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Monday, July 30, 2007

Space Men are Space Man Crazy: Sunshine

We did not go to see The Simpsons last night, and the incredible lines at River East backed up that decision. We did, however, take the opportunity to see Sunshine. So, spoilers: Everyone goes crazy and there turns out to be something menacing aboard the ship!

But seriously, spoilers follow that are detailed enough that you'll want to skip this if you plan on seeing the movie.

Oh, and can I just say, before I have to sit through the trailer for The Invasion one more freaking time, that a film based on the premise that Nicole Kidman is not a pod person who maintains the plasticine sheen of her skin and the dull, lightlessness of her eyes by ingesting plump babies every hour on the hour is literally unbelievable?

That should be good.

I knew almost nothing about this movie going in except that it had Cillian Murphy of whom I generally approve. On closer examination, it's also by Danny Boyle, of whom I also approve, at least based on Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later.

My approval for both still holds. Sunshine is, for the most part, a good and enjoyable movie. It does, unfortunately, succumb to space-movie craziness in the last 20 minutes or so, but it's still a good, if flawed, movie rather than being a that whizzes its goodness down its leg with a wholly crappy ending.

Leaving the ending aside, Sunshine manages to evade many of the problems endemic to hard SciFi: There is no extended rumination on how we managed to fuck up the planet; there's no lengthy exposition on how, exactly, each character is a stereotype critical to the mission; ditto on the lack of tedious explanation why each stereotypical character is the natural born enemy of other stereotypical characters. I suppose that calls into question whether this can be classified as hard SciFi. Let's call it firm SciFi.

The sun is dying in the not-too-distant future. We're not overburdened with zippy technology to solve the problem. In fact, one mission has already gone missing along the way. We join the second mission, Icarus II (leaving one to wonder if Apollo Missions 14-17 would have been so named if their immediate predecessors had never come back), already in progress.

They have prematurely arrived in the zone that will prevent them from communicating with Earth. The psych officer has eliminated the LSD middle man and appears to be directly addicted to staring into the sun. He, nonetheless, has the professional wherewithal to tell Johnny Storm to get a haircut, ya hippie, and to spend some time in the holodeck Earth room.

This learned recommendation comes after Johnny, known as "Mace" here (I'd say that the the name, given that he seems to have no specific function, other than ship's thug, is more coincidence than heavy-handed allegory) beats the snot out of Capa (Murphy) for taking too long with his last transmission to Earth and screwing everyone else out of an opportunity to send anything at all. Slap my ass and call me Switzerland, but I'd say Mace has a point on this point.

But never mind me. Mace's hate-on for Capa proves prophetic. Harvey (the twitchy communications officer and 2IC, not the invisible 6-foot rabbit, so you can see my point about the lack of allegory) has, naturally, picked up the distress beacon from the Icarus I. Murphy (who by dint of being the heavy's natural enemy, should be all gung ho to rush in and save the first crew [which may or may not comprise the rotting corpses of cannibals who still, ultimately, starved to death]) does the benefit math in his giant physicist brain: Diverting the mission to save humanity in order to save a small pocket of humanity, which will then die when everyone dies, makes the kind of sense that doesn't.

But of course he has but-face. The people on Icarus I might be expendable, but two bombs that will behave complete unpredictably under untestable circumstances are better than one bomb . . . well, it sounds more convincing when Capa says. So convincing, in fact, that the Captain orders the navigator to plot the new course to intercept the Icarus. And that's when we learn to love the smell of Tango Uniform in the morning.

The ship, apparently having seen 2001 and taken HAL as a cautionary tale, has two modes: In mode 1, she has complete control and is incredibly sweet to everyone; in mode 2, she turns over control to whomever has requested it and sulks, refusing completely to intervene in any way, until mode 1 is restored. So when Trey (the navigator, played by Benedict Wong) does all the very complicated math in his head and plugs those bad boys into the compute and makes a crucial mistake: He forgot. To hook up. The doll. No, that's not right: Oh, yes, he forgot to realign the shields so that the sun won't, you know, roast them all alive.

Initially the damage seems much less severe than it could have been, but it is required to require EVA, lest even its firm SciFi street cred be revoked. The Captain, of course, will play the role of red shirt #1, but who oh who will be red shirt #2? Mace appears to be working in Base-8 Space Math (it's just like Base-10 Space Math, if you're missing two mental screws): He skips over blaming Trey (or, come to think of it, the Captain who bears ultimate responsibility, no matter from whom he was taking advice) and "volunteers" Capa, Capa is manly enough to accept any challenge that involves wearing a simply FABulous spacesuit (believe me, the cropped shut does not do justice to the simple majesty of the spacesuit)—in fact, he's so very manly that he's in and out of one suit or another for pretty much the rest of the movie.

But the words "not so bad" are surer to reap the whirlwind of wackiness in a SciFi than any others (except, perhaps, "That's no moon"). The ship has to take control back from Cassie, who seems to be Mace's sensitive, nurturing counterpart, so that they don't all die. The oxygen garden explodes. The psychologist gets ever crustier. And, of course, the captain dies.

Then things really start to suck. The comms guy decides to save time by opting out of the slow burn and going immediately loony tunes under pressure. His timing couldn't better, because the Icarus, although amply supplied with big bombs and ample oxygen, is, like, haunted, man. By making the psychologist stay behind to save the others, then go supernova, and freezing Harvey in graphic and horrifying fashion, we've solved 2/3 of the oxygen problem. (Oh, did I mention that the oxygen garden going boom [thankfully, sans Michelle Yeoh] means that there's not enough oxygen to even get to the sun?)

And . . . well, it just gets silly after that.

I've made it sound pretty silly up to the point because I'm in the service of multiple dark lords. It is predictable, I suppose, and it's almost inevitably derivative. But it's not silly (at least not until the Incredible Melting Man [IMM] shows up).

For as many cliches of the genre as the movie hits, they are hit in Danny Boyle's unique way and in his own, sweet time. It's not quite accurate to say it's a slow movie—it's more that time is more or less irrelevant for the crew (I only bring up the problems of traveling to the sun in the absence of faster-than-light travel to point out that the movie doesn't—bless its space-age-polymer socks—not even once) and so it is for the audience.

For as necessary as it is to have a one-character-one-function system in place, the crew of the Icarus II is not the grizzled veteran, his wacky, indispensable loose cannon of a sidekick, the silent giant with a heart of gold, the young, untried beefcake etc., etc., etc. Neither is it the Old Guy, the Young Guy, The Black Guy, The Smart Guy, and The Chyck.

It is more diverse than most movies that don't have an ethnic descriptor out front, but the inclusiveness isn't painful and deliberate. The characters are people, some of whom (GASP!) happen not to be White (or even men!). The Asians are not particularly serene or inscrutable. The Maori is far from fierce. If I were inclined to scour the film for stereotypes, I could squint a bit at the women. Yeoh's character is named "Corazon" (a tough sell, antiallegorically speaking) and she's the nurturer in charge of the oxygen garden and the aforementioned Cassie (Rose Byrne) comes out against murdering folks on two occasions. But those roles and those characteristics feel genuine and earned. It is not taken for granted that any character would necessarily take any specific position.

In what I would describe as a very character-driven movie, we don't know much about the characters. There are no lengthy backstories. There are no lingering shots on or abrupt focus pulls featuring the children, pets, decrepit grannies that these people have left behind. We cannot intuit from intense eye close-ups that bleed into flashbacks why, exactly, Capa and Mace get under one another's skins so thoroughly. Those very absences, set outside of regular time and space, demand that we discover and gauge the characters solely on their behavior and choices in some extraordinary situations.

As is typical with Boyle, Sunshine demands a lot from the audience in terms of keeping up with it visually. (And when it comes to the IMM it demands too much and gets downright nonsensical.) There's a lot of interesting images that marry scientific perceptions of space (lots of rigidly geometrical shapes, sharply defined spaces, and predictable lines of motion) with the uncontrollable reality of it (jagged holes, mechanical arms swooping through nothingness, dust, detritus, decay). At some point, I should have tired of the conflation of the eye in close-up with the ever-nearing sun, but Boyle's style is good enough and the technique resurfaced in such new and unexpected ways that I just kept on liking it.

Even Boyle's dogged clinging to the horror inside each and every one of us that's just waiting to pop out during the very first minute of our very first visit to crazy town was not enough to make me disappointed with the movie overall or even with the ending. It's true that the IMM is a less satisfying bogey man than Trey and his crippling guilt. It's true that I don't really "get" the IMM, his beef, or even what's up with his physical being. It's true that I'm pretty sure that we see Michelle Yeoh's, in lotus position, cradling the lone greenery to survive the explosion, after we are supposed to have seen Michelle Yeoh's corpse blown out the airlock. It's true that I was prepared to be frustrated and annoyed if Cassie just disappeared without explanation (and it's also true that I was frustrated and annoyed at knowing where the heck she'd been when she turned up again).

But Boyle still manages to pull off the utterly predictable last shot of Capa and make it breathtaking. And Murphy manages, even within that utterly predictable last shot, still manages to convey that Capa does think that the culmination of their mission is beautiful, and—whatever he might have said when the end was still theoretical—he is afraid.

So, there you have it: Good, if flawed, writing; great, if flawed direction; and pretty pitch-perfect acting. That's a hell of a batting average for SciFi of whatever firmness.

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Blogger metavurt said...

Matilda - is there *any* way you could give me feedback on how dressed up people are for Opening Nights at the Lyric?

I may indeed have series D-1 this year, and if so - Opening Night it is ...

I am, at this time, suit-less, and, along with that, tux-less.

I don't rent, I purchase. Due to my size (nothing weird, just pretty damn short), I've discovered I look and feel better in clothes tailored for me ... especially in the suit department.

If you feel I would be underdressed without a tuxedo, please let me know! On top of that - if I take a female companion, how dressed up will *she* need to be?

Thanks so much for amazing posts on opera... I'm still a very shallow end person when it comes to getting what's really going on with any particular opera - especially historically and/or politically - so thank you for posting such detailed observations.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

There's a range, certainly, in how dressed up folks get. There are a lot of tuxes for men on opening night, but I wouldn't say it's a must. A nice suit, particularly one that has a bit of flair and is obviously up to date should suffice. Again, with women, the range is everything from strappy cocktail dresses to very formal gowns.

A few years back when we didn't realize it was opening night, my friend was wearing a sport coat and turtleneck, and I was wearing a very informal skirt and sweater. We decidedly felt underdressed that night.

In 2006, when we had Turandot tickets, I wore a tea-length '60s vintage dress and felt comfortable, although I was obviously on the more casual.

I hope you get the D-1 Series and that you enjoy it!

3:40 PM  

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