Blast Into Outer Space With These Sundance Films

Woman appears to be floating in zero gravity in a spaceship. She wears a headset and appears to be talking with a young boy, who appears in an inset on the photo.

Cady Coleman talks with her son while on a NASA mission, in “The Longest Goodbye.”

By Vanessa Zimmer

Chances are, you’re going to hear this at least once today: May the fourth be with you.

That’s the kind of thing that happens in a world so transfixed that it anoints May 4 as Star Wars Day, in honor of that turn of phrase “May the force be with you” from the mega-popular movie franchise. 

Something about outer space and galloping around the galaxy naturally snags our attention. We are mesmerized by stars and comets and the possibility of intelligent life in the beyond.

So, in honor of Star Wars Day, we have taken a dive into the Sundance Institute vaults for films about outer space and space travel. Be careful out there.

For All Mankind (1989 Sundance Film Festival) — This epic Oscar-nominated documentary builds one dramatic collective story of a voyage to the moon — drawing from never-before-seen footage shot by the astronauts during nine Apollo missions between 1968 and 1972. Suffice to say, this is not your typical documentary with a series of dramatizations and the talking heads of scholars and experts. In their interviews, the astronauts are not even identified by name. “For All Mankind is instead a series of immediate experiences, each presented in present tense and narrated in first person by someone who satisfied the ancient and archetypal yearning for travel into space,” writes Tony Safford in the Festival Program Guide. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the documentary category at the Festival. Directed by Al Reinert. Check viewing options here.

A young man, a woman, and an older man in unusual attire stand shoulder-to-shoulder, staring at something in the right foreground

Space Truckers (1997 Sundance Film Festival) — John (Dennis Hopper) is an independent trucker competing with the big, faceless companies on the galactic superhighway in the year 2196. With the support of his girlfriend (Debi Mazar) and a good buddy (Stephen Dorff), he does battle with those corporations, law enforcement, pirates, and the everyday dangers of outer space. “With references to films such as Star Wars and Alien, as well as Easy Rider and Convoy, Space Truckers is a homage to science fiction films and the American road movie,” Trevor Groth writes in the Festival Program Guide. Stuart Gordon directs. Check viewing options here

A person in a white spacesuit on what appears to be the moon's surface

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007 Sundance Film Festival) — Twelve American astronauts walked on the surface of the moon during NASA missions between 1968 and 1972. The surviving members of those missions recall their adventures in this 2007 documentary. “Seamlessly melding the wonders of science with the drama of the human quest, filmmaker David Sington has crafted a nostalgic and inspiring cinematic experience that provides unparalleled perspective on the fragile state of our planet,” writes David Courier in the Festival Program Guide. The film won the Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary. Check viewing options here.

Some kind of vehicle traverses a moonscape (or other planetary landscape) and what appears to be Earth is in the background

Moon (2009 Sundance Film Festival) — The lone employee of a helium mining operation on the moon, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is counting the days until his return to Earth, to his wife and daughter. His only companion on this mission is the artificial intelligence device GERTY. But something isn’t right. As John Nein writes in the Festival Program Guide: “[D]irector Duncan Jones and writer Nathan Parker create an intimate and insightful character piece about memory and identity anchored by Sam Rockwell’s perceptive performance; he brings out the heartache, contradictory emotions, and existential terror of a man gradually stripped of the most fundamental sense of who he is.” Check viewing options here.

Woman in astronaut gear smiles, surrounded by other people and a furry animal

Space Tourists (2010 Sundance Film Festival) — This unusual documentary, which won the directing award in the world cinema documentary competition at the Festival, juxtaposes the story of the first female space tourist, who paid $20 million to the Russian space program for the privilege, with the reality of poor villagers who risk their lives to collect space debris for resale. “Space Tourists examines the intersections of human enterprise and commerce in the final frontier,” writes Basil Tsiokos in the Festival Program Guide. Directed by Christian Frei. Check viewing options here.

Man in spacesuit holds a bag labelled "Biohazard" in a square white tent-like environment.

The Visit: An Alien Encounter (2015 Sundance Film Festival) — How will humans approach first contact with intelligent life in space? Believe it or not, there is a plan, as this documentary reveals. “Through tantalizing interviews with experts from NASA, United Nations, and the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, among many others, acclaimed Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen constructs a chillingly believable scenario of first contact on Earth, beginning with the simplest of questions: Why are you here?” writes Harry Vaughn in the Festival Program Guide. Check viewing options here.

Man in spacesuit, with his helmet removed, smiles slightly

APOLLO 11 (2019 Sundance Film Festival) — Moonwalkers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and pilot Mike Collins became household names in 1969 as the first mission to land on the moon. The easy banter of the astronauts belied the tension of the project. Says the Festival Program Guide: “Exquisitely crafted and realized, this truly immersive experience offers a new look into one of humanity’s greatest achievements, leaving us to marvel at human ingenuity and the impulse that led humanity to space.” The documentary won a Special Jury Award for editing at the Festival. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller. Check out the viewing options here.  

White dome-shaped building and other structures on what appears to be an alien landscape

The Longest Goodbye (2023 Sundance Film Festival) — Next up: A manned mission to Mars. The journey and return will take three years. That’s a long time to exist in zero gravity. Not to mention the social deprivation of separation from spouses, children, family, and friends. That’s why NASA psychologists and others are studying ways of offering support and coping techniques to long-mission astronauts. “In his engrossing, heartwarming, and beautifully contemplative documentary, Ido Mizrahy ponders the conflict between our need for connectivity and the urge to explore the unknown,” according to the Festival Program Guide. A release date has not yet been announced for the film.

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