Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Visions of the Planets

After I wrote my article on visions of Mars, I thought it would be a neat idea to do the other planets as well. Unfortunately, I had some difficulty finding enough different films to give each planet its own article, so I've decided to combine all the remaining planets into one article where I go through them each individually and discuss the films that I have been able to find.

One scene that I will be referring to throughout is the opening of 1953's The War of the Worlds where we see a series of paintings by Chesley Bonestell (an artist known at the time known for his space-themed paintings, you can see a few of them here) which attempt to depict each of the planets with the exception of Venus. I will put this clip at the very beginning here so that you can refer back to it if necessary:


Venus is the second-closest planet to our sun, as well as the closest planet to Earth, to which it is a similar size. There was once a time when, like Mars, Venus was a popular setting for science fiction stories, largely because of a few slight misunderstandings. You see, at some point in the 19th or 20th century some astronomer pointed a telescope at Venus and saw clouds, initially assuming them to be proof of the existence of water which therefore meant an Earth-like environment and possibly even the presence of an intelligent civilization.

Eleanor Arroway sums up the reality in one scene of Contact. Basically, the planet is exactly the opposite of what that astronomer initially thought: a dry, desolate landscape. The clouds turned out not to be water vapor but sulfuric acid, with acidic rain being a major part of the climate (though it never hits the ground). Atmospheric pressure is similar to the deepest parts of the ocean, the atmosphere is made up almost completely of Carbon Dioxide (in other words, extremely toxic), and for any human being landing there that would all be the least of their problems considering the thick atmosphere traps enough heat to create temperatures hot enough to melt lead; making it the hottest planet in the solar system, even hotter than Mercury despite being further from the sun.

However, that was a very recent discovery, and we had plenty of time for science fiction to make its own claims that may seem insane by modern standards. Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called The Long Rain which sees a group of astronauts stranded on the planet after their spaceship crashes, leaving them to navigate a tropical environment where it rains endlessly. In the Walls of Eryx was a collaborative story between H.P. Lovecraft and Kenneth J. Sterling which envisioned an Avatar-like tropical environment with a seemingly primitive race of "lizard men" who are implied to actually be quite intelligent.

That said, so far I have only seen one film to actually take place on Venus, and that was the East German/Polish science fiction movie Der Schwegende Stern or The Silent Star (a rough translation of the title) as we learned to call it in my science fiction class, or better known in English as First Spaceship to Venus. With this film we get a vision of the planet that correctly assumes it to be inhospitable for humanity... but all for the wrong reasons as it is blamed more due to nuclear fallout than extremely high temperatures. This does, however, provide a slightly different take in that the planet itself is currently uninhabited; it's original population having nuked themselves to oblivion and ultimately posing a few dangers that end up stranding three of the crew to die on the planet.


Mercury seems to be a less common choice, probably because there aren't many reasons people would want to go there. It's the closest planet to the sun, and once thought to be tidally locked. This is not actually the case; it does rotate, but the planet always has one side facing the sun and subsequently very hot while the other side faces away and subsequently has freezing temperatures. So far I have only found two movies that offer any depiction of Mercury at all, neither of which use it as a primary setting. 

The first is the opening of The War of the Worlds. The image they show of Mercury is reasonably close to the real thing, as a rocky surface covered in craters, although the narrator isn't entirely correct in saying that there is no air, as a thin atmosphere does exist.

The one other film I've found is the 2007 movie Sunshine. Mercury is only in it briefly, and the characters never actually land on the planet itself so all we have to go on is what is seen while its in orbit. As a result I cannot say with certainty how accurately it depicts the planet, although at first glance it does seem to more closely resemble the sun.


Saturn meanwhile is an impressive world and one that in theory you would expect to be a great setting for science fiction movies. So far I have only found one to incorporate it. Like the other planets it is referred to in the opening of The War of the Worlds, complete with a rather impressive painting by Chesley Bonestell. I'm not entirely sure about the presence of clouds but what they show of the rings is depicted with some impressive detail for 1953.

That said, the rings, or at least the ones we can see (Saturn has several that are harder to observe) are made up more of ice particles than "cosmic dust"; in fact this is the main reason why Saturn is the only planet with rings we can clearly see (the rings of Jupiter and Uranus are made up of dust and rock, respectively, while nobody is certain what Neptune's rings are composed of). However, the narrator also claims that ice "lies 15000 miles deep on its surface" even though Saturn doesn't really have a "surface".

2001: A Space Odyssey was originally supposed to use Saturn as the destination of the Discovery crew (and this remains the case in the book, written while the film was in development). Unfortunately there were some problems in creating a convincing model of Saturn's rings so it was changed to Jupiter. The one movie I did find, however, to use Saturn as a setting was Silent Running, directed by Douglas Trumbull who also did the effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. We do not see much of the planet itself, but we can see its rings (and at one point the main character faces serious danger when his ship goes right through one of them) . The model is a fairly convincing representation of the planet, although the coloring is a bit different when compared to the Cassini photographs.


The only thing The War of the Worlds got even remotely correct about Jupiter was that there would be an abundance of hydrogen and thick atmospheric pressure. Aside from a rocky core there is no solid layer to the planet, which has a surface of liquid hydrogen and an atmosphere of the same substance in gas form. There are no "Titanic cliffs of lava and ice with hydrogen flaming at the tops" anywhere to be found on the planet as the movie claims.

I have found three movies to use Jupiter as a setting or at the very least a backdrop (to actually have a story take place on the surface of Jupiter would be impossible using modern science). The first two are, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010, along with the more recent science fiction story Europa Report. In addition, the movie Outland is set on (an extremely inaccurate depiction of) Jupiter's moon Io.

With both the Space Odyssey films and Europa Report, we get something reasonably close to the actual planet. We only glimpse it briefly near the end of 2001, but there is a clear resemblance although we never see the famed "Great Red Spot" (which is presumably on the other side). 2010 gives us more views of Jupiter as unlike its predecessor the bulk of the story takes place there. We also get some really good views of the planet in Europa Report. It is a little jarring at first to see Jupiter appear sideways compared to how it is normally shown in photographs, but it still makes perfect sense when you consider roughly the location at which they landed on Europa.

Neptune and Uranus

I have unfortunately failed to find much in the way of films dealing with Neptune and Uranus. Event Horizon and Journey to the Seventh Planet are the only two movies I have found to use either one as any kind of setting. The explanation given in The War of the Worlds: "Twin Worlds in eternal night and perpetual cold, both surrounded by an unbreathable atmosphere of methane gas and ammonia vapor" provides a fairly accurate (if simplified) description of both.

So there we have it, all of the major planets covered. I am still not aware of anything dealing with Pluto, though technically that isn't really a planet; the short version is that it got demoted because some astronomers decided to try and solidify what exactly defined a "planet" and the criteria they came up with were:
1. It has to be spherical in shape
2. It has to orbit a star
3. It has to have a clear orbit

Pluto met the first two requirements but its orbit goes right through the Kuiper Belt, meaning there are lots of comets and debris and other things in its path, which is why it is considered a Dwarf Planet. These also should not be confused with the term "moon" which refers to any natural object that orbits a planet and may or may not be spherical in shape. Since we don't know much about Pluto right now, I wouldn't be able to do much of a discussion on any films that did take place there until New Horizons arrives and gets some good photographs.

This is about as far out as we can really go for the moment. As fascinating as it would be to discuss visions of planets other systems and maybe even other galaxies, there is not a whole lot of material to go on.

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