This month marked a watershed in space travel. The test launch of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the first designed to take humans into deep space, ushered in an age where we will be able to stop by Mars for takeout en route to the Mall of Uranus. Or, at least, an age where we visit parts of our solar system that were previously off-limits.
The question now is what to expect when we get there.
So far, the handful of craft we’ve landed on distant surfaces have returned bleak, rubble-y images. Our most vivid impressions of other planets have tended to come from a very different source: movies. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing, in terms of advancing actual knowledge. Take the billowy sleeves and elegantly spacious interiors of “Jupiter Ascending,” the new blockbuster from the Wachowskis.
When it comes to getting everything utterly, horribly wrong, however, “Jupiter Ascending” has nothing on some of its predecessors. Herewith, a trip across our solar system, via the works of some seriously imaginative filmmakers.
“This must all be connected to Mercury!” So says a character in this made-for-TV film, whose big visual conceit is computer-generated cars floating upward, due to the fact that Mercury is on a collision course with Earth, and “its magnetic signature is off the charts.” Mercury’s surface, we learn, looks like an overdone soufflé.
Bonus lesson: Contact with magnetized planets will make it much easier to find parking.
Set in the distant future (1985), this one features “eight fearless international astronauts” who head into space in a paperweight. On Venus the astronauts get bogged down in brownie mix—oh, wait, it’s “deadly crawling lava!” More perilous yet are the aggressive, yo-yoing robotic bugs who live inside holes camouflaged with bits of cardboard (step, “Argh!”). It’s horrible.
Bonus lesson: Contrary to conventional wisdom, people don’t float in zero gravity; they dangle.
Widely hailed as the worst movie John Carpenter ever made, this film is set in 2176, a future in which criminals are sent to a penal colony on Mars but still use the unmistakable patois of Compton circa 1982. “Damn, girl!” says Desolation Williams, Ice Cube’s scowling convict, shortly before busting a cap in the direction of an unruly mob of Rob Zombie lookalikes. Mars, in terms of its terrain and its inhabitants, turns out to be a dead ringer for a Burning Man festival, with a bit less nudity and a few more severed limbs.
Bonus lesson: Even in deep space, some people still find it preferable to shoot with their guns tilted sideways.
While the interiors in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 epic looked like a swinging-sixties bachelor pad, this 1980s follow-up aims for a crazed disco feel, conveying the presence of cutting-edge technology with big, blocky colored lights. As for Jupiter—well, it seems the planet has been beset by a swarm of enormous, destructive dominoes. “This is a very unusual phenomenon,” says the onboard computer Hal.
Bonus lesson: Space travel will be fraught with peril, uncertainty, and unutterably gaudy design.
Remarkable for bringing together the careers of Farrah Fawcett and Martin Amis (who wrote the screenplay), “Saturn 3” also perfected the art of making model spaceships appear big by putting them really close to the camera. More convincingly large is Fawcett’s hair, which looks like it should have its own gravity field. Saturn, meanwhile, resembles an old encyclopedia illustration. We are taken to one of its moons, presumably called Diorama, where Fawcett spends the rest of the film being chased around by an amorous robot.
Bonus lesson: Artificial intelligence may be less of a threat to humanity than artificial testosterone.
It cost $75,000 to make this movie, and $74,893 of that must have gone to the catering. The astronauts who land on Uranus encounter such horrors as quicksand made from Styrofoam packing material and a genetically modified Barney the Dinosaur. An alien brain has gotten inside the men’s heads, turning their deepest fears against them; men’s heads being what they are, we are also introduced to “enticing Seventh Planet beauties.”
Bonus lesson: Head-invading alien brains tend to talk like people do when they’re pretending to be a ghoooost.
What it would look like if pointy-headed alien robot-y things from Neptune came to Japan and started harassing a bunch of schoolboys with ill-fitting shorts? This movie answers that question. Unfortunately it doesn’t show much of the aliens’ home planet, but we do get a look at Neptune’s spaceships, which appear to be constructed from very large rolls of toilet paper, a few sparklers, and a whole lot of silver paint.
Bonus lesson: When you’re about to be attacked an alien invader, throwing a twig at it will cause it to go “Ah!” and turn away.
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.