Setting is an important part of every movie, and that is especially true for science fiction movies. Setting is arguably the most important and defining part of a sci-fi movie and the genre as a whole, bringing the audience to new and exciting locations, whether it takes place on a ship in outer space, or on a distant planet out in the galaxy. Some movies take place on real planets, while others are fictional, but each one provides a unique atmosphere and setting that shapes the movie and its characters. Here are the best movies that take place on other planets, ranked.
(Note: For the purpose of this article, movies were picked for mostly taking place on another planet – not on a future version of Earth (Planet of the Apes), or on a spaceship (2001: A Space Odyssey), or on the moon (Apollo 13)).
9 Serenity (2005)
Serenity is a movie continuation of Joss Whedon’s short-lived and much-loved TV series Firefly. It follows the crew of the ship Serenity, who are on the run from the cannibalistic Reavers. They land on the planet Miranda, where they must fight the Reavers and share the truth of their creation with the galaxy. The desolate planet is a strong setting for the fight, and the movie uses the show’s blend of action and humor to make this a memorable experience.
8 Ad Astra (2019)
Directed by James Gray, Ad Astra follows Roy (Brad Pitt), an astronaut who journeys to Neptune in search of his father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones), whose pursuit of extraterrestrial life threatens the world. Neptune is not a planet often featured in sci-fi movies, which makes this stand out. We also spend time on Mars, further adding to the intense scope of Roy’s journey. The movie also addresses the emotional consequences of Roy and Clifford’s lives and time in space, while still ending on a hopeful note.
7 Forbidden Planet (1956)
Fred M. Wilcox’s movie Forbidden Planet is a groundbreaking movie about a ship that travels to planet Altair IV to find the survivors of a previous expedition, only to meet danger from an unseen threat. According to Charlotte Magazine, the movie was the first to feature humans traveling in a starship, and the first movie set entirely on another planet. The special effects were particularly groundbreaking for the time, bringing the planet to life in a way that had never been seen before. The movie also posed deep psychological questions that would be found in countless sci-fi movies that came after it.
6 Treasure Planet (2002)
Treasure Planet is an underrated Disney movie directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. Inspired by Treasure Island, the movie tells the story of Jim (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young man obsessed with space pirates who goes on a journey to find Treasure Planet. The animation is great – at $140 million, it remains the most expensive animated movie ever – and both Jim’s home planet of Montressor and Treasure Planet are colorful, visual wonders. The characters are just as exciting as the settings, and they make this a great space adventure.
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5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians, including Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Drax (Dave Bautista), make their MCU debuts in Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn. It begins with young Star-Lord’s abduction from Earth and follows him and his team across the galaxy, on the run after stealing an artifact. Guardians is a fun ride that lets us enjoy every stop, including Morag, Xandar, and Knowhere. It remains a fresh take on the typical MCU movie that explores outer space and brings new experiences to the franchise.
4 The Martian (2015)
Adapted from the novel by Andy Weir, Ridley Scott’s The Martian stars Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, who is left behind after a mission to Mars. Completely alone on the planet, we watch him fight for survival while awaiting rescue. ScreenRant reports that the movie has a lot of scientific accuracy, and Mars fully comes to life in a barren landscape that’s awe-inspiring and dangerous – a worthy opponent in Mark’s battle with nature.
3 Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan follows Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the USS Enterprise as they take on Khan (Ricardo Montalbán). Khan resides on Ceti Alpha V, where he was exiled; the planet is mostly devastated after a nearby explosion, and serves as a great setting for Khan. Both Khan and the lifeless planet threaten the crew, creating a tense atmosphere that results in one of the franchise’s most emotional moments with the death of Spock.
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2 The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Often considered the best Star Wars movie, Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back also features some of the most memorable locations across the galaxy. It opens on the ice planet Hoth, where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) camps with Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the Rebel Alliance, and moves to the swampy Dagobah, where Luke trains with Yoda. There are also great scenes in Cloud City, on the planet Bespin. Each planet is unique and sets the tone for each scene, making everything seem tangible and adding character to the whole trilogy.
1 Dune (2021)
Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel, is a stunning epic about Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet), who is thrust into danger and must survive on the desert planet Arrakis after his family is betrayed. Dune makes the best use of its setting and treats Arrakis like a character, presenting its rich history with sprawling shots of the desert and the dangerous sandworms beneath it. It drives much of the plot and serves as a sweeping arena for the whole movie. You’re in awe of the planet and unnerved by it at the same time, and with a sequel planned, we can explore the planet even more.