Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Planets attacking and attacked: 10 movies that travel through the solar system

Illustration for article titled Planets attacking and attacked: 10 movies that travel through the solar system

The release of the Wachowskis’ new sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending offers a timely opportunity: the chance to explore the solar system through film—namely, movies with planets in the title. All of the planets (even the sub-planet) have now been accounted for, and to say it’s a mixed cinematic universe is an understatement. For some reason, a lot of movies named after planets are downright terrible, but a few gleaming celestial bodies shine through. Judging from early reports on Jupiter Ascending, it may fall in to the former category. But here are some other planetary examples (as well as a star and a satellite to complete the A.V. Club solar system):

1. Mercury: Mercury Rising (1998)

The closest planet to the sun gets the shaft, as it’s saddled with this Bruce Willis action-thriller wannabe. Mercury is the code name for the No Such Agency’s new $2 billion supposedly impenetrable super-code, which is somehow cracked by a 9-year-old boy with autism. NSA security chief Alec Baldwin isn’t going to let something like that stand, so instead of, you know, changing the code, he sends his spook out to off the kid and his parents. Plucky FBI agent Willis takes the now-orphaned child on the run, for safety. The highlight of this drawn-out chase movie is the eventual showdown between Willis and Baldwin in Baldwin’s wine cellar, discussing America and patriotism in a virtual cage-match of overacting that ends with Willis sulkily overturning a case of pricy wines. Despite this bomb, the unflappable Willis went on to co-star with a child again the very next year in a movie that fared much better: The Sixth Sense. [Gwen Ihnat]

2. Venus: Venus (2006)

Although its connection to the planet is tenuous at best—the only thing the film has in common with the second rock from the sun is that they were both named after the Roman goddess of love—this particular Venus still shines brightly in motion picture history, as it gave Peter O’Toole his eighth and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actor In A Leading Role of his career. (Unbelievably, the only Oscar he ever took home was an honorary one.) O’Toole plays Maurice, an elderly actor who becomes smitten with Jessie, his friend’s grand-niece, despite the fact that she’s significantly younger than he is. Nicknaming her “Venus” after his favorite painting, Maurice attempts to woo Jessie to the best of his ability, but the two have little in common and their interactions tend toward awkward at best. Nonetheless, Maurice soldiers on with his efforts, even as he becomes increasingly more ill from the effects of prostate cancer, and in time Jessie develops a begrudging fondness for the old man, raising his spirits and helping him through his final days as best she can. [Will Harris]

3. Earth: Battlefield Earth (2000)

As the home of our species and a lot of recognizable landmarks that blow up quite nicely on the big screen, Earth tends to get the tar beaten out of it on a fairly regular basis: alien invasions, natural disasters, varied megalomaniacs determined to rule it via complicated schemes. Battlefield Earth inflicts the most brutal of punishments on our world, however, damning it for the crime of being the planet that produced Battlefield Earth. Its ridiculous setting features an aggressively dreadlocked alien race known as Psychlos, who conquer humanity in nine minutes and then dawdle around the planet for 1,000 years looking for gold. The film only gets dumber from there, staggering through two interminable hours with incomprehensible leaps of logic and nauseating cinematography choices. John Travolta gives a performance that any actor can look to as encouragement that they’ll never do anything this embarrassing, sneering about “rat-brains” and “man-animals” with a glorious lack of self-awareness. It was so universally reviled that, in 2010, screenwriter J.D. Shapiro tried to make amends for writing it with an apology almost worse than the film itself. Our planet has been home to many horrific events real and imagined, but should aliens ever really come to visit us, Battlefield Earth will deserve the biggest apology. [Les Chappell]

4. Mars: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Tim Burton’s directorial follow-up to Ed Wood owes as much to Plan 9 From Outer Space as it does to the star-studded disaster films of Irwin Allen. Released just five months after Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin blew up the world for Independence Day (though its Jonathan Gems-penned screenplay dates back to the early ’90s), Mars Attacks! plays the Earth’s destruction for schlocky fun, treating the moai statues of Easter Island like bowling pins and remaking Mount Rushmore in the image of the film’s skeletal Martian invaders (whose home world is only glimpsed in the film’s rousing intro sequence). A-listers including Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, and Michael J. Fox are bumped off in creative fashion by the film’s quacking, bug-eyed antagonists (Nicholson, in dual roles, gets his twice); in a satisfying reversal of expectations, the Earth’s last hope rests with the likes of Pam Grier, Jim Brown, a pre-Star Wars Natalie Portman, and the falsetto of yodeling cowboy Slim Whitman. Drawing on the B-movie grotesquerie and titillation of its bubblegum-card source material, Mars Attacks! looks like the detention-room notebook doodles of a teenaged cinema fiend come to life—and that’s a good thing. [Erik Adams]

5. Saturn: Saturn 3 (1980)

The post-Star Wars sci-fi boom led to many hopeful stabs at box office stardust in the late ’70s and early ’80s—one of them being Saturn 3. The 1980 thriller stars Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel, all of whom seem alternately amused and befuddled at their presence on a research facility on a moon of Saturn in the future. The plot couldn’t be less basic—there’s a communications blackout, and a homicidal maniac is loose, and oh, and watch out for the killer robot—but the film does manage to squeeze some moody if suspense-deficient atmosphere out the idea. The fact that John Barry, production designer of Star Wars, was originally the director of Saturn 3 (before being replaced by Stanley Donen) didn’t help sell the film to the indifferent public. Yet it remains a cinematic testament to the sixth planet in our solar system, for whatever that’s worth. [Jason Heller]

6. Uranus: Uranus (1990)

Not too surprisingly, Uranus is not a very popular planet for movie titles. Its most prominent entry in the canon, actually, is a 1990 French movie starring Gérard Depardieu, which deals with the life of a small French town after World War II. Depardieu was so huge in France during this time that U.S. studios executed a concerted effort toward making Gérard Depardieu happen in America (Cyrano De Bergerac, Green Card, 1492: Conquest Of Paradise). Still, the U.S. never embraced Depardieu like his native country did, as in this film where he’s a bombastic, fun-loving innkeeper (“a barroom brawler, a poet, a lover”) who appears to be the only one in his village able to move on after the Great War, and refuses to point fingers on whose side everyone else was on a few years prior. But why was this movie called Uranus? Perhaps after WWII, even the most familiar village suddenly seemed as strange and alien as the most mysterious planet. [Gwen Ihnat]

7. Neptune: Neptune’s Daughter (1949)

The eighth planet from the sun is named for the Roman god of the sea, making it a perfect fit for the most famous water-logged movie star of Hollywood’s golden age. The inimitable Esther Williams basically plays out a version of her own life story, which starts with Keenan Wynn telling you that this movie will be a about a guy, a girl, and a bathing suit. As in life, Eve (Williams) is plucked from amateur swimming competitions to design her own line of swimwear and appear in beyond-fantastic water ballets. The story takes a fictional turn when Eve and her sister Betty Garrett get mixed up with a South American polo player (Ricardo Montalban) and the team’s goofy masseuse (Red Skelton). Besides Williams, this film is notable for having a score written by the great Frank Loesser (who also wrote Guys And Dolls), and so includes the film introduction of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (which he wrote for his wife and himself to perform at parties, not to assist generations of diabolic lotharios). The tune won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year, making this the only Oscar winner on our list. The movie culminates with a finale that features Williams doing what she did so very well in a giant, fantastically colorful MGM water ballet. Neptune would be proud. [Gwen Ihnat]

8. Pluto: The Adventures Of Pluto Nash (2002)

Given that the title telegraphs pretty clearly that any mention of Pluto in the film will likely be a reference to the main character, it’s still a little odd that an ostensible blockbuster in which planetary travel has been perfected basically spends all of its time on the moon. A $100-million bust for Warner Bros., The Adventures Of Pluto Nash tells the wildly convoluted story of the titled hero, played by Eddie Murphy, and his efforts to get revenge (and repaid) after gangsters destroy his lunar nightclub. Along the way, there are encounters with assassins, plastic surgeons, and Hillary Clinton jokes that would’ve sounded hack in 1992. Plenty of bad movies are fun to watch; this is not one of those. Avoid this trip into space at all costs. [Alex McCown]

9. Sun: Sunshine (2007)

At the very end of the solar system (or the very beginning, depending on direction), you hit the sun. That boiling ball of hydrogen, more than 100 times larger than the Earth, has stayed miraculously stable over a lifetime of billions of years and helps hold the solar system together. Its heat and light are so powerful it changes the course of planetary history, and even now we look for its double elsewhere in the galaxy as our best hope of finding life. If it goes out, so do we. In Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s 2007 science fiction thriller, a team of scientists has to restart the nuclear process that’s stalled, causing a years-long, crippling winter on Earth. The central MacGuffin is based on some very filmy theories, so the movie’s best enjoyed for its peripheral science (oxygen rations and a little relativity), its crack cast (featuring Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, and Cliff Curtis), and the sense of cosmic wonder that permeates even its most chilling moments. The journey is likely fatal, which isn’t so much a spoiler as a condition of signing on, and not even the noble cause prevents serious human error. But when the crew sets their spats aside and gathers to watch the tiny marble of Mercury transit across the surface of the sun, it knocks them all silent with awe—and we get why. [Genevieve Valentine]

10. Moon: Moon (2009)

While human beings haven’t been quick to go back to the moon in person since Apollo 17 finished its 1972 voyage, many trips have been made since then in the realm of science fiction, exploring the innate fascination we have with the celestial body clearly visible on a nightly basis. Duncan Jones’ 2009 Moon is one of the more arresting of these visits, using its close-yet-distant proximity to Earth to tell a resonant story of secrets and isolation. Sam Rockwell’s Sam Bell is deep into a three-year contact mining helium-3 on the moon, with his only company the lunar station’s AI GERTY (Kevin Spacey). He has an accident, wakes up in the infirmary, and discovers he’s not as alone as he might have expected. As he digs deeper into the true nature of his mission and the reasons he’s there, the narrative only gets more fascinating, looking at the human cost of this brighter future. Equally imposing is his increasing claustrophobia, and the manner in which the lunar landscape goes from uncharted territory to prison cell. Humanity saw reaching the moon as the realization of a great dream; for Bell, it’s a state of limbo where home is always simultaneously overhead and out of reach. [Les Chappell]

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