You can do pretty much anything with the outer space movie. Its reaches are, shall we say, limitless, and every genre has its classics -- horror ("Alien"), comedy ("Galaxy Quest"), epic ("The Empire Strikes Back"), action ("Aliens"), historical drama ("Apollo 13"), survival thriller ("Gravity"), and any number of brilliant combinations. And then there are the head-scratchers, the ones where the filmmakers used the vast, dark unknown to explore impenetrable philosophical concerns, evolutionary mysteries, and profound questions about human nature. Writer-director Christopher Nolan can be expected to straddle genre and intellectual inquiry with his new film "Interstellar," penned with brother Jonathan ("The Prestige") and informed by the theories of astrophysicist Kip S. Thorne, who explains the science of wormholes and space travel depicted in the movie in his forthcoming book, The Science of Interstellar. To get a taste of what other probing minds have fashioned from the inscrutability of space, check out these half-dozen classics.
Robert Zemeckis directed this Clinton-era drama, inspired by the Carl Sagan novel, about a woman's lifelong search for other life in the cosmos, a journey that involves frank debates about God and Meaning and Possibility as well as an actual journey beyond Everything We Know. (It also features "Interstellar" star Matthew McConaughey.)
"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
Pioneering and challenging, Stanley Kubrick's mind-bending collaboration with author Arthur C. Clarke resulted in one of the most philosophically ambitious movies ever made, with its four-part narrative extending through the entirety of Time as it speculates about human evolution, artificial intelligence, and the existence of alien life.
This Oscar-winning animated Pixar film is many things, including a touching love story and a thrilling adventure. But it's also a poignant warning about a potential future wrecked by our incapacity or unwillingness to take responsibility for our impact on Earth's livability.
"Solaris" (1968, 1972, 2002)
Stanislaw Lem's 1961 novel inspired three different films, including the Steven Soderbergh version that strands George Clooney on a space station orbiting the oceanic title planet, a sentient entity that tests humans' understanding of memory, attachment, guilt, and death by forcing them to confront resurrected loved ones.
"Silent Running" (1972)
A distant cousin of "WALL-E," this drama posits an Earth with no remaining vegetation. When a human caretaker on a distant spaceship is ordered to destroy the greenhouse inhabitants he's been keeping alive, he takes other drastic measures instead, and his lonely vigil takes on added moral dimension.
The effects of isolation, limits of self-knowledge and unreliability of reality itself are at play in this small movie with big ideas, in which an astronaut discovers a doppelganger just as he is finishing up a three-year assignment overseeing an Earth-life-sustaining mining operation on the dark side of the moon.