Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday when people are meant to take some time to reflect on the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, the continents now known as North and South America. Most people just use the free day to brunch, shop and chill, but it's really one of those half holidays where only certain members of the gainfully employed community actually have the time off.
Still, the message of exploration, discovery, is always worth reflecting on. There are few untouched regions left on this planet, so discovery has become more of a scientific pursuit than a geographical one. The joy of being the first to lay eyes on a new land somehow remains relatable however; cinema especially has never shied away from themes of exploration and discovery, even in its earliest days. After the jump you'll see some examples of our favorite discovery flicks.
"A Trip to the Moon" (1902)
Here's a little film history lesson, kids! The French (and original) title of Georges Melies groundbreaking short film is "La Voyage Dans la Lune." A silent produced in 1902, this is one of the earliest examples in the medium of animation/special effects and narrative storytelling. Most of it feels like a single-camera shoot of a stage play -- essentially what the movie is -- though effects sequences are spliced in for dramatic effect. The sci-fi story follows a group of scientists who are shot into space via cannon to explore the moon. It may be early sci-fi, but it hits all of the right beats: cool contraptions, alien beings, a suspenseful chase, etc. You can actually view the entire 15 minute film online right here.
"1492: Conquest of Paradise" (1992)
This can't really be a proper Columbus Day list if I don't reference one of the more well-known films to tackle the explorer's story. In Ridley Scott's "1492: Conquest of Paradise," Gerard Depardieu plays Christopher Columbus through the period of his New World discovery and its aftermath. It's not the best movie you'll ever seen, but it is helped quite a bit by some gorgeous cinematography and solid performances from Depardieu and fellow stars Sigourney Weaver and Armand Assante. It's at least slightly better than Terrence Malick's admittedly pretty 2005 effort "The New World," about Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and his love for the Native American princess Pocahontas.
Children of the '80s will certainly remember this one, a space exploration sci-fi adventure in which a group of kids build a spaceship in their backyard. "Explorers" is notable for a few reason. Chief among them is director Joe Dante, the talented filmmaker behind other classics like "The Howling," "The 'Burbs" and both "Gremlins" movies. "Explorers" also stars a very young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, the brother of Joaquin who was tragically taken from us in 1993 at the age of 23. This role is perhaps not as well known as "Stand By Me" or "My Own Private Idaho," but it is notable as Phoenix's first film role.
"Star Trek" (through the years, to 2009)
I'll let Captain James T. Kirk's -- the original, played by William Shatner -- opening monologue from the TV series do the talking here: "Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before." The "Star Trek" franchise is all about exploration, with each episode and each film revealing more and more of that "final frontier."
"Where the Wild Things Are" (2009)
Of course I'm putting "Where the Wild Things Are" on this list. Little Max (Max Records) explores one of the most difficult-to-wrangle frontiers you could think of: his own imagination. After running away from home, Max boards a boat which whisks him off to an island populated by fearsome-yet-playful creatures, the so-called "Wild Things." There's not a whole lot of story in this movie, but that's more than made up for in the beautifully realized surroundings and random, somewhat disconnected moments. The movie, like the book, feels like it should: a dream.