It’s easy to jump straight to the tried-and-tested regulars as far as space operas are concerned.
Between the countless alien species, planets and barely pronounceable intergalactic languages, too many seem to end up on the wrong side of dense, and sticking with Star Wars or Star Trek, with their infinitely padded out (and easily accessible) universe bibles, always seems like the simpler option.
And there’s no denying that between them, Wars and Trek (and more recently, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy) probably have the best of the best in terms of space-set action adventure. But that’s not to say that the rest should be ignored; even the weirdest and least audience-friendly space operas out there (here’s looking at you Jupiter Ascending) boast the sort of positively mind-bending levels of ambition cinema and storytelling themselves were built on.
So box office or no box office, critical praise or none, to celebrate Valerian, here’s a nod to four odd, different, but wildly exceptional space operas, each packed out with enough bold, genre-driven ideas to make entire galaxies seem not only real, but totally badass too.
Dark Star (1974)
Dubbed by its co-creator Dan O’Bannon as “the most impressive student film ever made”, Dark Star is exceptional for a whole number of reasons. Not only was it squashed together over the space of a few years by O’Bannon and his fellow USC student John Carpenter for mere pennies back in the early 70s; O’Bannon himself even ended up acting as co-writer, co-star, editor, production designer andearly VFX whizz. It’s quite possibly the most DIY space-set movie in existence, and despite its shoddy effects budget, it remains a really impressive piece of work even today.
A mix of classic hard sci-fi and dark comedy, it set Carpenter up perfectly for his follow-up hit Halloween (and, y’know, an entire 40 year career as one of the most celebrated American genre filmmakers of all time) and thrust O’Bannon firmly towards changing the face of the sci-fi sandbox forever with a little screenplay called Alien. In fact, his effects work here even got him a place on the VFX committee for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mooted Dune adaptation, where he met artist H.R. Giger, a contact he would go on to exploit when designing the very first xenomorph. Small, yes, but Dark Star remains one of the most hugely influential space-set sci-fi movies ever.
Flesh Gordon (1974)
While Mike Hodges’ direct 1980 adaptation of the legendary Flash Gordon comic strip is probably the one most readily remembered, it’s far from the most extreme – or even the most campy. Made independently as a sexploitation spoof long before Hodge’s Brian Blessed-starrer ever saw the light of day, Flesh Gordon is about a trashy as they come, chucking everything from phallic-shaped rocket ships to one-eyed ‘Penisauruses’ at the classic inter-galactic hero tale.
Drafting in future effects geniuses like Rick Baker to build the planets and backdrops, Flesh Gordon is a surprisingly genre-driven parody that’s well worth a bigger nod than it usually gets. Hodges’ later film is technically superior in almost every way, but the sheer level of ridiculousness on display here makes it an exploitation classic for the ages. Just, maybe stay away from the sequel.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Speaking of spoofs, Dean Parisot’s painstakingly meta send-up of Trekkies everywhere, Galaxy Quest usually gets sidelined in discussions like this one for being just that. But underneath the real-world setting and overlapping commentaries on fandom and heroism, is the real, heaving heart of a space opera just clawing to get out.
Casting Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman as washed-up actors, who once played an Enterprise-style ship crew on a long-forgotten Trek-type TV show, Parisot really embraces the underlying genre nuts and bolts here. From its wildly creative and differing alien designs to the way it so cleverly breaks down the traditional character dynamics of other space operas like it, Galaxy Quest is a real, fun-loving stab at great sci-fi, that just so happens to be wrapped up in a self-aware comedy.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005)
And finally, there are very few writers out there that ever managed to crack the space opera quite like Douglas Adams did. Totally flipping the entire genre on its head and feasting on all the brilliantly gooey craziness that lies within, Adams’ magnum opus The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is without doubt one of the most fantastically inventive and witty pieces of space-set adventure storytelling ever made.
Garth Jennings’ film adaptation of the first book, in what later became a pentalogy of unhinged ideas, stars Martin Freeman as a human Earth-dweller who quickly finds himself launched around the galaxy with a two-headed revolutionary named Zaphod Beeblebrox. From depressed, Alan Rickman-voiced robots, to improbability drives and a gigantic space computer built solely to discover the answer to the great question of “life, the universe and everything”, Hitchhiker’s Guide is the space opera at its silliest and most embracive. There really isn’t anything quite like it.