50 years ago today, mankind left our worldly tethers and landed on an extra-terrestrial surface: the moon. Humanity has always been inspired by the possibility of exploring the cosmos, and nowhere else is this inspiration more visible than in cinema. Movies like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff documented the heroism of early US astronauts, while films like The Martian and Interstellar speculate about the challenges of future space exploration.
However, while the US was the clear winner of the “space race” as the only country to put a man on the moon, among other accomplishments, other countries are playing catch up. India launched a Mars orbiter in 2013, and China recently landed a probe on the dark side of the moon. And, of course, Russia remains a strong player in space, with American astronauts taking Russian-operated Soyuz flights to the International Space Station.
As other countries besides the US ramp up their space exploration efforts, movies from these countries also reflect their desire to explore the cosmos. Let’s take a look at 7 space movies from around the world—i.e. those that aren’t from Hollywood.
In this list, we focus on movies that are at least somewhat grounded in contemporary space exploration paradigms or scientific currents. This means no to aliens or starship battles, but yes to movies that speculate about long-term climate change. We also want to highlight international films less familiar to English-speaking audiences, which means we aren’t including popular classics like Solaris. Most of the movies below are docu-dramas, with the exception of two science-fiction movies that imagine humanity reaching out to the stars after experiencing ecological disaster on Earth.
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7. Gagarin: First in Space
Russian: Гагарин. Первый в космосе | Released: 2013 | Directed by Pavel Parkhomenko | Starring: Yaroslav Zhalnin | Genre: Documentary, Drama
We kick off our list with a docudrama from mankind’s first voyage into the cosmos. In 1961, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space and orbited the Earth for a famous 108 minutes (in hindsight, he could have taken a film reel of the 108 minutes and turned it into a feature-length movie).
Gagarin: First in Space dramatizes the events leading up to this mission — depicting everything from the grueling selection process the Soviet space program imposed on its pilot candidates, to scenes of Gagarin’s own life. We can only imagine how Gagarin must have felt as he strapped himself into a rocket, that in all likelihood would explode in a ball of fire. Fortunately, Gagarin: First in Space helps at least turn our imaginations in the right direction.
6. Hayabusa: Harukanaru Kikan
Japanese: はやぶさ 遥かなる帰還 | Released: 2012 | Directed by Tokiyuki Takimoto | Starring: Ken Watanabe, Yosuke Eguchi, Yui Natsukawa | Genre: Documentary, Drama
Japanese movies about space are probably more well-known for sci-fi hits like Space Battleship Yamato and Cowboy Bebop. However, these movies don’t depict the real-world progress that Japan has made in space exploration: the island nation has launched probes to the moon and Venus, contributed to missions to Jupiter, and gathered samples from asteroids. Hayabusa: Harukanaru Kikan is a docu-drama highlighting the eponymous Hayabusa asteroid exploration project.
Ken Watanabe headlines the film’s cast, depicting the efforts of the ground crew to ensure the probe returns safely to Earth. Because of the significance of this mission to Japanese national pride, two other rival film companies also released competing films about the effort.
5. Mission Mangal
Release: 2019 |Directed by Jagan Shakti | Starring: Akshay Kumar, Sonakshi Sinha, Vidya Balan, Taapsee Pannu, Kirti Kulhari, Nithya Menon and Sharman Joshi | Genre: Documentary, Drama
India has been hard at work launching satellites into space over the last half-century — but they’ve also recently stepped up their space exploration efforts with a lunar probe in 2008 and a Mars orbiter in 2013. Mission Mangal dramatizes this latest accomplishment, which made India the fourth country in the world (and first in Asia) to achieve Martian orbit.
The film is due to be released August 15th of this year on Indian Independence Day, but the trailer is already making waves online: Indian netizens have been hard at work turning scenes from the trailer into memes on Twitter.
Released: 2009 | Directed by Ivan Engler and Ralph Etter | Starring: Anna Katharina Schwabroh | Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Part of the modern allure of space exploration is ensuring that humanity does not become extinct — whether from climate change, pandemic, or nuclear war. Swiss sci-fi thriller Cargo uses an Earth rendered uninhabitable by climate change as a backdrop. The film focuses on a young doctor who works on a cargo spaceship to earn money and move to a new planet being colonized by humans.
Swiss space efforts have been largely limited to cooperating with bigger organizations such as NASA or the European Space Agency. However, a world where ecological disaster forces humans off of Earth is something that’s at least on the mind of SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Musk declared that humanity has to become a multi-planetary species, in order to avoid becoming extinct when “some eventual calamity claims us.”
3. The Wandering Earth
Chinese: 流浪地球 | Released: 2019 | Directed by Frant Gwo | Starring: Wu Jing, Qu Chuxiao, Li Guangjie, Ng Man-tat, Zhao Jinmai, and Mike Sui | Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
China is fast becoming a space power, after launching manned Earth orbit missions, its own version of GPS, and landing a probe on the dark side of the moon. It’s only fitting then that China make its first foray into space-borne sci-fi. The Wandering Earth is set in a future Earth where a dying sun causes ecological disaster, and threatens Earth’s survival. A group of scientists led by the UN build massive engines to propel the Earth towards a nearby stellar system, leaving the solar system behind.
The Wandering Earth makes spectacular use of CGI, as Hollywood flick Interstellar did, but the plot is notable for giving a very Chinese twist on action heroism. Whereas most American-made films have Americans unilaterally saving the day, The Wandering Earth depicts Chinese heroes, working under the auspices of an international coalition. In the midst of a trade war and tech war against the US, all while China is seeking to build its own international economic coalition, The Wandering Earth reflects contemporary world events and Chinese sentiments.
2. The Spacewalker
Russian: Время первых| Released: 2017 | Directed by Dmitriy Kiselev | Starring: Yevgeny Mironov | Genre: Documentary, Drama
Sending a man into space in an enclosed capsule is one thing — but having man exit the capsule and freely move in outer space is a whole other challenge. In March 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first human to execute a spacewalk, during which he floated in space for over 12 minutes. Spacewalker dramatizes Leonov’s thrilling experience of becoming the first human to “walk” in space.
Unfortunately, the mission did not go entirely according to plan. Because of the lack of any air pressure in space, Leonov’s suit inflated, which prevented him from bending his joints or re-entering the space capsule. Spectacular CGI done in collaboration with Nvidia keeps the movie graphically interesting, while the harsh decision making of the Soviet Communist Party reminds us of the contemporary HBO series Chernobyl.
1. Salyut 7
Russian: Салют 7 | Released: 2017 | Directed by Klim Shipenko | Starring: Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Pavel Derevyanko, and Igor Ugolnikov | Genre: Documentary, Drama
In February 1985, the Soviet Union’s Salyut 7 space station unexpectedly lost power, rendering it useless. To avoid the station’s loss and damage to national pride the USSR sent two cosmonauts, Vladimir Dzhanibekov and Viktor Savinykh, to resurrect Salyut 7 in June 1985. After performing a highly challenging manual docking maneuver, the two had to contend with freezing cabin temperatures and dwindling water supplies while nursing Salyut 7 back to life.
The movie Salyut 7 draws heavily from this incident, but applies significant dramatic license. What’s notable about this film is how it reimagines the original 1985 incident through the lens of contemporary political anxieties. In Salyut 7, the cosmonauts are in a race against the Americans, who send a space shuttle to attempt to steal the stricken space station (which did not happen in reality). Given increasing tensions between the US and Russia , it’s not surprising Salyut 7 resorted to America-bashing to score some easy dramatic points.
Geopolitical posturing aside, Salyut 7 is a captivating movie with great production quality that’s well worth a watch for pure entertainment value. It’s also an accessible and entertaining look at a space incident that received little coverage in Western media. The film feels similar enough to many Hollywood space classics like Apollo 13—but offers a different enough context to open audiences’ minds to the reality that space isn’t just an American frontier.