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Top 10 Best Space Commanders in Movies

by Warren Cantrell on April 10, 2012

in Top 10s

LOCKOUT-movie-poster-2012Lockout gets its release this Friday, something that should give ritalin-gnashing, Mountain Dew chugging fanboys out there the thrill of a lifetime. It’s about a wrongly-convicted hard-ass that gets a shot at his freedom when the President’s daughter is taken hostage in a space prison (seriously). Set in space with what already promises to be a Rambonian body-count, I was given time to ponder the possibility of who might be considered the most distinguished space captain in the history of film. There is a distinction (at least on this list) between captains and admirals/commanders, for the person in question had to have been in control of just one ship, not a fleet (sorry, Admiral Ackbar). If this hurdle was cleared, they must have demonstrated not only an uncanny ability to defeat the enemy in combat, but also do so with the highest regard for the safety of his or her crew. A victorious captain is nothing if their crew was made to suffer for their ego, so only those who were both successful and loved were ranked in the discussion below.

I’m not sure how Guy Pearce is going to do in Lockout, or if he even has command of his own ship, but it seemed courteous to at least give the man the benefit of the doubt for the sake of today’s intro. So, as for near misses, Charlton Heston was considered for Planet of the Apes, but he was a lousy pilot, and couldn’t even piece together the fact that he’d crashed his ship on the same planet he’d launched from. Buck Rogers also found a high spot for a while, but was eventually tossed out, for the serials that were produced in 1939 were shoddy at best, and the made-for-TV film that was spun off into a series in 1979 was little better. His campy counter-part, Flash Gordon, was also eliminated from contention, for he wasn’t really a space captain, just a space warrior. Other movies with decent-enough, though not entirely notable captains, included SpaceCamp, Mission to Mars, Titan A.E., Wall-E, Mars Attacks!, and The Right Stuff.  Chris from District 9 nearly made it into a spot, yet I couldn’t justify doing so since there was desperately little time in the saddle to make a determination for him over, say…

tom-skerritt-alien-1979-Dallas10. Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas from Alien (1979)

Tom Skerritt’s character in this film made the list, but only by the slightest of margins, for there were problems at the heart of his command, to be sure. Once one of his crew had been exposed to an alien lifeform, the man failed in his duty to protect the health and safety of his other shipmates, and broke quarantine to allow Kane (John Hurt) access back on the Nostromo. Once aboard their vessel, the creature detached itself after a bit of drama, then proceeded to maim, disembowel, or otherwise murder all but one person on the ship (Ash and Jones didn’t count, not being human and all).  But let’s not forget that the Nostromo stopped in the first place, a decision something a majority of the crew didn’t look too fondly upon.

Good company man that he was, Captain Dallas followed orders and set his sights on proper protocol to the letter (until the unfortunate quarantine mistake, or course). He also had to have been thinking about his injured man (Kane) first and foremost, and if he broke the proper protocol by letting the man in, he did so with his heart in the proper place. When it came time to investigate a lead or spearhead a campaign to take the alien cocksucker down, it was the captain of the spaceship that was first in line to see the work done. This was a decision that ultimately led to his demise in a very narrow duct network, yet captains must lead from the front, and Skerritt’s Dallas wouldn’t have had it any other way. Stern, resolute, and mission-oriented, the man was a competent captain, and might have been a very successful one had he not had the bad luck of discovering the most dangerous species humanity has ever known. The next impromptu space-explorer was a bit luckier in his discoveries, however…

joey-cramer-flight-navigator-19869. Joey Cramer as David Freeman from Flight of the Navigator (1986)

Reared in the 1980s, I was subject to a lot of filth when left alone for hours at a stretch with nothing but five channels and hours of lonely weekend time to burn. Disney films filled many gaps, for anything with that company’s stamp could be trusted over VCR copies of truly desired prizes like Predator and Robocop. When Schwarzenegger or murderous cyborgs failed to materialize, The Journey of Natty Gann, Robin Hood (with the fox) and Old Yeller filled the gaps, along with this gem from 1986. If you looked hard enough, you might have actually seen the shadow of a movie in Flight of the Navigator, as it was about a twelve year-old who took part in a time traveling experiment, unbeknownst to him, and returned home after the people of his time had aged eight years.

Using only 10% of his brain, this young protagonist, David (Joey Cramer) had the rest of his mind filled with ship designs and star charts by the abducting party to see if the remaining portion might be put to good use. When the spaceship crashed, it called on David to come aboard so these valuable charts could be accessed, and an adventure ensued whereby David flew around Earth trying to figure out a plan to get home. While he was only briefly a space commander during the picture, he did get some zero-gravity time in, and piloted and commanded a space vessel throughout a majority of the picture, hence I deemed the time at the helm worthy of a spot.  Besides, David had a pair of balls on him for a boy not yet a teenager! He escaped from a high security government base and successfully outran everything the United States government and military could muster to haul the kid back to jail.  This he accomplished with no training or any formal instruction on how to work his craft, something he did with a spotless safety record. Though he had a lot more logged hours in the saddle, this next captain had nothing on David’s safety claims…

LAURENCE-FISHBURNE-event-horizon-19978. Laurence Fishburne as Captain Miller from Event Horizon (1997)

This poor son of a bitch: this wasn’t his fault. I maintain that Captain Miller (Laurence Fishburne) did as good a job with the crew of his Lewis and Clark ship as might anybody who had to endure the hardships this skipper suffered through. Miller and his people had been sent into deep space with a scientist to recover a lost vessel which had mysteriously reappeared after a few years on the missing-list. During his search of the rediscovered vessel Event Horizon, Miller’s own ship was damaged and the crew was forced to relocate to the larger mystery ship until repairs had been completed. The problem was that the Event Horizon and the experimental warp drive that sent them into M.I.A.-land had worked, but only partially, for instead of sending the ship into a friendly alternate dimension, it catapulted the fucking thing into the darkest corners of hell itself.

While this was an alternate plane of existence, it wasn’t exactly what the engineers had in mind when they constructed the vessel.  Because of its jaunty exploration of Satan’s most unholy recesses, the Event Horizon reemerged with a few problems. Chief among these was a panache for murdering its crew. Despite members of his staff going slowly insane because of the ship’s influence, their captain among them, Miller never lost focus during a trying moment, and did his very best to bring the situation under control so his people could get the fuck away from the cursed abomination. Though he went down in the end, he did so in a noble effort to destroy the evil machine that had swallowed up the better portion of his crew. For this, Miller got a nod.

dullea-2001-space-odyssey7. Keir Dullea as Dr. David Bowman from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Though he was something of a co-pilot of the vessel, and the HAL 9000 was more of a captain than anybody else, you can never trust a dirty, stinking robot when all the cards are down, something this movie proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s because of this lack of trust that I maintain that HAL was never captain nor could he have been promoted to such a position, and because he killed off all other human crew members except Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), it was Dave who got the battlefield promotion. Once in control of the ship, Dave didn’t waste a lick of time, and immediately put things in motion to disable the murderous HAL.

His reign as captain of the Discovery One was brief, yet very important, for he was induced through all manner of trickery to keep the psychopathic artificial intelligence demon alive, yet never once wavered. Hell, nobody hates robots more than I do, the mere thought that one of them might seriously challenge a human enough for me to run out and find glass to chew in frustration: yet even I felt a little sorry for HAL when Dave floated into the guts of the ship to turn the computer off. Once on his own, the good doctor did alright for himself, and went through the most wicked, psychedelic space adventure this side of San Francisco. People will debate the last fifteen or so minutes of Dave’s adventure for as long as people smoke pot and have copies of this film, yet let it at least be known that once Dave took control, things got a lot better.

spaceballs-candy-pullman-zuniga-19876. Bill Pullman as Captain Lone Starr from Spaceballs (1987)

For a while, I was trying to make a case for Rick Moranis’ Dark Helmet on this list, seeing as how the guy had a wickedly massive AND fast ship, one that sported all kinds of amenities like a zoo and circus. Yet I couldn’t get around the fact that with all his ship’s accoutrement, he couldn’t keep pace with a warp-drive jerry-rigged Winnebago helmed by a pirate and man-dog mutant. Whereas Lone Starr (Bill Pullman) displayed a knack for outrunning heavy cruisers, daring escape insertions, and desert concealment, Dark Helmet knew little except the finer points of crew-bullying and action-figure molestation.

Pullman’s character was absolutely stone-cold, however, and wasn’t above keeping his ship’s quarters messy and his princess-cargo well in line. Sure, the guy had a few outstanding debts like the best of us, for who among us hasn’t had a talking slice of pizza and robotic bookie after them at one point or another? Yet in the end, Lone Starr showed his true quality. He rescued Princess Vespa and her ear-splitting droid from the tractor beam (via raspberry jamming), escaped pursuit, re-rescued Vespa from a prison facility, blew up Dark Helmet’s ship, then sped to the rescue of a marriage so as to wed into royalty. Now that’s a full day — and for a space captain, an impressive resume!

tim-allen-weaver-rickman-galaxy-quest-19995. Tim Allen Captain Jason Nesmith in Galaxy Quest (1999)

He wasn’t a good man, nay, even a tolerable man, yet he was a man, and this put him above the pod of Thermians who came to him for help. These Thermians were an octopoidal race of creatures who mistook an old space-fiction television show for historical footage of Earth’s past. They brought Tim Allen’s Cpt. Naismith aboard their vessel to negotiate with a murderous warlord, Sarris.  Admittedly, his first act as a true, non-pretend space captain did not go at all well, and his order for a full-frontal assault against an enemy with far superior strength and weaponry ended in unmitigated disaster. Once on his home planet again and faced with the disastrous consequences of his first mission, Nesmith’s true colors began to bleed through, however.

He rallied his crew together and got them aboard the alien vessel, leading the entire nasty bunch out of harm’s way, though into an admittedly tighter spot when they navigated their escape through a mine field. As a good captain, Tim Allen’s character couldn’t be stopped by the ship’s injury, and coordinated an impromptu away-team to get a new beryllium sphere for the vessel on a nearby rock. He followed all this up with a surprise counter-attack while in direct coordination with operatives (dorks) on Earth with important intel. on a new mega-weapon. Using this, Captain Nesmith and his crew defeated the baddies, got nearly all the crew back safely, and made a grand entrance onto the convention circuit to boot. Though Nesmith didn’t have the steely confidence, experience, self-respect, or intelligence of the next entrant, he did have a hefty kill-count in a short career of just a couple of days, so that has to count for something.

apollo-13-lovell4. Tom Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 (1995)

With the exception of the Coen brothers’ The Ladykillers I haven’t seen Tom Hanks pull out “the nasty” in more than two decades. This guy plays a solid, dependable, approachable every-man like Lou Gehrig played baseball. No matter what Hanks is doing, you can expect that he’ll be playing a guy with flaws, no doubt, yet in possession of a moral core that speaks for the best aspects of our collected personalities. The man has a way of relating to his audiences in enough ways that we all feel familiar with the guy, yet his roles are always chosen so that the ordinary in all of us is allowed to froth at the top. Perhaps the reason Tom Hanks has had so much success is that he picks wonderful roles that tell inspired, fascinating stories, and that amidst all of this, he’s still able to cull his viewers into believing he’s not that much different from all of them, thus the dream on-screen is always comfortably within reach.

In Apollo 13, he played the unshakably resilient Jim Lovell, an astronaut that seemed entirely human when on the ground, and almost a god when orbiting above it. Polite, gracious, yet absolutely committed to his work (I love that he demanded a repeat of the lock-up scenario even though Ken got it almost perfect the first time around), their was a sparkle in Hanks’ eye that gripped the audience from the film’s opening minutes. A dedicated husband, reliable colleague, and obviously loyal friend, all of Lovell’s personal traits seemed perfectly tuned even before the launch. Once in a crisis situation, however, the man truly came to life, and slowly dealt with one crippling, life-threatening problem after another: all panic and fear seemingly lost in the man. Locked in space for the better part of a week with two other men, one of them a rookie, the other a very sick individual, Lovell kept his crew alive and focused, and got the whole lot of them home alive. From piloting the ship by hand during the manual burn to creating a new air filter, the Captain of Apollo 13 was on-point and in control the entire time. Now that’s one hell of a space captain.

ford-fisher-daniels-mayhew-star-wars-19773. Harrison Ford as Captain Han Solo from Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi (1977/80/83)

I’ve thrown a lot of shit George Lucas’ way on the 10rant, most notably in the Top 10 Most Helpful Movie Robots and Top 10 Directors Who Shit the Bed lists. As it concerns the prequels, I’ll give the guy credit for this, however: he didn’t ruin Han Solo. I suspect that as greedy and cocky as the old bastard got, he never gave any heavy consideration toward a Han-heavy sub-plot, and thank Christ for that. Lucas brought back many, and tainted them all with the unmistakable twinge of failure: Chewbacca, Yoda, Anakin, Obi Wan, the Emperor, Boba Fett, hell, even Greedo.  But it seems ol’ George knew better than to lay tainted hands on hallowed ground, and kept away from the good captain. Han Solo was later to become a fairly unsuccessful general, what with the complete manhandling of his crew by a midget-sasquatch-like species of woodland folk, and the rout suffered by the more skilled Empire (saved in the end by those same hairy vermin).

Yet as the captain of his own vessel, the immortal and supremely sweet Millennium Falcon, he was a wicked demon of the ever-black abyss. On numerous occasions in Episodes IV, V, & VI, the man outran or otherwise busted through secure Imperial blockades, and battled ten and twenty times is number only to escape and fight again another day. Despite these claims to fame, and the distinction of being one of only two men who could claim co-ownership of a Death Star kill, Solo flew through an asteroid field, shot down the throat of a weird-ass asteroid worm only to fly the hell out again, and all the while maintained a spotless safety record (Kenobi was not on the Falcon when he went down, thus he didn’t count). Yet as awesome as Solo’s resume was, it paled in comparison to the runner-up, a man who could easily claim more tonnage-destroyed than the pesky rebel captain, if not so handsome a head of hair …

pine-shatner-quinto-nimoy-star-trek2. William Shatner and Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek (1979-/2009)

I know I’ve probably upset a legion of the Star Trek faithful in my ranking of Captain Kirk (Chris Pine/William Shatner) as the runner-up, but at least hear me out. (Not to mention the leagues of Star Wars fans by ranking both Trek captains higher — ed.) This was not a decision made with a light heart or a casual shrug, but rather labored and wrenched upon for hours, nay, days. Kirk was a warrior, a take-no-prisoners stallion with manliness to spare and an action-hungry heart that knew only one direction: forward. Kirk didn’t run away. Shit, I don’t know that he even understood the meaning of the concept when aboard a starship with the white-hot flames of battle licking at the sides of his face. Leading with his gut (something that grew steadily over the years) and with a keen nose for trouble, the captain of the Enterprise knew how to find trouble, and knew better than any creature alive how to get his vessel and his crew back out again.

Though he lost some good people over the years, no C.O. ever set out on voyages spanning the better part of three decades without losing a few industrious, hard-working souls. Kirk’s people were always ready to get behind their captain no matter what the circumstance, and in his leadership there seemed to rest some irresistible bombast that brought people in rather than pushed them away. Besides being a spectacular captain with no hesitation whatsoever about rolling up his sleeves to pitch in on a mission, the man was pure virile manhood on two legs: practically irresistible to the ladies. Say what you will about the guy, but you can’t deny that this dude had some moves, and wasn’t above putting them on display so that he could reel in some delicious trim. Yet the man wasn’t perfect, and in his aggression, laced through all things that he did, there was a weakness. Though Kirk could negotiate, and did so on a number of occasions with great success, it wasn’t in the man’s blood. At the end of the conversation, if his opponent didn’t capitulate, then shit was on. Though ballsy, it wasn’t necessarily the proper course of action in all scenarios the Federation faced, and in Kirk’s successor, the Academy produced a cadet who was able to marry his predecessor’s daring with an intellect to match …

star-trek-next-generation-picard-stewart1. Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, Nemesis (1994-2002)

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation can attest to Picard’s brilliance as both a tactician and a warrior. It was his ability to bring both of these qualities to the table at the appropriate intervals that made him such a terror, however, and allowed him the long, storied career he so thoroughly enjoyed into old age. Unlike Kirk, you never got the impression that Picard (Patrick Stewart) particularly needed the tight spots and intense decisions to bring out the best in his character. Picard was as good at the negotiation table and in private conference with his crew as he was in the most blistering of scenarios. And if he was locked in a life-or-death struggle that demanded the frigid resolve of an unquestioned battlefield lion, then it didn’t get any better.

Tactically speaking, Picard was as smart if not smarter than any creature he ever squared off against, and had balls big enough to tussle with any foe regardless of the odds. Canon states that he wasn’t necessarily the best student while at the Academy, but once awarded with even the smallest level of command, he never looked back. During the run of films in which he’s appeared, Picard battled a mad scientist alongside Kirk, and came out the better man. Later, he eradicated the finest advance-guard that the Borg had to offer in First Contact, getting a little crazy in the eye in the process. A level-headed strategist of the highest possible order when under even the most deplorable conditions, and a ruthless killer with skills to pay the bills when forced into so desperate a scenario, Picard did it all. With a resume as impressive as Kirk’s and a safety record and logistics rating to beat Picard’s predecessor into a pulp, when it comes to cinema’s space captains, it doesn’t get any better than Jean-Luc.



“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp April 10, 2012 at 11:34 am

Really? No love for Serenity’s Mal Reynolds? For shame! And how about some old school love for Leslie Nielsen for Forbidden Planet?

That’s a pretty big Star Trek/Star Wars ratio to everything else (especially when you count Spaceballs and Galaxy Quest).

Not sure Navigator fits the list as Joey’s not really the captain (he’s actually a kidnapped kid). However, if you want a captain from a live-action Disney movie how about Zunar-J-5/9 Doric-4-7, or Jake for short, from The Cat From Outer Space?


2 Eric Melin April 10, 2012 at 11:38 am

I can’t tell if Alan’s serious or not about the Cat, but I agree with him on Mal Reynolds!


3 Matt Brown April 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

I can’t argue with the top three. Maybe in the place of one of the spoof captains I might toss in Taylor from Planet of the Apes. If we’re considering Tom Hanks a space captain I think Heston should rank.

Fun list!


4 Matt Brown April 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

And yeah, I saw that Heston was considered, but Hanks’ flight didn’t exactly go well. Plus, dude blew up the earth.


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