John Henderson, 2006-7)

No, not that Hyperdrive. This one. This Hyperdrive is why the article doesn’t specify “films” in its title. There’s no way we’re doing space opera without mentioning this love letter to both classic adventure-of-the-week spacefaring drama and self-deprecating British humour. Hyperdrive is about what happens when space exploration becomes routine enough to get bureaucratic. It’s what happens when you get so used to the idea that there’s a great, big, populated universe out there that you no longer send out adventurers: you send out managers. Someone once described it as The Office in space, and that’s kind of accurate, we guess – except that it’s differently clever and the laughs are less painful. Usually. Okay, sometimes. But they’re painful in a different way.

Nick Frost plays Commander Mike Henderson, captain of the HMS Camden Lock, which is, at one point, deployed to negotiate an agreement to pop an orbital Tesco Express around a newly discovered planet. That’s the level of bureaucracy that we’re talking about. It’s glorious. Anyone who has ever been employed in or around any kind of middle management anywhere in the UK is going to recognise this working environment. And there are aliens. Some of them lick you to say hello.

The show ran for only two series, back in 2006-7, after which the BBC unceremoniously failed to renew it because not enough people were watching. Although a third season is now fairly comprehensively out of the question, you can still show the BBC they were wrong by watching the hell out of it, and we wholeheartedly recommend that you do.

3 Sunshine (dir. Danny Boyle, 2007)

Echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 reverberate through Danny Boyle’s 2007 humanity’s-last-hope thriller, and, like 2001 at CinePunked HQ**, Sunshine divided audiences on its release. To be fair, you should probably approach this one with a healthy dose of scientific scepticism, since actual solar physicists pretty much excoriated it on its release, but a documentary it is not, so let’s go with something-something-something our sun is prematurely dying and humanity has, quite improbably, devised a workable solution aimed at nuking it into a kind of solar CPR. Cillian Murphy plays Robert Capa, the physicist charged with transporting the bloody great bomb that’s going to save humanity from icy extinction, and he’s accompanied, appropriately enough, by quite the stellar supporting cast, including a pre-Captain America Chris Evans, Daniel Dae Kim, Rose Byrne, and Michelle Yeoh. Unscientific shenanigans notwithstanding, Boyle’s attention to accuracy in creating his bleak, claustrophobic narrative extended to employing advisers from NASA, who suggested the inclusion of an oxygen garden on board the spaceship, and housewife’s favourite Professor Brian Cox to explain astrophysics to the cast, so that even if the premise is wildly ridiculous, the execution is not. The result is that to the layperson at least, we’re left with the unsettling sense of just how much of the universe is explicitly, violently hostile to human life. And the fact that there’s not a whole lot we can do about that. 

The film is, for the most part, less shiny-splodey sci-fi spectacular, and more taut, tense exploration of the human psyche under extreme pressure (that just happens to be set in – and exacerbated by – outer space). Sunshine aspires to be something more than the sum of its parts and, questionable final act decisions aside, we reckon it achieves that goal. It’s a visually arresting, thoughtful film that defies easy genre categorisation, and, naturally, tanked at the box office as a result. But, then again, Hollywood never did know what to do with sci-fi-that’s-not-just-sci-fi (see also: Solaris, 2002), which is one of the reasons we think Sunshine is worth another look.

4 Flight of the Navigator (dir. Randal Kleiser, 1986)

Squeaks through on a technicality, even though the majority of the spaceship-based antics take place right here on Earth, but the protagonist’s problems start when he’s abducted by aliens and transported on a 1000 light year round trip, so… We’re counting it, and that’s final.

Twelve-year-old David falls down a ravine in 1978, and wakes up eight years later without having aged. His younger brother is now four years older than him and his heartbroken parents had all but given him up for dead, and now NASA thinks they might have an idea about what’s happened. There’s this spaceship, you see, that’s crashed nearby, and David appears to have unknowingly tucked all its navigational data into the recesses of his mind…

This delightful, kid-friendly romp is much less miserable than its premise might suggest, and was among the first films to use extensive CGI special effects. Now considered a cult classic, the inevitable big-budget remake is officially in the works, but the original has an of-its-moment charm that we defy Hollywood to reproduce in our cynical, we’ve-seen-some-shit age.

6 A Trip to the Moon (dir. George Méliès, 1902)

Look, we get it: silent film is not like the films we’ve all grown up with. It’s performative, melodramatic, and the camera just kind of sits there, passively soaking up whatever shenanigans happen to play out within its field of vision, with nary a crash zoom nor a close-up to be had. It takes a shift in our modern viewing practice to engage with silent film, but you’re going to have to trust us on this: Georges Méliès madcap, playful, innovative, stylish and – quite frankly – bonkers cinematic experiments are 100% worth your time. And, since A Trip to the Moon – his most famous work – is also set in space, and we generally have to tearfully beg film students to watch it, we reckon it counts for the purposes of this list.

Méliès’ whole thing was trying to work out what the camera could do that hadn’t been done before, and A Trip to the Moon is the apotheosis of that project. The plot… probably doesn’t matter that much, since it’s largely a pretext for the auteur to go nuts with his signature visual style, but here goes: Professor Barbenfouillis (Méliès himself) and five other astronomers set off on a cannon-propelled voyage to our titular satellite, where they encounter the Selenites, its insectoid inhabitants, who are understandably less than thrilled by humanity’s arrival. The film cost an eye-watering (for the time) 10,000 francs to produce, but it enjoyed international success and is now regarded as one of the most influential movies of all time. All that, and only 12 minutes long. Plus, we’ve linked to it in its entirety just above this entry. You should definitely watch it.

We did say “little-known.” Otherwise Interstellar would’ve been up there, for sure. Also probably Solaris (the Soderbergh version; even Robert’s not brave enough to tackle the Tarkovsky one). Ooh, and Galaxy Quest, Alien, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (shut up, Rachael likes it). The point is, there are plenty of great well-known space operas out there if you’re that way inclined, but we thought you should also give these other ones a try.

And buy Rachael’s book. You should definitely do that as well.

* For the purposes of this list, we’re taking the definition of space opera as “story set in space.” Yes, we’re going that wide. Look, there were just some things that we really wanted to include, okay?

** Robert loves it. Rachael hates it.


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