FILMSCENE | OPINION: Eclipse brings on sci-fi films to savor

Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Louise Ripley in ‘Aliens' (1986)
Sigourney Weaver as Lt. Ellen Louise Ripley in ‘Aliens' (1986)

We are just a little over a month away from Arkansas being in the path of one of the most spectacular celestial events, the total solar eclipse.

Everyone's favorite celebrity astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, describes the eclipse as, "the new moon passes in front of the sun, and the moon casts its shadow on Earth, blocking sunlight in broad daylight. And that's just one tiny, narrow shadow that sweeps across Earth's surface, as the Moon orbits and we rotate. So, you have to be in the path of totality in order to see it."

I, on the other hand, describe Arkansas' total solar eclipse as a rare period of time where grifters and artisans can hock their wares. The past week, my social media timeline has been plagued with people selling eclipse-themed merchandise.

It almost feels like the scene from "Spaceballs" where Mel Brooks is merchandising Spaceballs novelties like Spaceballs the cereal or Spaceballs the flamethrower. I have seen, similarly, people selling "Arkansas the total eclipse" T-shirts, "Arkansas the total eclipse" bumper stickers, "Arkansas the total eclipse" specialty eclipse sunglasses, and an "Arkansas the total eclipse" commemorative coin. Alright, I might be overexaggerating about the commemorative coin, but there are hundreds of eclipse products out there for you to stock up on to get ready for the blackout.

On top of all the novelties available, there will be plenty of events and parties leading up to and on the big day. Ron Robinson Theater is celebrating the total eclipse by offering several science fiction and space epic screenings throughout the month of March. Movies included in the lineup are James Cameron's 1986 action-packed "Aliens," Alfonso Cuarón's 2013 film "Gravity," which has Sandra Bullock floating alone in the vastness of space for two intense hours, and Luc Besson's 1997 goofy and fun "The Fifth Element" where Bruce Willis plays a taxicab driver who is tasked with saving the entire galaxy from an evil, sentient ball of fire. They'll even be playing the cult classic "Barbarella," Jane Fonda's space epic featuring go-go boots and shag carpet.

  photo  Sandra Bullock stars in the 2013 film 'Gravity.'

The Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is also getting in on the festivities by hosting two films on April 7 that feature eclipses, "Fantasia" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." These films are being presented in partnership with the Arkansas Cinema Society. Last month at AMFA's screening of an Oscar-nominated film, I ran into the society's resident film curator, Craig Robinson, who mentioned programming these two eclipse films. He said that this was the first time in 30 years that Disney is letting "Fantasia" out of the vault to screen in theaters. In fact, the last time it was in theaters was in 1990.

I remember seeing "Fantasia" when I was a kid. I recall renting the VHS copy back when its sequel, the lackluster "Fantasia 2000," was released. The original was released in 1940, and for those of you that are too young to remember the plot ... well there isn't one, as the film is broken up into eight vignettes.

  photo  A lobby card for Walt Disneys 1940 film 'Fantasia' which the Arkansas Cinema Society will screen at the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts on April 7.

The more memorable segments of the film consist of Mickey Mouse causing chaos while serving as a sorcerer's apprentice by making mops and brooms come to life, a ballet dance between an ostrich and a hippo who try to attempt the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey "Dirty Dancing" catch routine, and a truly frightening segment that takes place on Walpurgis night where Satan shows up and summons evil spirits.

Each of these vignettes is accompanied by some of the best classical music ranging from "Ave Maria" to tunes by Beethoven and Ponchielli. The sequence that features the eclipse comes in about halfway through the film as Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" plays to the images of Earth's creation all the way through the destruction of the dinosaurs.

In "2001" the first image we see is the eclipse. The film opens slowly with Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" fading into the soundtrack. The camera then slowly pans up from darkness to reveal that the Sun, Moon and Earth are in perfect alignment.

The film then cuts to Earth during its more primordial/Cro-Magnon era as we see a group of our ape like ancestors worshipping a giant black monolith. And with one swift edit the movie transitions thousands of years in the future, where space travel for mankind is commonplace. It's a powerful juxtaposition.

But my favorite section of the film comes toward the end, where the spaceship's artificial intelligence system, named HAL 9000, attempts to kill the ship's crew in order to salvage its mission. This leads to one of the saddest on-screen deaths in cinema history.

The total solar eclipse is slated to last only around 4½ minutes. But as deGrasse Tyson says, "it should be on everybody's bucket list, because broad daylight goes to darkness in a matter of seconds, and boom, it's nighttime."

And no matter if you want to celebrate this celestial event all month long, or if you want to binge-watch science fiction films the night before, go out and buy the novelty sunglasses and the handcrafted T-shirts, because the total eclipse of Arkansas is something we'll not see again in our lifetime.

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