The solar eclipse has held an almost mystical fascination for humans from the moment we first looked into the heavens. To civilizations throughout history that depended on the cycles of the sun and moon and the seasons for survival, it was an inexplicable event, the work of gods or demons and a harbinger of ill tidings. Even after Copernicus and Galileo established the heliocentric models of the solar system that not only explained but could predict a solar eclipse, the awesome power of the celestial event could still overcome reason and instill feelings of anxiety and dread.
In the 21st century, an age of (relative) reason and knowledge, and in a culture that has spent the last few weeks talking about the coming eclipse, we’re still fascinated. Partly because it's such a rarity—there's a solar eclipse somewhere in the world about every 18 months, but in any single location it can be hundreds of years between events—and in part because of its primal power. The sun, the source of light and heat and life, is momentarily obliterated, plunging the Earth (or at least that part from which the eclipse is visible) into darkness and letting us see the cosmos in the sky in daytime. We know the science of how and why it happens, but the awesome sight has a power over us beyond reason. That's part of what is driving millions of Americans to the path of totality to see today’s eclipse, the first to be visible across the United States in 26 years.
So it's no surprise that so many movies have claimed the solar eclipse for dramatic purposes, often drawing on those ancient superstitions to give the natural phenomenon a supernatural dimension. It's cinematic shorthand, like a full moon on a dark night in a horror film, but amped up several levels, thanks to anomalous nature and eerie visual intensity, like a black hole has swallowed the sun.
Sometimes it's just a matter of visual flourish, marking the spiritual thresholds of drug-induced visions in films like Altered States (1980) and The Doors (1991), or signifying cosmic scope in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011). Sometimes it's a marker of a supernatural event or the opening of a dimensional gateway, as in Disney's adolescent horror film The Watcher in the Woods (1980), where it whisks a young girl to another world during a play-acted ritual gone wrong, or in Hellboy (2004), where it sets the stage to open the Seven Gates of Hell. It's far more romantic in Ladyhawke (1985), a meeting of the sun and the moon, the symbols of young lovers separated forever by a curse. Georges Méliès, early cinema's great fantasist, had a similar idea in The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and Moon (1907) (available on Fandor!), though his treatment is a mix of fanciful pageant and vaudeville humor.
At its best, however, it's more than just spectacle or shorthand. Here are some of the most memorable and the most magnificent solar eclipses in the movies.
Eclipses Via Special Effects
Mark Twain set the stage for the solar eclipse as a dramatic narrative event in his time-travel fantasy novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the then-modern 19th century everyman in medieval Britain uses his knowledge of an upcoming eclipse to escape a sticky predicament. There's plenty of luck involved there, not the least of which is the timing of this particular planetary phenomenon, but it does the trick, and when it's Bing Crosby doing the soothsaying in the 1946 musical film version of the story it's even more fun.
It has a more cosmic impact in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006). Not just the dramatic turning point in the film—it stops a ritual sacrifice and enables our hero to escape execution—it throws existential questions into an otherwise primal survival drama. It is the hand of a benevolent god taking pity on this innocent, a harbinger of the end of the Aztec Empire, or pure chance in an existential dice game?
It's more symbolic in Incubus (1966), a fable-like tale of good and evil in a world out of time, performed entirely in Esperanto. Thanks to the alien language, the spiritual imagery, and the crisp winter light photography of Conrad Hall, it plays like an American version of an Ingmar Bergman allegory, and the solar eclipse that plunges the world into shadow and blinds the sister of the hero (a remarkably restrained William Shatner) could be a test of faith or a demonic attack on an innocent.
The solar eclipse is a literal harbinger of doom in the original disaster spectacular Deluge (1933), where it presages the earthquakes and cataclysmic storms that sweep civilization right off the face of the Earth, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), where its unexpected appearance confirm that atomic bomb tests have thrown the Earth's orbit spiraling toward the sun. And in the musical version of Little Shop of Horrors (1986), the eclipse somehow brings a man-eating plant to Earth for no good reason than it's a cool idea and makes for a good lyric.
The solar eclipse of Pitch Black (2000) is not of earthly origin and is frankly scientifically shaky—a planet with three suns that only goes dark every 22 years during a total eclipse that last for hours—but who cares? This science fiction thriller dispenses with myth and superstition and cuts straight to the fear of the dark on a planet with a race of nocturnal flying lizards that only come out to feed during the eclipse. This human snack pack picked the wrong day to crash land their spaceship.
Eclipse Au Naturale
All these films rely on visual effects for the imagery and tend to ignore the science of planetary mechanics in their presentation. You'll see the moon slip quickly across the sun and then sit there, as it taking a rest before starting back up again, because filmmakers seem to think it looks cooler than the slow crawl of the genuine article. Astronomers cringe at such fudged details.
For the real thing you have to respect the biblical epic Barabbas (1962), produced by Dino de Laurentiis and directed by Richard Fleischer. When Fleischer discovered that a total solar eclipse would be visible near their Rome studio, they reworked the schedule to shoot the film's crucifixion scene during the event. Three cameras rolled to capture the eclipse over the cross and the shadow cast over the observers "when darkness came over the whole land."
For an even more awe-inspiring vision of the real thing, Ron Fricke (cinematographer of Koyannisqati) photographed a total solar eclipse on July 11, 1991 on 70mm film for Baraka (1992), his impressionistic meditation of life on Earth. A still image of the sequence, with the penumbra of the sun burning around the black disc of the moon, was used on the posters but it is magnificent and mysterious on the big screen, where that ring of fire comes alive. In purely visual terms, I've never seen anything quite like it in any cinematic presentation before or since. Short of seeing the real thing it may be the closest you'll get to the awe and wonder of the solar event.