"Houston, we have a problem."
Tom Hanks' Jim Lovell uttered that iconic movie quote as he realized that the Apollo 13 mission to the moon might have hit a snag.
The fact is, we're all fascinated to some degree about what lies out there in space. The adventurers of mankind who've undertaken that journey have forever kept audiences glued to their seats in expectation.
Cinema presents a uniquely captivating way to explore the possibilities of space, turning it from just a thought experiment to a tangible experience we can see unfold before us with our very own eyes.
As James T. Kirk often said, "Space is the final frontier." It's the last unknown expanse that we've yet charted. The opportunity to see mankind step into the depths of that black sea is only bolstered by the compelling characters we've gotten in those films.
Here are our picks for the best astronaut movie characters from over the years, who boldly went into space and took us with them.
7. Sam Bell (Moon)
Here we have an astronaut who's caught in a cycle of death on the moon. Sam Bell is a complex and intricate character who makes the audience feel for him while also wishing him dead.
Initially tasked with a three-year contract to live on the moon and oversee an autonomous mining operation, Sam begins to suspect that things are amiss. He finds his way onto th moon's surface only to discover a crashed Lunar Rover, where he sees the decaying body... of himself.
Sam Rockwell as Sam Bell is an iconic watch as he carries the entire movie on his back with his excellent solo performance.
6. Robert Capa (Sunshine)
Sunshine is the story of a group of astronauts who travel to the dying sun in an attempt to reignite it and save all life on Earth. The premise may be uninspired, but it's a captivating tale blessed with a strong cast.
Cillian Murphy's leading character of Robert Capa steals the show. As the ship's physicist, Capa is in charge of the nuclear weapon they intend to detonate—but he's elusive and disconnected from the group.
As an astronaut, Capa is gripping. He's the audience's lens through which all decisions are seen and made. And during the film's thrilling finale, he's chiefly responsible for the success of their mission.
The 2007 film Sunshine is now a cult classic, despite debuting to a disappointed box office.
5. Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity)
Seeing The Kessler Effect in a science classroom is frightening enough. Seeing it from the perspective of Dr. Ryan Stone—the astronaut performing work on the Hubble Telescope—is terrifying.
Gravity is a story of sheer willpower and survival. After her ship is destroyed and sends debris flying around Earth's orbit, Sandra Bullock's Dr. Stone must get back to Earth before the debris wipes her out.
What makes her so compelling is her ability to take the first step. She needs to keep moving in order to avoid certain death, and even when circumstances are grim, she always manages to muster strength from within to push herself forward.
It all results in a resolute Dr. Stone that imbues the audience with hope for her throughout, even when her own sense of hope fails.
4. Jim Lovell (Apollo 13)
Tom Hanks' portrayal of the real-life astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 is iconic for one line: "Houston, we have a problem." It's become the go-to catchphrase for any situation in which there's a mechanical error, and people still shout it at Tom Hanks to this day.
However, Hanks' performance as Jim Lovell is more than just a catchphrase. He never feels out of control in this disaster movie. Though the ship is damaged beyond repair, Lovell is always composed.
His steadfast leadership and belief that they'll all make it home is the focal point of the picture, as his iron-clad grip on solving each problem as it comes shows the steely nerve he has throughout.
3. David Bowman (2001: A Space Odyssey)
The fate of Jim Bowman is still up for debate over fifty years since 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in cinemas. However, his journey in space—alongside the villainous computer system named HAL—remains one of the most thrilling adventures ever put on film.
Tasked with finding out why the Monolith has sent a radio signal to Jupiter, Bowman voyages to the planet with HAL in tow.
Upon finding out that HAL is malfunctioning and attempts to lock him out of the craft, Bowman is forced to battle the ship's computer. He successfully shuts HAL down and makes it to the radio signal, but what happens to him after that is never completely clear.
2. Joseph Cooper (Interstellar)
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar arrived at the box office to positive reception. The story follows Matthew McConaughey's Joseph Cooper as he—alongside a small team of Earth's last astronauts—attempts to find a new habitable planet for the dying human race.
Cooper's resolve and sense of adventure is always at odds with his love for his children. He leaves them to search the stars for a new home, but it constantly pains him—and when a chance opens up to go back home before time runs out, he fights to make that happen.
McConaughey's Cooper is the spirit of humanity that lives within all of us, even as his inner turmoil pushes him to make decisions that he later comes to regret. His complexity is what makes him such a great watch.
1. Mark Watney (The Martian)
Mark Watney's story on Mars is one of sci-fi cinema's best efforts and another notch on Ridley Scott's belt of sci-fi classics.
When Mark and his team of researchers are forced to evacuate their site on Mars due to a raging dust storm, a piece of debris hits Watney and seemingly kills him.
However, after his team successfully leaves Mars, they eventually find out that Mark Watney has actually survived—and is now stranded.
The Martian is perhaps the most perilous survival story imaginable. Mark Watney isn't just stuck on a boat at sea or stranded on an island; he's trapped on a planet by himself, years from rescue.
And yet, in playing Mark Watney, Matt Damon doesn't resort to the traditional sense of doom and gloom and isolated madness that's common to movies about strandedness. Mark Watney is always carrying a sense of hope and humor with him.
As Mark, Damon exudes the emotions that will best help him survive for as long as necessary, and that makes his eventual rescue attempt all the more terrifying to watch—because we want him to live.