The “Eclipse of the Century” had all eyes turned skyward last week. Whether you were just hoping for a peek at the rare astronomical phenomenon, are a serious science buff, or were one of the faithful awaiting first contact (sorry, all), it was an event not to be missed.
The wake of such a potentially once-in-a-lifetime occasion is as good a time as any to pause and reflect on mankind’s fascination with the stars. We’ve watched them, feared them, worshiped them — the biggest of the bunch, at least — and been generally obsessed with whatever is out there for as long as we’ve recorded history, and probably before that.
Outer space is well-trod ground in the world of cinema, too.
But for every “Star Wars,” “Alien” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” there are numerous less renowned gems awaiting discovery, like mystery planets lurking just outside our range of observance. For now …
Here then are my six nominees for the space age honor of “Best Movies to Screen in the Wake of the Eclipse.” Some are harder, more fact-based sci-fi than others, but all of them are space-centric and worth a watch.
And remember, when you’re done checking out these stellar stories, keep watching the skies!
1. “Sunshine” 2007
This 2007 British-American film was directed by Danny “Fast Zombies” Boyle.
In it, a crew of astronauts fly a nuclear bomb into space to reignite future Earth’s dying sun. It’s the final hope for mankind, as we have failed to colonize any other planet and all of the Earth’s fissile materials have been mined for the bomb. As they slingshot past Mercury, the crew of Icarus II discovers the distress beacon of Icarus I, the first ship to attempt the mission, which disappeared seven years earlier.
Thinking two bombs detonated simultaneously have a better shot at reigniting the sun, the crew swing by the seemingly derelict ship to pick up its payload.
There they find the crew of Icarus I burned to death. They were long ago exposed to the un-shielded UV rays, it seems. On purpose?
Several sudden acts of sabotage ensue, seemingly confirming the presence of a malignant (possibly inhuman) stowaway on the apparently not unoccupied vessel, and the crew of Icarus II must now repair their ship and solve the deadly mystery behind the failed first mission before it’s too late to save the planet.
It’s half sci-fi thriller, half murder mystery, and all moody, atmospheric tension.
Sean Axmaker, of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, said the film presented a “visionary odyssey with a grace and awe and visual scope that calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ for a new millennium, with echoes of the industrial grunge and crew friction of ‘Alien,’ the greenhouse ecology of ‘Silent Running,’ even the unraveling sanity of ‘Dark Star.’”
2. “Arrival” 2016
If you missed this earnest, intelligent take of first contact, you missed out.
Based on Seattle author Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” this Denis Villeneuve-helmed, highly praised film tells the story of an expert linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) working with a gruff Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) to communicate with one of several large alien crafts that suddenly descend to Earth.
With a loving, almost fetishistic focus on language — its purpose, structure and limitations — the film takes a serious look at what was always the great untackled hurdle to all successful first contact scenarios: How exactly would we talk to our new interstellar buddies, anyway?
Widely considered one of the best films of 2016, the movie appeared on numerous critics’ best films lists and was selected by the American Film Institute as one of 10 “Movies of the Year.” It received eight nominations at the 89th Academy Awards, too.
It’s like what would happen if the aliens were maybe not out to eat us, and Ripley had a master’s degree in linguistics instead of butt-kicking, which turns out to be way cooler than it sounds.
3. “The Transformers: The Movie” (1986)
Suck it, Michael Bay. They just don’t make ‘em like this no more.
This awesome animated feature practically begins with the death of Optimus Prime — and things get worse from there.
In 2005 (Ha! Only in the ’80s, man), the war between the Autobots and Decepticons has culminated in the Decepticons conquering the Transformers’ home planet Cybertron, leaving the Autobots to operate from its two moons preparing a counter-offensive.
Optimus Prime sends an Autobot shuttle to Earth’s Autobot City enclave for Energon supplies, but the Decepticons, led by Megatron (of course), commandeer the ship and kill the crew. Then they go to Earth and slaughter nearly all of the Autobots and their human allies, though Megatron himself is fatally wounded in the battle before he can finish off Prime.
With both armies temporarily laid low, and both leaders seemingly done for, things are not going well for anyone. Enter: Unicron, a gigantic, sentient cyber-planet who consumes other planets (and who is voiced by Orson freakin’ Welles, people!). He strikes a kind of devil’s bargain withe barely-alive Megatron who, in return for a new, upgraded bod, agrees to lead Unicron’s army to destroy the source of ultimate Transformer power: the Matrix.
To give anything else away would be a crime. Just know that this is the Transformers movie the world needs.
4. “Event Horizon” (1997)
Sorry, “Alien,” but this just might be the scariest movie ever made in outer space.
Directed by Paul W. S. Anderson, the film, set in 2047, follows a crew of astronauts sent on a rescue mission after a long missing space ship, the Event Horizon, spontaneously reappears. Searching the ship for signs of life, the rescue crew learns that the Event Horizon was responsible for testing an experimental engine that opened a rift in the space time continuum, allowing a hostile entity on board the ship. But where did it come from? What does it want?
Expertly combining sci-fi specifics and theoretical physics with supernatural, almost Lovecraftian, horror, this film is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, and features a (for my money, at least) career best performance by Sam “The Guy Who Made Little Kid Me Want to be a Paleontologist” Neill.
5. “Hidden Figures” (2016)
I, honestly, did not expect to like this movie as much as I did. I thought it would be interesting, probably, and maybe fun.
“Hidden Figures,” directed by Theodore Melfi, based on the non-fiction book of the same name, is a biopic about African American female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the so-called “Space Race.” Oh, and by “worked there,” I actually mean they made the whole thing even possible.
It stars Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury and other missions, and also Octavia Spencer as NASA supervisor Dorothy Vaughan, and Janelle Monáe as NASA engineer Mary Jackson.
It also features Kevin Costner as Al Harrison, director of the Space Task Group.
I, frankly, can’t oversell the movie. Just see it, if you have not. It’s funny, smart, beautifully-shot and timely as all get-out.
Also, check out everybody’s favorite TV genius Jim “Bazinga” Parsons, seen here trying out a new role: Finally Not the Smartest Guy in the Room.
6. “Communion” (1989)
Based on the reportedly non-fiction book by Whitley Strieber, which catalogued his own experiences with alien abduction, this movie features Christopher Walken (I’m totally serious) as a writer and family man who is (maybe) abducted, or maybe just going crazy, and how it affects his life, career and relationships.
Walken’s careening performance, sometimes so quiet and introspective you think he’s faling alseep, and at other times positively manic, is a thing of beauty. And the realistic exploration of the nitty gritty effects of alien abduction are really interesting. Support groups? Therapy sessions? How about losing friends? It’s a weirdly fantastic movie that begs to be seen.
Though it was considered a box office failure, “Communion” has subsequently picked up a bit of a cult following, and deservedly so. It’s just so weird.
And, also, the score was composed by Eric Clapton.
Like I said, weird, right?
Alternate picks/followup features if you just can’t get enough space stuff on the screen:
“Night of the Comet” (1984)
After a rare comet sighting, teen sisters Regina and Samantha find that they’re among the only survivors of a zombie attack. The girls partner with another survivor, Hector, but as they try to avoid the zombies, they’re sought by scientists who want to experiment on their bodies in the hope of finding an antidote. Dodging both the doctors and the undead, they keep moving in the hope that they can continue to stay alive.
“Killer Klowns From Outer Space” (1988)
When teenagers Mike and Debbie see a comet crash outside their sleepy small town, they investigate and discover a pack of murderous aliens who look very much like circus clowns. They try to warn the local authorities, but everyone assumes their story is a prank. Meanwhile, the clowns set about harvesting and eating as many people as they can. It’s not until they kidnap Debbie that Mike decides it’s up to him to stop the clowns’ bloody rampage.
“Night of the Creeps” (1986)
Fraternity pledges pull a prank with a frozen body and let slug-like alien parasites loose on a college campus. They must turn to a whiskey-swilling, cigarette-puffing curmudgeon cop (Tom “Thrill Me” Atkins) for help.
This film is gross, hyperbolic fun of the best sort in all its ’80s gory glory.
“Enemy Mine” (1985)
During a war between humans and the reptilian Drac race, spaceship pilot Dennis Quaid ends up stranded on an alien world, along with enemy fighter Jeriba Shigan (played by Louis Gossett Jr.). While both he and his Drac counterpart can breathe on the planet, the environment and its creatures are relatively hostile, forcing the two to work together to survive. As time goes by the former enemies become unlikely friends, though challenges aplenty await them even after the truce.