Friday, July 20, 2007
As Theodore Sturgeon reminds us, 90% of all science fiction is crap—but 90% percent of everything is crap. Though, lately, it seems like SF on film is pushing the crap envelope to more like 95%. Corkscrew ships tunneling through the earth's crust. Stealth bombers coming to life. Keanu Reeves not coming to life. The Wachowski brothers, beating the dead horse of the Matrix. George Lucas, having sex with the dead horse of Star Wars. One fucking zombie movie after another. Endless retreads of Alien. Detectives in space and cowboys in space and remakes of Lost in Space. Remakes of every fucking lousy SF teevee show from the 1960s. (Here's the pitch J.B. Two words: Time Tunnel.) Will Smith, pissing on Isaac Asimov's grave. Filmed science fiction today is a flaming sack of crap, I tells ya. A flaming crap capsule, burning through the earth's atmosphere, filled with bad dialog, bad storytelling, bad logic, bad science, derivative formulas ripped off from other genres and enough plot holes to suck the universe into the asshole of a parallel universe of crap. But I digress. Sorry.
I'm so used to SF directors insulting my intelligence, my jaw drops open when they occasionally don't.
The topic was Sunshine. The new movie by Danny Boyle, not the sappy song by John Denver.
Sunshine is celluloid SF in the directorial footsteps of Stanley Kubrick (2001) Ridley Scott (Alien) and Andrei "Da, we put chandeliers in spaceship" Tarkovsky (Solaris - the original from 1972). Self-consciously so, but what's a punk Irish director to do? It's a big-ass ship on a big-ass mission to save the planet. A signal (it's always a fucking signal) diverts it to some major weirdness. It's well-trodden ground. Or, uh, space.
That said, sooner or later, if we don't kill ourselves, the stuff we imagine is going to happen. Space is simply another setting -- a harsh motherfucker of a setting, like Antarctica, the bottom of the ocean, or the top of Mt. Everest. The focus shifts from bullshit gee-whiz wonder, to realistic stories that take the environment seriously.
And space is a very, very hostile setting. Space isn't romantic Jedis zipping around or Captain Picard pointing his finger and saying "Engage." Space hates life. Space wants to kill you.
And that's what I like about this movie. It takes space seriously. It shoves my face in the beautiful but inhuman reality of it -- makes me feel a physical sense of what it's like to be Out There and off this beautiful, life-generating rock.
It has a grain of necessary bullshit (even the best SF does) -- namely, 50 years in the future, the sun is dimming thanks to bombardment by a theoretical particle called a Q-Ball. To jump-start the sun, the ship (the Icarus) is delivering a big fucking bomb.* (A Manhattan-sized cube of fissile material, I'm assuming to generate massive parallel fusion reactions; each parallel explosion shielded by whatever tech we've invented to generate fusion power -- which also shields the bomb from the sun's gravity, heat and magnetic field as the fucker drops into the sun -- at which point the shielding drops and the array of fusion reactions converges into one big reaction, creating a singularity, thereby making Mr. Sun happy again.) Whatever. It's rubber science. Bullshit. But top quality, extra virgin bullshit.
If you get past it, the rest of the hard science is pretty good. Gravity created by centrifugal rotation. A greenhouse to create oxygen. The harsh logic of shielding the ship from the sun with a massive, panelled reflector. More than that: the internal logic of selecting the best of the best for this mission; the sense of pressure they're under; an elite group of people with zero tolerance for fuck-ups -- because space doesn't have any. Yeah, it's been tried before. But Boyle succeeded. The group dynamic is believable. No cute Hollywood moments. No action beats for the sake of action beats. Nobody saves the cat.
Let's skip the detailed plot summary. Essentially, it's a story of sacrifice. Shit goes wrong, then things get worse and worse, and it turns into a monster-in-the-house movie, but in spite of it all, they save the earth anyway at the cost of their lives. It's been done before. But God is in the details.
Boyle got the details right.
*I forgot to mention. Boyle also steals from John Carpenter's first movie.