Our solar system is a wondrous and frightful venue, and from the magmatic center of the sun to the ghost ships orbiting Neptune, Hollywood has explored it all. Join us for a cinematic voyage through the scifi solar system, which features if not the most well-known movies about our sister planets, then at least the ones that tell us something interesting about the way we think of other worlds.
The Sun – Sunshine (2007)
As much a commentary on the role of sunshine to the human soul as a scifi movie, Sunshine shows a future world in which the sun is dying and must be re-ignited by a massive nuclear payload. Criticism of Sunshine has been leveled at both its science — which is physically outlandish on a quantum level — and its third act, which owes more to Hellraiser than to 2001. But no matter: In director Danny Boyle’s capable hands, Sunshine is one of the most thought-provoking and humanist scifi movies of the last decade.
Mercury – The Mysterious Island (1951)
Mercury is unique amongst the pantheon of planets in that it is the direct subject of no science fiction movie. But consider Columbia Pictures’ serial space opera adaptation of The Mysterious Island. Here, the enigmatic pirate Captain Nemo faces off against an invading force of Mercurians, who have come to the island in their attempts to extract a super-explosive atomic element, which they intend to use to conquer the planet (natch). You see, even in 1951 we knew no good could come from Mercury.
Venus – 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
Despite its inhospitable atmospheric temperatures (which reach 462 degrees Celsius), the planet Venus is fertile ground for scifi directors. 20 Million Miles to Earth, best known for its reptile-like Venusian Ymir, boasts the most enjoyable premise: A spaceship sent to Venus by the Pentagon crashes into the Mediterranean on its return journey, where the expedition’s sole specimen of Venusian life — a gelatin-encased egg — is found by a local Italian boy. The egg eventually hatches, and Ymir goes on a rampage through the countryside. Any movie that ends with an alien being blown up atop the Coliseum you know is worth checking out.
Mars – Total Recall (1990)
Chances are you already have a favorite Martian movie. But for our money, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall takes the cake. Set in 2084, the movie revolves around Douglas Quaid who, attempting to implant memories of a trip to Mars in his brain, discovers that he was previously a secret agent who worked to uncover a terrorist group of deformed native Martians. Despite its action-packed pacing, the movie asks serious science fictional questions about the nature of memories in shaping who we are. It’s also one of the better spiritual adaptations of Dick’s work since 1982’s Blade Runner.
Jupiter – Outland (1981)
2001: A Space Odyssey is too obvious a choice for this, the largest planet on our tour. Instead, check out 1981’s Outland, set on a mining colony around Jupiter’s moon Io. A remake of High Noon, Outland single-handedly defined the space western genre in a time when moviegoers were still in the thrall of George Lucas’ opera fantasy. Perhaps the greatest gift the Sean Connery vehicle helped give us, however, was the notion that the most horrible monsters in deep space can very easily be human.
Saturn – Silent Running (1972)
This scifi classic establishes a future in which all plant life has become extinct, and a lone ark containing plant specimens orbits Saturn. Bruce Dern and several colleagues man the spacecraft, meticulously caring for the plants with the help of three robots. Following only a few years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie was one of the first to treat scifi as something more than an adjunct to the monster movie. Silent Running’s incredible special effects and robots went on to inspire elements of Star Wars, while its post-apocalyptic ecological message influenced dozens of flicks from Soylent Green to The Happening.
Uranus – Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962)
Inspired by puppeteer Ray Harryhausen’s short story “Mars is Heaven,” Journey follows a group of astronauts who have been dispatched to Uranus by the United Nations on an exploratory mission. The astronauts defy geological reality (Uranus being a gas giant) and land on the surface, where they encounter a mysterious alien presence that assumes control of their minds. Journey might be most interesting to movie buffs because its release precedes the almost identically-plotted (and admittedly better) Russian scifi classic Solaris by a full decade. So we recommend watching them both as a double feature.
Neptune – Event Horizon (1997)
Neptune sits at the edge of our planetary solar system facing the abyss, and Paul W.S. Anderson’s terrifying movie excellently captures that emptiness. Drawing upon elements from a broad spectrum of genres, the movie tells of a starship that disappears from its orbit around Neptune in 2040 only to reappear seven years later having visited and returned from hell. Event Horizon‘s seamless blend of horror and scifi has made the movie a cult classic, and though it ends our journey on a bit of a downer, it makes clear that beyond Neptune the only thing to find is dead — make that quite dead — space.