On Friday (June 30), scientists around the world will once again use Asteroid Day as a talking point to help protect our planet from the next killer world. The threat is serious enough that NASA has an entire Planetary Defense Coordination Office dedicated to tracking down asteroids and running scenarios about protecting Earth. On a more lighthearted note, however, threatening asteroids also make for excellent Hollywood fodder.
We've picked a small number of films that are memorable for their depictions of a small rocky or icy world threatening the Earth, including those renowned for their lack of factual accuracy ("Armageddon") or their cute depictions of dinosaurs ("The Good Dinosaur"). Here's a brief rundown of fun asteroid (and comet) films to fill your summer movie schedule — and if you have other suggestions, please add them in the comments. [Space Movies to Watch in 2017]
"The Day the Sky Exploded" (1958)
Unlike many of the other films discussed in here, this film's threatening asteroid comes about through human activity. This Italian film — often cited as the first science-fiction film from that country — shows a malfunctioning moon rocket going off course and exploding in the asteroid belt, propelling a swarm of asteroids toward Earth.
While you're getting your mind around the weird physics of that, consider the solution proposed in the film — to have every nation fire its nuclear warheads toward the cluster and save the world. There must be some sort of moral about world peace in there, but we're struggling to find it. Notably, there's so much stock footage in the film that (decades later) the "Monthly Film Review" labeled this film "stock-shot film par excellence." [Best Space Movies in the Universe]
The trailer for this movie alone is worth the 3-minute watch. While using dramatic sounds of an asteroid whizzing through space (which wouldn't happen, as there is no air in space in which sound can carry), the narrator begins describing the impending asteroid strike in panicked terms:
"Its power is greater than all hydrogen bombs. Its speed is higher than any rocket ever conceived. Its force can shatter continents. Its mass can level mountain ranges. It cannot think. It cannot reason. IT CANNOT CHANGE ITS COURSE."
Starring Sean Connery (who was best known at the time as James Bond), this movie shows the United States and what was then the Soviet Union putting aside Cold War tensions and working together to stop the threat.
"Night of the Comet" (1984)
Before getting to this movie's plot — and it's worth the wait, as there are undead people involved — let's do a quick overview of an asteroid versus a comet. An asteroid is considered a small, mostly rocky body. Comets are similarly sized but have more ice in them; when comets get close to the sun, the ice streams off the comet and (if strong enough) can form a long tail visible from far away.
Anyway, on to the movie. The Earth passes through the stream of a comet for the first time in 65 million years (the extinction of the dinosaurs). The science gets silly very quickly, however, as the resulting dust peppering the Earth either kills people or turns them into zombies. But here's the best part — this movie, now considered a cult classic, was watched by none other than film and TV creator Joss Whedon. He has said in interviews that he liked the lead female character (Sam Belmont, played by Kelli Maroney) so much that he modeled "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" on her.
"Deep Impact" (1998)
"Deep Impact" was released in the same summer as "Armageddon," forever setting up the two movies as rivals for plot and scientific accuracy. While "Deep Impact" did better on both counts, it grossed less at the box office. The plot (while reasonably watchable) is depressing, as we see an estranged father and daughter (Robert Duvall and Tea Leoni) reuniting just as Earth is being threatened by a planet-killing menace.
The movie (spoiler alert) actually does show a comet fragment hitting one of the Earth's oceans and causing a megatsunami across the Atlantic — that sequence was considered a fairly accurate representation of what happens. Fantasy nerds should also watch out for a pre-"Lord of the Rings" Elijah Wood. [Why Do We Love Space Movies?]
"Seeking A Friend for the End of the World" (2012)
This is a bittersweet movie about Dodge Peterson (Steve Carrell) after news of an asteroid about to strike Earth prompts his wife to leave and his friends to change. While Peterson's life at first carries on as usual, the hope of a new love has him taking risks that he wouldn't have imagined previously.
There isn't much talk about the science in this film, but instead it explores how people would react if the world were ending. We really enjoy the journey that Carrell's character goes through, as he identifies the things that are the most important — something that we should all be doing anyway from time to time.
"The Good Dinosaur" (2015)
The leading theory for the demise of the dinosaurs is that an asteroid smacked into the Earth 65 million years ago. The movie depicts an alternate universe where the asteroid safely passes by the Earth. (A bunch of grazing dinosaurs looks up as it flies overhead, and then resume eating.)
Adorably, it then portrays what would happen if dinosaurs and humans actually coexisted — and makes us more optimistic of the result than the "Jurassic Park" series. Specifically, the movie shows Arlo (an aptosaurus) bonding with a young cave boy named Spot. Arlo, who is the klutzy runt of the family and can't figure out yet how to contribute to his family's farming business, gains new confidence after meeting up with his first human.
Disney released a film called "Dinosaur" in 2000 that also depicts the aftermath of a missed meteor, but in that film the friendship was between lemurs and an orphaned iguanodon.
Meanwhile, Stamper's daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) falls into a torrid love affair with one of Willis' crew, A.J. (Ben Affleck). We'll spare you the details of their overwrought discussions of love over animal crackers — but do understand that the science, plainly put, sucks. Highlights include occasional depictions of Earth-scale gravity on a tiny asteroid, watching two space shuttles take off at the same time just a few hundred feet from each other, and the most stereotypical portrayal ever of a Russian cosmonaut on then-space station Mir.