For almost as long as there have been movies, actors and actresses have been using the cinema to imagine what it would be like to go to space. In 1902, director Georges Méliès portrayed such a voyage in his fantastical A Trip to the Moon; even today, 50 years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moonwalk, the cosmos remains a mystery unlike any other. As such, some of the greatest performances in the history of cinema have come from actors weighed down by spacesuits and acting behind the sheen of a curved sheet of glass ... as well as some of the worst.
Because there are literally hundreds of performances set in space, this list is limited to roles that are predominately centered around human exploration, whether fictional or not. As such, characters such as Harrison Ford's Han Solo in Star Wars, Sam Worthington's Jake Sully in Avatar, or Chris Pratt's Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy are excluded.
From the worst to the best, here are 15 of the most memorable astronauts in the movies.
15. Chris Pratt as Jim in Passengers
(Screenshot | Columbia Pictures | Passengers)
Jim (Pratt) is one of hundreds of colonists in suspended animation on a more than century-long journey to a new planet. Due to an accident, Jim wakes up 90 years too early. Rather than resigning himself to his grisly fate, he decides instead to wake up a girl he finds attractive (Jennifer Lawrence) so she will be forced to live out the same nasty fate, with only him for company. Foolproof!
Pratt's interpretation of the role of Jim is clearly supposed to be tender and romantic, but if the plot is given any thought at all, his performance is actually much more "selfish" and "creepy."
14. Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity
(Screenshot | Warner Bros. Pictures | Gravity)
This disaster-in-space movie won director Alfonso Cuarón his first Oscar in 2014, and while Bullock got a nomination as well, her performance mostly consists of screaming in space. To be fair, as TV Tropes so eloquently sums it up, Gravity "could be described as '90 minutes of the universe trying to kill Sandra Bullock.'" Who wouldn't spend all that time yelling?
While Bullock's Dr. Stone manages to get herself out of one jam after another, this movie is more about the special effects and adherence to (some) science than the people. Alas.
13. Matthew McConaughey as Cooper in Interstellar
(Screenshot | Paramount Pictures | Interstellar)
When I first heard that Matthew McConaughey was going to be in a weird, nonsensical space movie, I figured it'd basically be True Detective on the moon. Sign me up! Sadly, rumors of the 2014 McConaissance were greatly exaggerated, and did not extend to this movie in which he plays a pilot/farmer/dad/wormhole explorer. Sometimes "stoner cool" is just "disappointing."
12. Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in First Man
(Screenshot | Universal Pictures | First Man)
First Man should have been massive. In it, Ryan Gosling reteamed with director Damien Chazelle following the success of La La Land to play the dashing American hero Neil Armstrong. It seemed like a no-brainer: Everyone loves space movies!
Only, it wasn't. The pizazz just wasn't there. How could a movie about the moon landing be so, well, boring? Gosling's droopy performance was a part of the problem.
11. Bruce Willis as Harry S. Stamper in Armageddon
(Screenshot | Buena Vista Pictures | Armageddon)
Bruce Willis is probably the only actor on this whole list who I'd feel to some degree genuinely reassured to know was on a planet-saving mission to stop an earthbound asteroid. Part of that is owed to my love of Die Hard, but the other part is thanks to the strong association I have with his character's selfless sacrifice at the end of Armageddon.
While this movie is decidedly Not Great, and Willis doesn't do much to distinguish himself in the role of Harry Stamper (The Ringer dings him for basically just doing "John McClane in space"), Armageddon does manage to prove that sometimes half the job of being an astronaut in a movie is just looking the part.
10. George Clooney as Dr. Chris Kelvin in Solaris
(Screenshot | 20th Century Fox | Solaris)
In director Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake of one of the greatest space movies ever, Clooney had big shoes to fill. Still, the actor's tender expressions added considerable emotion and drama to this story about psychologist Chris Kelvin meeting his dead wife, Rheya, while on a mission while orbiting the mysterious planet Solaris.
In a piece about Solaris (2002) being a "superior Hollywood remake," even One Room with a View's Patrick Nabarro had to admit, though, that Clooney's "fish-eyed, somber gaze feels unconvincing, and the clear commercial need to ogle on Clooney's starry sexiness — there are spurious love-making flashbacks and even a couple of gratuitous shots of Clooney's tensed bum — jars with the subject matter." Fittingly, Clooney would go on years later to make a self-aware joke about his dashing appearance while portraying an astronaut in Gravity.
9. Ed Harris as John Glenn in The Right Stuff
(Screenshot | Warner Bros. | The Right Stuff)
Producer Robert Chartoff marveled to Indiewire that Ed Harris looked almost exactly like John Glenn, the real-life astronaut he was meant to portray in The Right Stuff, a sprawling three-hour movie about the Mercury Seven. "He was not only a wonderful actor but looked so much like John Glenn," Chartoff said. "And of course we looked at each other and said, 'Oh my God, this is the guy we want.' I said to [director Philip Kaufman], 'Please, don't let this guy get hit by a car. At least, not until after the picture is made.'"
It worked out — and Harris channeled exactly the respect, honor, and stoicism of his counterpart.
8. Clint Eastwood as Frank Corvin in Space Cowboys
(Screenshot | Warner Bros. Pictures | Space Cowboys)
Old Guys in Space: The Movie has a lot of heart. Former aspiring astronauts Hawk (Tommy Lee Jones) and Frank (Eastwood) are recruited by NASA as the most knowledgeable individuals to help repair an old Soviet satellite that threatens to smash into Earth.
During his resulting long-dreamed-about space walk, we see Frank take in the beauty and magnitude of space, with the camera almost entirely trained on his expression during the scene (save for a few scale shots of him floating before the Earth). Wonder is central to stories of space, and even in this film about veterans, Eastwood doesn't let that fact get set aside.
7. Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell in Moon
(Screenshot | Sony Pictures Classics | Moon)
Duncan Jones' small but critically-acclaimed 2009 debut, Moon, is impressive enough. But when people talk about the film, they almost always rave about the performance of Sam Rockwell, who plays an astronaut stranded in space after an accident. "Rockwell brilliantly understates things," raved Den of Geek at the time. "Seriously: picture someone like Pacino in the same role. Al Pacino is a brilliant, brilliant actor, but sooner or later, there's going to be an Al-rant coming. Such a delicate film as Moon can't afford something like that to happen. Rockwell's layered work here fits the film like a proverbial glove."
In fact, rumor has it that Rockwell's Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2017 was "a retrospective course-correction for the Academy's snubbing his Moon performance," writes GQ.
6. Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian
(Screenshot | 20th Century Fox | The Martian)
Every good astronaut should have something of a sense of humor. How else does one cope with the extreme danger they're in on every mission into the great unknown?
While The Martian, about a botanist who gets stranded on Mars, is a survival story, it is also a comedy. Damon's Mark Watney is equal parts capable, terrified, lonely, and hilarious — a formula that could be used in far more terrestrial situations, but adds healthy doses of humanity to a story about being the only man on a planet.
4. Keir Dullea as David Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey
(Screenshot | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | 2001: A Space Odyssey)
Perhaps the single most influential space film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece in no small part thanks to Keir Dullea's portrayal of the astronaut David Bowman. A man pitted against the sentient computer Hal, Bowman is not just one of the great astronauts on film; he's one of the great characters of cinema in general.
3. Robert Pattinson as Monte in High Life
(Screenshot | A24 | High Life)
In space, there is famously no one to hear you scream — but that doesn't stop many actors from hinging their performances on screaming a lot, anyway. In High Life, a 2019 release by Claire Denis, actor Robert Pattinson instead smolders quietly. It is even more frightening.
High Life follows a group of criminals who are the subject of a scientist's biological experiments while on a suicide mission to visit a black hole. While Pattinson might be best known for his blank portrayal of a teen vampire, he shows here that his true strength lies in the array of emotions he can communicate under complete restraint.
2. Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13
(Screenshot | Universal Pictures | Apollo 13)
The most iconic and lovable astronaut in all of film is no doubt Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Ron Howard's movie about the disastrous 1970 lunar mission. Tom Hanks' interpretation of Lovell is as a determined leader, and his ability to channel both fear and concentration confirm the real life drama of the Apollo 13 mission. "Houston, we have a problem."
Perhaps even more beautifully, though, Hanks brings nuance to what might otherwise be another in a long line of space disaster stories by showing the grace required to resign a dream when society tells us to shoot for the stars.
1. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien
(Screenshot | 20th Century Fox | Alien)
Unlike many kids, I was never remotely interested in becoming an astronaut — space is scary, man! Still, even with the hitch of that small technicality, I wanted to be Ellen Ripley when I grew up.
Sigourney Weaver's reversal of the damsel in distress character in Alien (and later in Aliens) helped create one of the most compelling, brave, and distinctly human astronauts in all of cinema. While the character was originally written to be a man, director Ridley Scott had the idea to flip the gender and cast the little-known Weaver in the big part.
In an interview with Fantastic Films, Weaver emphasized that Ripley is an extraordinary character regardless of her gender. "It's interesting that people say, 'how great it is a woman is the one who survives,' Weaver said. "I think that Ripley survived because she had the attributes necessary to survive."
Editor's note: This article misprinted the name of one of the astronauts upon original publication. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.