A solar eclipse is a (relatively) rare event, a break in celestial routine, which is why they fascinate and — historically — frighten us.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of one battle that ended abruptly when day turned suddenly to night — both armies panicked, dropped their weapons, and sued for peace.
That's what solar eclipses do — they remind us, in a striking, purely visual way we can't ignore, that even something as basic as the sun shining in the middle of the day can get ... tweaked.
Films are a visual medium, and several Hollywood movies have employed solar eclipses as a kind of shorthand to signal to audiences that the normal rules have temporarily lifted, and things are about to get weird.
It began in 1907, with the decidedly odd Georges Méliès silent film called The Eclipse: The Courtship of the Sun and Moon. Five years before, Méliès had memorably wedged a spaceship into the eye of the Man in the Moon in his film A Trip to the Moon. In The Eclipse, he employed a similar approach, to dramatize the interplay between a leering, lascivious sun and a cool, aloof moon.
In 1986, the musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors used an eclipse as the inciting incident — the Act One event that gets the movie rolling, by announcing the arrival of an evil, man-eating flytrap from outer space.
But a solar eclipse can also make for a snazzy, dramatic climax, like in the 1949 Bing Crosby vehicle, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, based on the Mark Twain novel. The film sends Crosby back in time to Camelot, and ultimately finds him sentenced to be executed. Thanks to his handy modern almanac, however, he knows that a solar eclipse is imminent, so he threatens to blot out the sun unless he's released. The sky darkens, the crowd panics, and he's released.
In the 2000 film Pitch Black, a spaceship full of delicious, juicy humans crash-lands on a planet where three suns burn constantly — forcing its resident flesh-eating monsters to live underground. Until ... well.
You perhaps see where this going.
To film the crucifixion scene in the 1961 film Barabbas, about the thief whose life was spared when Christ was sentenced, director Richard Fleischer waited for an actual solar eclipse.
Solar eclipses also feature largely in the climaxes of films like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Dolores Claiborne, and Apocalypto.
But all of those movies employ eclipses as big, dramatic plot devices. My favorite example of this — can we call it a genre? — is a lot smaller, and quieter.
It's a black and white indie film from 1999 called Judy Berlin.
Written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn (it won him the directing prize at Sundance), Judy Berlin follows various residents of the Long Island suburb of Babylon, N.Y. as a solar eclipse descends ... and just keeps going on, and on.
The cast is a murderer's row of Actresses You Root For, in roles big and small: Edie Falco (as Judy Berlin), Barbara Barrie, Julie Kavner, Anne Meara and, especially, crucially, wonderfully: Madeline Kahn.
It's her final role sadly; happily, the film serves her exceedingly well. As in all the movies we've listed here, the arrival of a solar eclipse coincides with an irrevocable change for Kahn's character. But unlike those other movies, the change she undergoes is an existential one — it allows her to see her life in a way she hasn't before.
That's because the film seeks to capture the eerie mood that descends when the sun vanishes suddenly from the midday sky: that unsettled sense something is fundamentally wrong, that fleeting but primal fear that the light will never return.
For most of the movie, Kahn walks the down the middle of the empty, dark streets and cul-de-sacs of her subdivision. The streetlights come on. Nothing's changed, but everything has: She meets neighbors she's never talked to, she stops by the house of a friend she's lost touch with.
On her way back to her house, she comes across her therapist, standing in front of his home, looking worriedly up at the inky sky, waiting for the sun to reappear. ("I never pictured you in a split level," she tells him, marvelously.)
And in the kind of day-is-night role-reversal that eclipses make possible — in movies, anyway — she seeks to comfort him.
Dr. Stern, you seem afraid. That's a switch, right? (Laughs.) Don't be afraid. You know, it's very funny. I'm actually very good in emergencies. Really it's just the day-to-day things that give me ... a little trouble. Something like this happens, and I just feel that finally, the rest of the world and I are finally ... speaking the same language. So don't you worry. Trust me. I guess I'll see you Wednesday, right? As usual?
Judy Berlin isn't easy to find on streaming services, but it's available on DVD. It's maybe the most poetic example of the way filmmakers use solar eclipses to take the status quo and ... turn it around.