Monday, July 23, 2007

Sunshine on my shoulder...

On Saturday night I saw a movie called Sunshine. In Toronto, it's showing in just one theatre. I asked my friend at the outset why that was, and he too was flabbergasted.

By the time the movie was over, I kind of had my answer.

Sunshine is not really a bad movie, as movies go. But there wasn't much about it I thought was good, either. It's not something I'd rent to see again, and given my nature, it's rare for me to say that. I'd characterize my experience of the movie as ambivalent to bad. Since this is the internet, and since this is what people do on it, I will now regale you with my wisdom on the matter.

Flawed premise

If I go to see a movie about dragons and elves, or ghosts, or cartoon characters, or anything else largely divorced from everyday reality, I'm a lot more willing to suspend my disbelief. I have -- I think we all have -- a higher standard for movies that purport to be about "real" life, like political thrillers, slice-of-life, or hard science fiction. This one kind of let me down from the start. The premise is that, about 50 years from now, the sun is "going out". Period. No explanation. To me, this suggestion is only slightly more plausible than basing a movie on the idea that the sun won't come up tomorrow. If you're going to ask me to sit still for the next two hours on that basis, you should at least provide a mechanism I can mull over.

Here's the problem. Big as it is, the sun is, at the bottom of it all, an extremely simple object. In composition, it's essentially the same as all the rest of that gas floating around in space at large. The only difference is, there's a whole lot of it in one small little space. The sun is driven by pretty much just one thing: gravity. The sun is what hydrogen does when there's a large mass of it in one place. When there's enough of it that its combined gravity is stronger than the force of the electrons pushing back against each other, the hydrogen nuclei fuse into helium, and you get the phenomenon we all know as a "star". That's all there is to it. All that mass isn't going anywhere, as so neither is the gravity that drives the fusion. As long as the sun still has hydrogen to fuse, there's hardly any force in the universe that can stop it, in fact. And I checked... by various measurements, the sun is still 92% composed, by volume, of hydrogen. It won't stop shining for a long, long time. Ultimately, "the sun is dying" was just a plot device to get a bunch of people out into isolation. A better one could have, should have, been devised. So for me, the milk was a little off to begin with.

Anyway, this plot device sets the crew in motion on a mission to the sun with an object reputedly the size of Manhattan designed to "restart" the sun (by making Tesla coil sparks, apparently). It's a big bomb. How apropos. :)

Who cares?

The next problem I had was there was no set-up. I've heard it said that the best way to write a story is to write all the lead-up to the first big action scene, then shred all the lead-up. Sometimes, sure. Would have made for a confusing experience in On Golden Pond, I think. But I can see times where you'd want the opening scene to be one that gets the blood pounding.

Too bad that didn't happen in Sunshine. And yet, neither did any exposition that would make us care about the crew or the mission. We're dropped into a space ship a long way from Earth on a mission of vital importance, but there's no suggestion of how or why it's important. This isn't the beginning, and it isn't where the action starts. It's the coda between the two. Okay, yes, I know the sun going out would be a big deal, and I can imagine the ramifications. But this is a movie. The whole idea is for the movie maker to show you something. Something incredible, something profound, something you're paying money to see because you didn't or couldn't think of it yourself. Sunshine, though, just puts you in space with a bunch of people you're supposed to care about, but don't. What happened on Earth? What kind of desperation put these eight people in space at the likely risk of their lives? What's going on back home that nags them, constantly reminds them of why they have to stay sharp, dedicated? Nothing this movie shows you (at least not till the last ten seconds).

This was, so I'm told, a low-budget movie. Well, they blew the budget on outer space CGI, so I don't see why they couldn't have devoted five minutes at the start of the movie to The Terrible Conditions On Earth That Sent Us Into Space. You want to do it cheap? Fine, I'll tell you how. Opening scene, exterior. New York skyline in winter. Two people sitting on a park bench. They look pensive. Maybe they're breaking up. Conversation reveals one of them is about to go into space on a long mission. They're going to miss each other. But the other person understands why this is so important. Brief pause in the conversation. One of them suddenly muses about how Memorial Day Weekend used to be about heading up to the cottage in the Adirondacks and opening up the cottage, shorts, flip-flops, the first drip in that freezing cold lake. Imagine how cold that lake would be now... Audience goes: Ah ha! So this is New York in May! Wow, this is serious. You film this in January, it costs you a pittance, you get the point across with little or no computer enhancement.

Instead we had eight people butting heads, and it was hard to care about most of them. It works pretty well because they turn out to be highly, highly expendable. See? Even the writers didn't care.

Danger, Will Robinson! Spoiler! DANGER!

Warning warning warning if you actually want to see this movie and don't want to know the McGuffin, stop reading now. Because I'm gonna tell. Because it was, well, dumb.

Haunted house movies are scary. Crazy sickass murder guys are scary. This was kind of both. Except the ghost isn't dead, despite all common sense. It turns out there was a first mission, and it turns out its captain went nuts. But the captain was apparently so sure this wouldn't be the last word on the matter that he actually in one scene, in a broadcast sent back to Earth years before, refers to his ship as "Icarus One". Apparently he had ESP or something and knew not only that there'd be a second mission years in the future, but the name of the ship, too. Anyway, it turns out the captain went nuts, decided humanity's time had come, and bakes the crew in the solar observation room. How ironic! But here's my question. Given that we don't even let guys this unstable command nuclear submarines, river ferries, or even tugboats, what are the odds that the future of the entire human race would be entrusted to a guy with a one-in-ten-million predelectation for wanting our entire species to die to make room for the roaches? You'd think they might, oh, run a Rorschach test or two... "Just say the first thing you see in the ink blot." "Mankind burning to death in hellfire... mankind drowning in its own sewage... mankind freezing to death in its own inhumanity..." "Ummmm... thank you, we'll get back to you, Captain." Guys like this usually don't go off the rails in a couple of months or something. No. They usually write poems like "All Must Die" in grade ten and stuff, and most of the people around them know not to let them run, walk, sit, or even be in the same room with scissors. Oh, but not in the future. Any nut will do. I can only imagine Haliburton was running this mission and Captain Pinbacker put in the lowest bid.

So, anyway, this is a haunted house movie in space. The car breaks down, the kids decide to hole up in the abandoned mansion, and they disturb That Which Should Not Be Disturbed.

But I mean, maybe the captain of the first mission was a ghost, because despite the fact they show cameras everywhere, and the computer can tell them where everyone is on board, they didn't catch the fact that the airlock between the ships was being opened, and then being sabotaged. No, their first indication anything strange was going on was when the airlock between the ships was blown up. It's a wonder the crew didn't try to blame Canada for letting the terrorists on board.

Schmuck of the Irish

Cillian Murphy, who may have been around a while but strikes me as an up-and-coming actor (probably because he's younger than me) is central to the movie. He's Irish. But of course, he can't be Irish in the movie. The Asian people can't be Asian. No, everybody has to be American. Or put on their best attempt at an American accent. The captain of the mission to save all mankind might have a Japanese name, and he might look Japanese, but it better be plausible or even likely he grew up in Seattle at worst. Really, have we come no further than this? If so, maybe Capt. Nutbar is right, and it is time for us to make way for a better species. Okay, I don't mind that everyone was speaking English, even though in 50 years it might more likely be Mandarin. But can't they at least speak English in manners suggesting they really did come from different places around the world, as you'd expect in a mission of this magnitude? Can't the goddamn Irish guy really be a goddamn Irish guy? Is that so hard to believe? Jesus, the last thing in the movie you see is a transmitted message of him talking American to his American sister... who turns out to be sitting in Sydney, Australia! For God's sake.

What I liked about this movie

Well, they did do a good job of getting across just how dangerous a place space would be to live and work in, especially in proximity to the sun (maybe too good; once the first thing went bad, it never seemed to stop). The technology they showed was believable, a little more advanced than what we'd expect today, nothing outrageous... which is pretty much how it usually turns out (compare an article from 1950 about what your life will be like in 2000 with how different life in 2000 really did turn out from 1950; not all that much in most respects). The characters seemed for the most part believable with the exceptions of Captain Fruit Loops and Harvey, the second in command on Icarus II, who again strikes me as unlikely to have passed the second or third hurdle in a battery psych tests for a mission like this... even Mace might have been a little too tightly wound, but he was interesting.

There's not all that much that actually appealed to me, but that's not the same thing as saying it was badly done entirely. There were things that really didn't work for me and if you've read this far you know what they are. But I can also see enough of quality in it that I can understand how it could work well for others who don't have the same issues with the film as I do. Just didn't work for me.

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