Unlike other astronomical events such as shooting stars (a Spielberg trademark), full moons (stay away from the woods) and mega-asteroids (paging Ben Affleck), solar eclipses are more of a rare breed in movies. Still, movies with major, plot-driving solar eclipse scenes can be found across several genres, not just science fiction. Drama, thrillers, musicals, historical epics, deceptively terrifying Disney films — there’s truly an eclipse film for everyone.
Perhaps one reason that eclipses — specifically total solar eclipses — appear so sporadically in movies is because they appear so sporadically in real life.
This rarity is one of the reasons everyone is freaking out about the Aug. 21 eclipse, the first time a total solar eclipse will be viewable from the contiguous United States since 1979. After Aug. 21, America isn’t due for another full eclipse until 2045. With an average of only seven total solar eclipses occurring on the U.S. mainland per century, some American cities haven’t seen the moon fully obstruct the sun for decades, even centuries. (Don’t move to the Twin Cities if you ever want to witness a full eclipse.)
Cinematic eclipses are seldom seen because they carry with them a range of cultural connotations, mostly portentous in nature. Throughout history, they’ve acted as an astronomical bad omen. And besides, you can’t just casually throw a total solar eclipse into a scene. They're too big.
Below are eight movies with solar eclipse scenes, one of them real. For those with a case of solar eclipse fever, many are worth watching; children of the '80s might want to revisit a few of them for nostalgic purposes. But you shouldn’t watch any of these if you're looking for insight into what to expect from the upcoming eclipse. That is, unless you’re into the ideas of being trapped in a mirror, fed to a man-eating plant, terrorized by a pre-adolescent and/or tasked with saving humanity from the quickly approaching apocalypse.
When not serving as harbingers of doom and destruction, cinematic solar eclipses are also handy for getting oneself out of a pickle — a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical distraction.
Set during the collapse of the Mayan Empire in the early 16th century, Mel Gibson’s bonkers — and critically lauded — “Apocalypto” revolves around one such scenario. After being taken captive and forced to watch a parade of grisly ritual human sacrifices, protagonist Jaguar Paw avoids losing his head, literally, thanks to a fortuitously timed solar eclipse, a phenomenon rife with superstition in Mayan culture. Some have noted that a similar scene involving human sacrifice and a most-opportune eclipse was featured in the 1949 Tintin comic “Prisoners of the Sun.” The death-escaping scene in Mark Twain’s earlier “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” (the 1949 film musical is included in this list) also revolves around an eclipse — perhaps most importantly, prior knowledge of said eclipse.
All these works of fiction owe Christopher Columbus some credit. As legend has it, in March 1504 the explorer used an eclipse to calm tensions with a tribe of Arawak Indians while stranded for months on what is present day Jamaica. In order to keep the food and supplies coming from the increasingly uncooperative (for good reason) natives, the explorer tricked the tribal chief into thinking that he had conjured a lunar eclipse. This, of course, was after Columbus consulted and placed his trust in an ephemeris — a sort of celestial almanac — developed by German astronomer Regiomontanus some years earlier. You know. The old, "I'll make the sun go black in two days if you don't do what I say ..." trick.
The solar eclipses depicted in most — if not all — films are, of course, simulated by talented scenic artists and visual effects teams. There is, however, one notable exception: the lavishly produced biblical epic “Barabbas.”
Starring Anthony Quinn as the titular character, the film’s opening scenes depict the crucifixion of Jesus Christ while a real-deal total eclipse of the sun unfolds. Visible across a swath of southern Europe on Feb. 15, 1961, the eclipse coincided with the shooting schedule and legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis was determined to take full advantage of it. There were concerns among the Italy-based crew that the eclipse could even be filmed considering the minuscule window of time involved. Yet in a technical and logistical miracle, the director of photography successfully captured the full spectacular totality. This cinematic feat proved to be a marketing coup for Columbia Pictures as many Americans had never witnessed a full eclipse, let alone one occurring during a big-budget crucifixion scene. Billed in promotional materials as the “Film That Stopped the Sun,” “Barabbas” proved to be particularly popular among astronomy aficionados.
"Bloody Birthday" (1981)
The astronomical phenomenon depicted in the opening sequence is the least exciting thing to happen in this low-budget early '80s slasher, which can best be described as a hybrid of "Friday the 13th" and "The Bad Seed" with a special appearance by Linda Goodman's "Star Signs." It's not big or dramatic. You kind of forget about it. Then things start getting weird.
The plot In a nutshell: "1970. Three children were born during a total eclipse of the sun. Now, 10 years later, they share a terrible compulsion to kill. And no one can stop them. If they decide they don't like you, watch out!"
Featuring 85 minutes of shooting, stabbing, strangulation and astrological mumbo-jumbo about the moon and sun both blocking out Saturn, so-bad-it's good "Bloody Birthday" is a well-deserved cult classic that got lost among the many horror movies of the era revolving around holidays or special occasions. (See also: "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "New Year's Evil," "My Bloody Valentine," "Happy Birthday to Me," etc.) Just don't let the babysitter see it.
"A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" (1949)
Mark Twain’s satirical 1889 yarn in which an engineer bangs his head and inadvertently travels back in time to the Middle Ages has been adapted numerous times on the stage and for the big screen. (The story’s time-traveling plot line has also famously been riffed on in numerous cartoons and cartoonish movies like Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness.") While not the most recent adaptation, the 1949 film musical version of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” starring Bing Crosby, is perhaps the most beloved.
As for the solar eclipse, it plays a major role in the Camelot-set story, occurring at a most convenient time. Right as protagonist Hank Morgan (renamed Hank Martin in the film) is to be put to death, a total eclipse occurs. Frightened by the astronomical event, the court is convinced by smooth-talking, musically inclined Hank that he made the sun cross in front of the moon through his magical powers. (Hank actually knew the eclipse would happen thanks to history lessons back home in 20th-century Hartford.) Needless to say, Hank’s captors let him go, he's reunited with his love interest and a big happy musical number ensues.
"Dolores Claiborne" (1995)
“American Horror Story” fans who can’t get enough of Kathy Bates’ knack for regional accents will no doubt relish her thick, semi-inscrutable Downeast Maine intonations in “Dolores Claiborne.” In her second Stephen King adaptation (following her star-making turn in 1990’s “Misery"), Bates plays a middle-aged housekeeper embroiled in a decades-old murder mystery. Yes, skeletons abound in “Dolores Claiborne.” But without a soupçon of the supernatural to speak of in this non-horror-offering from King, they’re all relegated to the closet.
A melodramatic thriller about memory, motherhood and unwavering devotion, “Dolores Claiborne” also features one heck of an eclipse in a harrowing, climatic flashback scene. The eclipse portrayed in the film is based on the total solar eclipse of July 20, 1963, a real astronomical event that’s also woven into the plot of another 1992 King thriller, “Gerald’s Game.” (More recently, the eclipse was featured in a season three episode of “Mad Men.”) Says Bates’ Claiborne: “The eclipse lasted six-and-a-half minutes. They said it was some kind of record. It was a hell of a lot more than a thunderhead passing across the sun. It was beautiful.”
Despite being directed by blockbuster-helmer Richard Donner (“Superman,” “The Goonies,” “Scrooged,” the “Lethal Weapon” films) and boasting an all-star cast including Matthew Broderick, Michelle Pfeiffer and the inimitable Rutger Hauer, “Ladyhawke” remains somewhat of a forgotten 1980s curiosity that’s often conflated with the slew of swashbuckling fantasy films released during the era.
Set in medieval France but accompanied by a score that couldn’t be more '80s if it tried, “Ladyhawke” prominently features a solar eclipse during its climatic showdown between the protagonists and the evil Bishop of Aquila. Long story short, the bishop has cast a curse on ill-fated lovers, Etienne of Navarre and Isabeau d’Anjou. Ensuring that the couple are “always together; eternally apart” under the curse, Navarre turns into a wolf at night while Isabeau transforms into a hawk during the day. Inconvenient! However, the curse can be broken if the two confront the dastardly bishop during a solar eclipse, an event in which both Navarre and Isabeau both take on their full human forms, if only for a hot second.
"Little Shop of Horrors" (1986)
Ah, “Little Shop of Horrors.” Perhaps you've forgotten the origins of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space” that sings and chomps his way through Frank Oz’s mostly faithful screen adaptation of the off-Broadway musical comedy.
To refresh your memory, the unusual-looking but otherwise innocuous houseplant was borne from a total solar eclipse and acquired by bespectacled floral shop assistant Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) from a Chinese exotic plant merchant immediately after the rare astronomical event. How was hapless Seymour to know that the plant would grow into a blood-sucking horticultural monster (a space alien, technically) with the hots for his new fiancée? Sure, it’s implied that the eclipse, which came “suddenly and without warning,” wasn’t an eclipse at all but a passing extraterrestrial vessel obscuring the sun. But for a generation of movie- and theatergoers who grow up with this campy rock musical and its infectious score (courtesy Alan Menken and Howard Ashman of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid" fame), eclipses are indelibly linked with flesh-eating flora.
"The Seventh Sign" (1988)
While not the most critically regarded movie to feature a solar eclipse on this list, “The Seventh Sign” is a fine example of an obscured sun playing heavily into the plot of a horror film that, in this case, revolves around the Book of Revelations and the battle over the soul of an unborn child.
The carrier of said child is a post-“St. Elmo’s Fire,” pre-“Ghost” Demi Moore, playing a California woman who finds herself entwined in some mighty stressful apocalyptic goings-on after a mysterious lodger rents a room above her garage. (Spoiler: the lodger is Christ reincarnate.) The eclipse appears later in the film as the sixth seal — aka the sixth sign of the apocalypse — when the “sun became black as sackcloth made of hair” is revealed and followed by a cataclysmic earthquake. In his review of this “all over the map” thriller, Roger Ebert praised Moore’s performance as a pregnant woman trying to save the world from impending doom. “… she has a genuine charisma, an aura of intelligence and resolve, reinforced by her throaty voice. I was not sure at first, however, that she was the correct choice for this movie. I thought she was perhaps too strong, and that the role required more of a screamer.”
"The Watcher in the Woods" (1980)
The notorious PG-rated live-action Disney release that traumatized an entire generation of children, “The Watcher in the Woods” features, among other things, séances, creaky English manor houses, mist-shrouded woods, a near-drowning, alternate dimensions, doppelgangers, alien possession and a septuagenarian Bette Davis. And, of yeah, there’s a full solar eclipse to boot.
While geared toward teenagers and young adults, the intended audience of “The Watcher in the Woods” largely eschewed the film due to its Disney associations, not realizing this highly atmospheric occult horror yarn was legit scary. At the same time, traditional Disney audiences (read: little kids) were introduced to the film as many otherwise cautious parents let their guard down at video stores across the nation. It sounds a little spooky but how bad can it be? It’s Disney! It’s in the kids section! This all said, most kids in the early- and mid-1980s exposed to “The Watcher in the Woods” didn’t even make it to the rather spectacular climatic eclipse scene, which happens toward the end of the film. The nightmares had already begun.
Photo credit: "Dolores Claiborne" poster: Columbia Pictures/Wikimedia Commons