Star Wars is back in a big way, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens kicking off a new era for this long-running series, making people giddy with excitement. But while the hype is palpable, one has to wonder if it’s justified. Is Star Wars really the pinnacle of science fiction movies set in space? Haven’t several films already surpassed the Star Wars series?
I know, I know, “surpassed Star Wars” is a strong statement that perhaps borders on incendiary, but let’s face it: even though the franchise undoubtedly left a permanent mark on global culture, the films themselves are nowhere near perfect. Great? Sure. Flawed? Absolutely.
So what’s my criteria for these so-called “better” films? I’ll boil it down to three things: narrative ambition, overall film execution, and the feeling of satisfaction when the movies ends. Also, for reference, all of these space-related films were released between Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Summed up in one quick sentence, Star Wars is essentially an epic science-fantasy adventure in space, and if we’re going by that description, then there’s no other film that better captures that feeling than Guardians of the Galaxy.
Despite being based on a comic book, this film doesn’t feel like a “comic book movie” in the same vein as Spiderman, Iron Man, or Captain America — mostly because the characters in Guardians aren’t traditional superheroes with regular superpowers.
In one word, Guardians is fun. There’s a lot to love about this movie — the humor, the action, the performances, and even the unexpected emotional notes that hit towards the end — but at its core, this movie is a wild ride through space.
As far as science-fantasy adventures are concerned, Guardians of the Galaxy executes much better than Star Wars and, as a result, ends up being a more satisfying meal.
Serenity is another example of a science-fantasy adventure film that gets it right. To be fair, Serenity is an end-cap to Firefly, one of a handful of brilliant sci-fi television series, so a decent amount of world-building was already established prior to the film, but the film itself is relatively self-contained.
What’s great about Serenity is the same thing that marks greatness in most of Joss Whedon’s works — witty dialogue, a living breathing world, and a spectrum of diverse yet lovable characters. Whereas Star Wars can be painfully clichéd at times, Serenity is a breath of fresh air.
The scope of Serenity may not be as far and wide as Star Wars, but I’d chalk that up to the limitation between one movie vs. seven movies (with more on the way). Given seven films, I think a Serenity series would’ve easily blown Star Wars out of the water.
Note: Joss Whedon also wrote The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is a very similar film in many ways (though obviously in a different world with different characters and a lighter tone). If you like both Star Wars and The Avengers, you’ll like Serenity.
Star Trek (2009)
Oh boy. Anyone who claims that Star Trek is better than Star Wars — or even the other way around — is just asking for trouble. The truth is, they’re so different that the two can be tough to compare. After all, the two universes are fundamentally different at their cores — or at least they used to be.
Star Trek re-imagines the universe by shedding a lot of the philosophical weight that once defined it. As a result, it’s lighter and more mainstream, making it feel closer to Star Wars than the series ever did in the past.
What was once an exploration of society and the human condition has become a mainstream science-fantasy adventure complete with a refined cast of characters, a sharp narrative, and wonderful visuals. In terms of sheer adventure, Star Trek is a masterpiece.
But best of all, Star Trek managed to do the one thing that Star Wars could never really pull off: create a satisfying prequel story that doesn’t suck.
The Martian (2015)
The Martian was one step behind the new Star Wars as far as the most anticipated films of 2015, which is funny because The Martian is almost the exact opposite of Star Wars in a lot of ways.
What’s remarkable about The Martian, besides the fact that the book was serially published, is that it’s one of the few films in space that can actually claim to be hard science fiction. There are no lightsabers (because lightsabers are impossible), no laser battles, and no aliens. Nothing but science, ingenuity, and the main protaganist’s will to live.
Sure, Star Wars might take place in space, but The Martian takes us somewhere we’ve never been before. This film is equal parts suspenseful, inspirational, and primal. The story it tells is simple and straightforward, but also optimistic and universally relatable — and that’s a rarity in this genre.
Without a doubt, Interstellar will be remembered as one of the future science fiction classics. It’s one of the few movies that does justice to the immensity of space, as well as the inherent wonder and mystery of it all. Interstellar respects the vastness of space in a way that Star Wars never did.
But more so than that, Interstellar has far more ambition than Star Wars — and that’s saying a lot, considering how many more Star Wars films are in planning and the massive canonical universe that it has spawned since its inception in 1977.
Indeed, Interstellar accomplishes way more in just one film. Not to say that it’s a perfect film, but it certainly attempts to be an ultimate film experience. The scope is massive, the acting is phenomenal, the concepts are cutting edge, and the visuals are ethereal.
Interstellar is dense and compact while Star Wars is wide and shallow. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being wide and shallow, but as far as filmmaking ambition goes, Interstellar is the clear choice.
Many people view Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian as the Holy Trinity of modern space films that actually take space seriously. These films have a pragmatic and realistic outlook on space — very few fantastical elements included — and it’s honestly refreshing.
Gravity was the one to jump-start that trend. (It also grossed more than the other two films in all meaningful metrics, including Domestic, Worldwide, and Total.) People like to rag on Gravity, but it deserves praise for what it tried to do.
Here’s how Gravity surpasses Star Wars — it focuses on the one truth of space that Star Wars conveniently overlooks: space is the most dangerous thing about space, even more so than Sith Lords and Galactic Emperors.
Gravity is a thrilling ride from start to finish, and the threats along that journey are more relatable to everyday people than the foes in Star Wars. In that sense, Gravity is much more worthy of praise.
Other Notable Mentions
There are several other high-quality space films that were released in the past decade that also deserve recognition: Sunshine (2007), Moon (2009), and even Avatar (2009). Better than Star Wars? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how you see it.
Don’t get me wrong: Star Wars is awesome, and there’s no denying its impact on society. I mean, just look at how many parodies of The Force Awakens trailer were made. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as evidenced by all of these Star Wars fanfiction stories.
So what do you think? Is Star Wars the best space science fiction film of all time? If not, which ones are actually better? How badly do you agree or disagree with this list? However you feel, be sure to let us know in the comments below!