Dec 7, 2011

Sunshine (Dir. Danny Boyle. 2007)

Britain does 3 things well.  1. Bad weather.  2. Movie bad guys.  3. Science Fiction film.  I’ll be focusing on the 3rd while watching the 1st through my window.

Danny Boyle has never been afraid to reference his influences and pay homage to his peers and they’re starkly obvious this time around.  Sunshine is the illegitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979).  It’s not unfair to say that Sunshine wouldn’t exist in its current state without those two films.  It gels Scott’s sense of entrapment, his cold, hard spaceship design, his internal camera movements and sense of displacement with Kubrick’s low angle corridor shots, his sense of exterior grandeur, the majesty of space and the desperate need for adaption when faced with the loss of control.  It shouldn’t work, it should be called a blatant act of egotistical plagiarism but somehow it not only works, it excels.
I’ll not elaborate much but need to also say that it also owes a debt to Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) but since that was the skeletal basis for and was written by the author of Alien it’s another easy comparison.

The plot of Sunshine is simple.  Our Sun is dying and a permanent solar winter threatens the future of mankind.  A vessel, the Icarus II (this naming is perhaps the only intentional humour in the whole film) is launched with a ‘Stellar Bomb’ onboard.  The bomb has a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island, and when fired into the Sun could theoretically cause a chain reaction that sets everything right again.  I’m not giving spoilers - this is where the film begins.

The Icarus II has an eight man crew, all of whom are the protagonists.  The physicist Robert Cappa (played by Cillian Murphy) is the closest thing we get to a traditional main character type.  Cappa is the compassionate and logical one; he acknowledges his emotions but isn’t ruled by them.  He’s the kind of person we want to be at heart so we readily sympathise and connect with him on a subconscious level.  We want Cappa to succeed, we want a hero.  It’s a tough choice as the characters care about little beyond their fields of expertise. When the tears come it’s not for the individual, it’s for the failure to perform and the feeling of being cast in the shadow of someone else, and of being judged.  They need to be basking in the shining light of their own self-image or they get depressed.  I've heard people that say the human element is missing from Sunshine but I would argue that they simply weren’t paying attention, or perhaps they refuse to accept their own selfish desires and failings and recognise what it is that makes us human.
Cappa has his detractors onboard the Icarus, most notably Mace (Chris Evans) who is the closest thing to an antagonist crew member the film has for the most part; those two have a dynamic that again reminds of Scott’s Alien setup: the small crew that respect each other but are equally as happy to get some peace away from each other.
The remainder of the crew are equally well cast.  They react to threats and stimuli differently and effortlessly keep their character in check.

We spend our time on the ship experiencing the same sense of seclusion as the rest of the crew; we’re the ninth crew member.  There are no happy cuts back to earth to give us room to breathe, no gathering of NASA brains in a room full of computers, ties pulled to the side, name tags tilted, waiting for that camaraderie moment when they can cheer and throw Styrofoam cups in air, thankfully.
The sense of space inside the Icarus II is best described as claustrophobic, an overused device in sci-fi but one that we accept, chalking it up to realism.

Elsewhere the set design, set dressings and props are functional and lifeless; inside the ship there is little colour.
In contrast, outside the ship is a blinding brilliant golden hue.  Being so close to the Sun means the light can kill, it can burn you to a frazzled crisp.  It’s unusual to see light as something threatening, as a menacing force, usually darkness or more correctly the unknown things that lurk in darkness are what filmmakers use to scare and unnerve us.  When sunlight can kill you it takes on a more ominous aspect.  It’s the opposite of what we expect.

The universe is full of unknowns; the mission is based on theory which can be perceived as another word for unknown so the fear of not knowing coupled with the horror of the light is very real for the crew.  When the ship you’re on is slowly inching toward both those things, the tension is sure to cause rifts and perhaps even conflict between thought and action; Mace and Cappa personify this.

Returning to the visuals for a moment, the first glimpse we get of the stylistic space suits is like something from a bad music video.  Once the scene changes the suits begin to make sense within the context of the film aesthetic but it’s hard to shake that initial feeling of fail each time they reappear.  They do manage to highlight the crippling claustrophobic nature of something that is both designed to keep you from dying and causes you to fear your own personal space, so they aren't all bad.

There was some significant post production colour fixing on the imagery but it actually works to the films advantage.  The visual splendour is reliant on the backdrop of space; ordinary studio lighting could never have achieved the same outcome no matter how much money was spent.

The final third of the film will leave a lot of people wondering what happened during the writing process which is something I’ve thought more than once of Alex Garland’s work; he is able to set up a situation with tension and an insistence on strong characters making strong decisions beautifully but when it comes time to providing a satisfactory conclusion he’s like a trout out of water.
It’s not confusing, if you pay attention to the story in the run up to the final act it makes perfect sense, the people that claim otherwise are talking when they should be listening, the problem is the sharp left turn the film takes before it takes us there.  There is a “we’ll add this because we need it” attitude that sits uncomfortably alongside the earlier insistence of pretentious science.  If you make your audience work to appreciate your clever science and then throw in a genie in a lamp it tends to stick out like glow in the dark stitching.

The score by John Murphy (with occasional help from Underworld) is for me his finest moment; it sits in the shadows until needed and when the rousing build hits its peak my heart is in my throat every time.  It’s undoubtedly Boyle’s film but there are three or four special moments during the 107 minutes running time where Murphy steals it from him.  I’m not saying the visuals take second place, they work in tandem with each other beautifully, I’m saying that Murphy makes those moments unique, emotionally draining and achingly memorable.

Sunshine is nothing more than a variation on a theme, it’s 80% homage and only 20% unique but when it’s done with such favourable results and openly acknowledges the constituent parts then I’m happy to go along with it.  Accounting for its flaws and despite Garland’s hokum script towards the end Sunshine succeeds where almost every other English language sci-fi film of the past 20 years has failed.  I will never tire of it's staid charms.
Kubrick gets a final nod in the final scene; you’ll see what I mean.  It made me happy clap.

***** out of *****

Dec 5, 2011

Young Sherlock Holmes (dir. Barry Levinson - 1984)

I'm well aware that what I'm about to say is blasphemous, but I'll say it all the same: I don't consider Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales to be very good mysteries. They're great stories, to be sure, full of wonderfully crafted characters, but as pure mystery tales, they fall short. To paraphrase S. S. Van Dine, in a good mystery tale, a reader must have the same chance of solving the mystery that the detective does. Part of the appeal of Holmes stories is his dazzling intellect, his ability to look at a person and know things that readers at home would never be able to decipher. Solving mysteries along with Holmes requires more leaps of logic than it does careful analyzation of clues. In Young Sherlock Holmes, Holmes is youthful and inexperienced, which offered the chance to weave a mystery tale in which the viewer and the famous detective were, for once, on equal footing. But, as much as I love a good mystery, I'm glad they didn't take that opportunity. Young Sherlock Holmes has mysterious elements, but it's a pure adventure tale, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Young Sherlock Holmes was a movie that was tremendously special to me as a child. At the time, I loved Holmes enough that I would have enjoyed the movie no matter what, but it was almost as if the writer (Chris Columbus, the first screenwriter whose name I ever took note of) was going out of his way to appeal to me. For the part of me that loved horror, there were scenes that terrified in incredibly imaginative ways. For the part of me who delighted over Indiana Jones, there were scenes that felt as though they'd come straight out of Temple of Doom. For the part of me that was a hopeless romantic, there was a love story I could swoon over again and again. And, more importantly that anything else, the film gave me one of my very first looks into the magic of Pixar.

Pixar spent much of the 80's creating special effects for various Lucasfilm projects, but the work they did on Young Sherlock Holmes is their most notable. Not only did they create the first ever fully CG character, a knight made entirely out of stained glass, but they combined CGI with a live-action background for the very first time. This earned Pixar the first of many Academy Award nominations, even if they somehow managed to lose this one to Cocoon. I'm not always the biggest fan of CG in film, but their work here was absolutely groundbreaking, and still holds up today:

CG is so often used as a shortcut, but the folks at Pixar are true animators. They put so much thought into the way their creations move, into the way their pieces come together, that less than 30 seconds of screentime can still be mindbogglingly awesome. John Lasseter himself created the effect, which required the pieces of the knight to be painted on film via laser, and it remains one of my all-time favorite uses of CG in a live-action film.

Were it not for the work of Pixar, I would have been too afraid to revisit the world of Young Sherlock Holmes. It's a film that I loved so dearly, that influenced the sort of stories I wrote for so long, that I knew it was going to never live up to my memories of it. But thankfully, while it's much easier to see the failings of Young Sherlock Holmes when looking at it through the eyes of an adult, it's still a fantastic kid's movie, and just a pretty great movie in general.

Young Sherlock Holmes, by its very nature, is required to take liberties with the Holmes canon. In Doyle's stories, Holmes didn't develop an interest in mysteries until his time at university, and he and Watson didn't meet until they were both adults. But it feels right for these two characters to be boyhood friends, and it's hard to imagine a Holmes not enamored with mysteries, no matter what the canon says. It's always been easy to understand why Watson is so taken with Holmes- in spite of his many eccentricities, he's an astonishing person, and getting to be a part of his world is worth putting up with all that comes with it. But here, it's easy to understand Holmes' fondness for Watson as well. His peers are largely concerned with being fashionable or finding jobs that will make them money, and the unassuming, country boy Watson must have felt like a breath of fresh air. Watson is unafraid to be wrong, and couldn't put on airs or pretend to be someone else even if he tried. They compliment each other wonderfully, and their friendship is one of the film's highlights.

Unfortunately, the other characters don't succeed in the way these two do. Holmes and Watson are iconic characters, and the film builds on the basic knowledge that most viewers will have of them. However, original creations, such as Holmes' rival Dudley and his love interest, Elizabeth, don't get much in the way of development and suffer for it. The former feels very by the numbers, and the latter doesn't seem to do much except look very pretty. Just a little more work on Elizabeth would've gone a long way, and it's a shame the movie couldn't have been 10 or 15 minutes longer.

Maybe it's just that life's crushed the hopeless romantic out of me, but it's hard for me to see the relationship between Holmes and Elizabeth as the grand romance I once did. More than anything else, their relationship seems to have sprung out of their limited possibilities- for Holmes, she's the only female around, and for her, he's one of the only males who isn't a self-absorbed dolt. But even if I don't think their tale is a romance for the ages, I can certainly buy that the two are in love. I generally think of Holmes as being completely aromantic, but when he watches Elizabeth out the window and professes that when he grows up, he "never wants to be alone", there's a hardened part of me that softens just a tad.

It took me a while to get used to the movie's pacing. In the first half of the film, there's not much of a flow from scene to scene. It feels more like you're watching a series of vignettes than a single cohesive tale. It bothered me at first, but eventually I realized how well it worked with Watson's narrations. It really does feel like he's recounting a few early memories before diving into the meaty tale. Fittingly, the narration slows down once the pace of the film picks up, and it its ending scenes seem to fit in with the feel of its early ones. It's not something every viewer will enjoy- it took me a good while to appreciate it- but I do think it enhances the viewing experience.

But even if you never warm up to the unusual pacing, those early horror scenes are an absolutely delight. Columbus seems to get that the horrors that lurk in your imagination can be more terrifying than any evil villain or monstrous creature that might be hiding in the shadow. I'm not sure I buy the effectiveness of the hallucinogen as a murder weapon. While it often seemed to kill its victims in minutes, anyone wearing plot armor seemed to get around its effects fairly easily. But still, I'm hard pressed to think of a scene more whimsically frightening than the adorable pastries who force Watson- bound up by sausages- to eat them. Nearly all these effects aged beautifully, and they manage to be scary without feeling out of place in a family friendly film.

At times, the movie is incredibly corny. It goes to great lengths to show how various things we know about Holmes came to be, and there's actually a scene in which kid after kid exclaims "Holmes is going to solve the crime!". But it's also extremely creepy, and manages to be fun from start to finish, even with an ending that's a bit of a downer. I wouldn't describe the acting in the film as good, exactly, but it's well cast. Nicholas Rowe plays Holmes as so cerebral and wise beyond his years that the moments in which he genuinely feels like his age are striking. Alan Cox gets some of the movie's best lines in as Watson, and manages to keep his character from diving into annoying territory. Sophie Ward doesn't do much besides look pretty, but it's what the script called for, and she does a good job of it. The film's villain (who went on to play Holmes in another movie) is wonderfully charismatic, and makes his reveal a pretty powerful moment. And I adore Roger Ashton-Griffiths's performance as a pre-inspector Lestrade. Occasionally, I cringed at the delivery of a line, but for a mostly young cast, the quality of the performances wasn't at all bad.

Young Sherlock Holmes has a satisfying ending as is, but the post-credits reveal takes it to a whole new level. These days, an extra scene after the credits is pretty common, but back then, it was incredibly rare, and I can't think of one that pre-dates it. The last few moments are so good that I'm also hard pressed to think of anything that's surpassed it since. Even when I watch it and know exactly what's coming, it gives me goosebumps.

These days, I could see myself being cynical enough to dismiss a movie like Young Sherlock Holmes before ever even watching it, and I'm glad that it came out long enough ago that I got to watch it with a child-like wonder instead. It's not quite as amazing as it seemed to a little girl back in the 80's, but it's still a very entertaining film with a lot of historical importance. Rest assured, you can make it through this one with nostalgia goggles intact.

**** out of 5.