Melancholia and the ‘Dance of Death’

Watched Melancholia tonight… Brilliant film, but I should have known what I was getting into just by the name of the movie…

Although the film doesn’t live up to ‘Tree of Life’ cinematography standards for me, it is nothing short of beautiful. The film uses extreme slow motion shots to create a surreal feeling throughout the film – just brilliant. There is also the lavishness of wealth set against the impending (yet beautiful all the while) doom of planet Earth – a juxtaposition that makes the worldly lavishness look that much more trivial and trite. Melancholia is a film of contrasts and emotional arousal.


Just imagine, a mysteriously entrancing blue planet called Melancholia is on a crash course for Earth, while, of course, the scientists say that Earth’s inhabitants will simply experience what’s called a ‘fly-by’ encounter. Kirsten Dunst, in an amazing performance by this actress, seems born of the same vein as Melancholia, caught in the throes of severe depression in the wake of a rather disastrous wedding night. But who can blame her? In the spirit of astrology, ‘Justine’ seems to suffer her own melancholia ever more as the planet nears Earth… only to find a rather somber peace in the face of a fateful encounter.

“Trier’s initial inspiration for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered and the insight that depressed people remain calm in stressful situations.” – Wiki

ScorpiusCC.jpg Of course, I couldn’t talk about this film without given some weight to its science – the science of Melancholia. Kiefer Sutherland, who plays the husband of Justine’s sister Claire, seems to play the part of an amateur astronomer. Telescope in hand, he excitedly, and yet anxiously in secret, tracks the approach of planet Melancholia in the days after Justine’s wedding night. The planet Melancholia is portrayed in the film as a blue gas giant, something like real-life planet Jupiter. Melancholia, previously hiding from view behind the sun, eventually eclipses the red star Antares, a red supergiant star in the Milky Way galaxy that can be seen in the real night sky as part of the constellation Scorpius.

I think the Greek myth of Scorpio is intriguing here as a side note.

Orion went away to Crete and spent his time hunting in company with Artemis and Leto. It seems that he threatened to kill every beast there was on earth; whereupon, in her anger, Earth sent up against him a scorpion of very great size by which he was stung and so perished. After this Zeus, at one prayer of Artemis and Leto, put him among the stars, because of his manliness, and the scorpion also as a memorial of him and of what had occurred. – Fragment 4 from Pseudo-Eratosthenes Catasterismi 32. Trans. Evelyn-White. Greek epic C8th or C7th B.C.

‘To kill every beast there was on the earth’… appropriate for Melancholia. Another constellation name appears in the film, in Claire’s innocent young son, Leo – the lion of the night sky.

540px-Antares_System.jpg Kiefer Sutherland correctly identifies Melancholia as a blue gas giant hiding the star Antares in the film, a star that appears with a surreal red glare in the sky appropriate of its real-life appearance. The real star Antares is nearly 900x larger than our sun, with a brightness to match, making it one of the brighter stars in the night sky, and the brightest star in Scorpio: the Heart of Scorpion star. Due to its brightness and distinctive red color, this star has been the focus of many legends and astrological signs. According to Allen, R. H. (1963) and his book “Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning”, Antares is symbolic for “power, independence and a sense of danger.”

Antares also has attributes fitting of melancholia and the ‘Dance of Death’.

Like all M-type giants and supergiants, Antares is close to the end of its lifetime. Someday soon (astronomically speaking), it will effectively run out of fuel and collapse… [The resulting] explosion, which could be tomorrow or millions of years from now, will be spectacular as seen from Earth, but we are far enough away that there likely is no danger to our planet. – EarthSky

So, how is the film not realistic, in the eyes of scientists? For one, Melancholia is hundreds of light years away from Earth… it likely is not going to ‘all of a sudden’ appear large in the night sky, jumping from ‘pin dot’ to ‘larger than moon’ size in a matter of hours or days, as the film portrays.

There is also the planet’s ‘rogue’ orbit:

Most astrophysicists would probably reject the idea of a planet suddenly tearing itself loose from its orbit and barrelling straight across the Solar System, but to the director who once used a chalk-lined floor as a set for his films “Dogville” and “Manderlay”, such fussy objections are irrelevant. The wonders of the human psyche during a disaster, not the laws of nature, are put under the microscope in “Melancholia”. – Article by JUUL CARLSEN


As far as the planet Melancholia’s supposed ‘boomerang’ orbit and collision with Earth in the film, and the planet’s ‘sucking’ of Earth’s atmosphere when the two planets come into close proximity, I may leave that to my astronomy scientist friends!

There are some redeeming factors, however, for the producers of Melancholia in the eyes of scientists. Looking into the special effects of the movie, a recent article explains how the film’s visual effects supervisor collaborated with science advisors to make the ‘impact’ scene realistic, citing visual effect company Pixomondo’s Sven Martin: “[We learned that] in a collision with Earth, the gas planet would hardly change its shape due to its size. Shock waves and gas vortexes would wander over the surface. After extensive research, we understood that a collision of Earth with a huge gas planet would look like a raw egg, falling into a giant drop of honey.” Kudos to these guys for trying to make the impact scientifically realistic, beyond what the average audience knows!

My own consensus… amazing film, you should watch with an open mind and patiently await a puzzle for both the mind and the eyes. The lack of hard science didn’t stop me from enjoying the film, and shedding a tear at the film’s depressing yet ‘ecstatic’ ending.

Images from Wiki and Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, Official Website of Melancholia.

13 Responses to “Melancholia and the ‘Dance of Death’”

  1. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    Oh, great! Reminds me I need to see this film; kick myself for having missed its cinema run, compensated to some extent by a recent re-watch of von Trier’s Antichrist, recently shown on Film4 TV here (but marred by the annoying commercial breaks which slip the tension ratchet). Have you seen it? He suffered (he says?) a bout of depression during its making, which may have been inspiration in part for Melancholia.

  2. Paige Brown Reply | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment Lee! I haven’t seen Antichrist… is it good?! The depressive stage for Melancholia is intriguing, and makes the film seem all the more real, despite its ‘surreal’ montage…

  3. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    Antichrist? Well, if you’ll allow me…

  4. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    (Sorry, fouled up the link; trying again…)

    Antichrist? Well, if you’ll allow me…

  5. Earth Serpent Reply | Permalink

    Not to mention that if this was based on anything true the movie would have ended even more sooner than it did once that planet or Sun would have reached well beyond that of our Moon. If another planet or mass body like a Sun or anything else were to come our way before it actually hit our planet the vibrational frequencies of such Sun or planet gives off would start to affect the earth before impact. As the Sun or planet would draw closer to our planet the two would start pulling at one another, tearing up the surfaces of both bodies. Think about how much the moon affects our planet being only 200,000+ miles away from Earth's surface. Another thing to consider is that any other body in our solar system as of right now all have an impact on our planet.

  6. wai Reply | Permalink

    another unrealistic in the film would be the tide, or the sea level. The whole scene is filmed at the sea side but nothing is has change on the sea level during the giant melancholia rising from the sea horizon at the closest point day.

  7. James D. Williams Reply | Permalink

    The diagram of the 'orbital paths' seems to show definite 'capture' by the Earth's gravitational field. So, I figured Melancholia must be very low mass. But, 'gas giant' seems to be the operative phrase, and I can only speculate how a sufficiently low mass object can have such a large apparent size. Perhaps, there is 'inflation' of Melancholia's atmosphere in it's passage of the Sun.
    Alternatively, perhaps the diagram inadverantly uses the Earth as a fixed point (despite the curved path). More correctly, the diagram could use Sun as a fixed point and show the very massive Melancholia's movement as more or less a 'straight line' moving out from the Sun. The Earth's path would then be the one that does the 'looping'...

  8. James D. Williams Reply | Permalink

    Melancholia could have been yanked out of its orbot eons ago, and after passage through vast distances from Lord knows where, appear from the direction of Antares.
    Travelling at enormous speed on account of its ejection and accelerated in approach by the gravity of the Sun, perhaps 0.1 AU per day ( comets may move at .0005 AU per hour -50,000 mph -.012 AU per day), Melancholia could well have been invisible to observers until it entered the Solar System at the distance of the Kuyper belt. Still at .01 AU that's 500 days, and not likely. I can only guess that Melancholia should be travelling at a very much greater speed, captures the Earth, and pulls the Earth along with it.
    In any case, Melancholia seems to be noticed when it occults Antares.
    Lovely, astute review, by the way!

  9. Paul Reply | Permalink

    "Melancholia" is a film that needs to be watched. It is beautiful, poetic, and tragic.
    I loved it.
    It is a Movie that has to be seen.

  10. RickD Reply | Permalink

    Yeah, the whole planet-crashing-into-Earth thing is just a plot device.

    The film isn't about physics. It's about, well, as the title says, melancholy. Depression. Mortality. The claim (cited by von Trier) that depressives don't panic in crisis situations like most people do.

  11. david Reply | Permalink

    I'm sorry, but von Trier was scientifically right
    Evidence: CFBDSIR2149
    That is the name of a newly discovered planet without a star to orbit
    The good news is: it's not coming our way...
    At all!
    I think a more reallistic danger for earth is wandering asteroids
    Nasa is continously trying to spot potentially hazardous asteroids, like the one that hit earth 65 milion years ago
    But a dark rock would have been less adequate for a Melancholia parable
    Plus there's the inevitability aspect
    No use trying to detour a planet like Melancholia
    Some might say, in the same way as depression or death are inevitable

  12. Steve Michaud Reply | Permalink

    If Melancholia was only one light year away, it would still take thousands of years to reach us. Also, as Melancholia approached the sun, being a gas giant, the sun's gravity would pull gas away from the planet and it would appear as a giant comet to the denizens of Earth. Still, it was a good movie.

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