Sunshine

Don’t look directly at the sun, kids. It’s bad for you.

Image result for sunshine film

Sunshine
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, etc.
Music By: John Murphy
Released: 2007
Rated R

Apparently, 50 years after this movie was made, the Sun is going to stop working, and the Earth is going to get cold, threatening the existence of the human race. Our story is about a group of eight astronauts aboard the Icarus 2 (the previous Icarus mission having failed, probably due to its terrible name), who are on their way to fix the Sun by throwing a big bomb at it. (Shockingly, this film was made by Brits, not Americans.) Along the way, something goes wrong with the mission, forcing the astronauts to make contact with the previous Icarus ship, where the crew may or may not still be alive.

This movie is more than 10 years old, was made by an Academy Award-winning director and stars some very big Hollywood names (although in fairness, it was made when Chris Evans’ most famous superhero role was still the Human Torch), yet it took me until late last year to find out it existed. I’m always game for trying a new sci-fi movie I know nothing about, and I’m going through Captain America withdrawals, so I decided to pick it up pretty much based on those facts alone.

And…it turned out to be a bit of an odd pick. Based on the plot description, it seems like it should have been a goofy B-movie, and it certainly isn’t. Based on its cinematography and writing, it seems like it should be a philosophical sci-fi epic, but it never quite gets there, either. It’s some kind of weird hybrid of the two. A…B-epic, perhaps?

Image result for sunshine film
Got your SPF 9000 handy?

Let’s start with the setting. I’m no astrophysicist, but I’m fairly certain most of the “science” presented by this movie is nonsense. Just for starters, NASA scientists predict the Sun won’t start “dying” for at least a couple billion years, barring some very unlikely accidents, and when it does die, it’s far more likely to expand, heating up the Earth, than to cool and cause another ice age. And that’s not even getting into some of the ridiculous ways space behaves in this movie.

But Sunshine does try very hard to create a scenario that makes sense, if not according to real-world physics, then at least according to its own internal logic. Much of the first act is dedicated to showing the audience exactly how everything works on the Icarus 2: how its massive radiation shield has to be aligned perfectly toward the Sun to avoid catastrophic damage, how it gets oxygen from a garden fed by recycled water, how the ship’s advanced computer has to be immersed in coolant in order to function, etc. All these things become important later on, and the set-up pays off because the way they work remains consistent throughout the movie. Everything is presented in a way that seems plausible, even if it wouldn’t work in real life.

Image result for sunshine film oxygen garden
Oxygen gardens seem like a sensible thing to have in space, though…

Another reason the lack of actual science in this movie didn’t bother me too much is that it has a pretty surreal feeling throughout, which I’m pretty sure is intentional. There are short dream sequences; a scene that keeps getting interrupted by quick, almost subliminal shots of dead characters; and one character who always appears blurred and distorted on the screen. Then the third act happens, and things get really wonky. But I think the sound is more to blame for that surreal feeling than the visuals.

The soundtrack is probably my favourite thing about the movie. I had already heard some of it before–the climactic track “Adagio in D Minor” has been recycled in numerous trailers, and even some other official soundtracks. But in the movie itself, the music blends with the noises of the ship and of space (yes, this movie occasionally has noise in space, just go with it), and it creates a very creepy, moody atmosphere that perfectly fits the story’s tone.

That atmosphere leads to a constant feeling of claustrophobic tension. Almost the entire movie takes place inside a stark, badly-lit spaceship with little room to move…and when we join up with our crew, they’ve already been together inside it for months. It’s no wonder tensions are already running high at the beginning, especially since the crew has just passed outside the range of communication with Earth and the resident psychiatrist has an unhealthy obsession with the Sun.

“Kaneda, what do you see?”

Like any self-respecting sci-fi drama about a small crew trapped and alone in space, this one features quite a few characters who go a little nuts. But characters in this movie tend to go nuts only in a way that involves unsafe sungazing. When it’s not taking place inside a drab spaceship, the film is full of beautiful shots of the Sun and extreme close-ups of human eyes looking at the Sun. Our nearest star is treated almost like a living thing in this movie: a siren beckoning some characters to their doom, while promising some sort of enlightenment to others.

And throughout the movie, I had the feeling the storytellers were trying to say something through that Sun-obsession theme. At one point, a character who’s gone insane starts babbling about how the Sun is God, and He wants humanity to end…but it doesn’t really go beyond that, and the insane character is a little hard to take seriously anyway. The ending, while somewhat ambiguous, seems to suggest there really is something enlightening or spiritual about coming face-to-face with the Sun, but it just isn’t expanded upon as much as I’d hoped. Unless I’m just too stupid to get it…which is always a possibility.

Image result for sunshine film mace
One lesson I definitely took away from this movie: Mercury is super cool!

A theme that’s better developed in this movie is the idea of weighing one person’s life against many. From the beginning, all the characters are well aware of two things: the extreme danger of their mission, and the fact that it is the “last, best hope” for mankind. From the moment things start to go wrong, the movie is basically a long series of trolley problems, forcing the characters to make increasingly drastic choices to ensure their mission doesn’t fail. The right choice always seems pretty clear, at least to the audience: after all, what is one person’s life compared to all the billions of people who live on Earth, and will live there in the future? But despite knowing the risks beforehand, some characters don’t react well to the idea of dying or letting a crewmate die, and at least one goes way too far in the other direction. (After all, what are billions of tiny human-sized lives compared to the Sun and the vastness of space?)

Against all odds, this movie actually did ease my Captain America withdrawals, because Chris Evans plays the most competent character in it. Mace, the computer engineer, has some anger management issues, but he’s the only member of the cast who consistently puts the safety of the human race above his personal feelings (including his regard for his own life or the lives of his crewmates). He always does the most pragmatic, logical thing in every situation, which is rather refreshing to see in a movie like this. I wouldn’t be too surprised if this role helped Evans land his spot in the MCU. Of course Cillian Murphy’s character, the physicist Capa, is no slouch in the hero department either, even if he causes as many problems as he fixes.

Image result for sunshine film capa
“Is it the surface of the Sun? Every time I shut my eyes, it’s always the same…”

Overall, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit–mainly thanks to the music, the creative visuals, and the acting, which is great across the board. But I constantly felt like it was trying to say something important, and I don’t think it ever quite got the words out. It feels like a movie that could have been right up there with the greatest sci-fi classics of all time…if a few story elements were tweaked and the filmmakers thought a little harder about what they wanted to say. As it is, it’s an exciting flick with some very memorable scenes, but not necessarily a must-see.

Unless you have a powerful need to see Scarecrow fighting Captain America. Then you don’t want to miss it.

Grade: B

Advertisements

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2 screencaps
Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2 screencaps
Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2 screencaps
“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2 screencaps
“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy vol 2 screencaps
‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A

Hidden Figures

Here’s a movie that combines two of my favourite things: smart female characters and SPACE.

Image result for hidden figures

Hidden Figures is based on the real-life stories of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, and Katherine Johnson, three African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. When the movie begins, they’re all working in the “colored computers” section of NASA, where they actually do the math that electronic computers do for astronauts nowadays. But as the U.S. struggles to keep up with Russia in the space race, they each get assigned to different tasks, where their genius and vital contributions to the project eventually convince their superiors to…treat them like human beings. Once they help put John Glenn in orbit, they end up doing for the rights of female and minority scientists what he did for space exploration.

Overall, this is a pretty by-the-numbers “inspirational” movie–which, to be honest, is not my favourite kind of movie. It’s pretty predictable. It’s got inspiring speeches in all the usual places, it has the usual sexist/racist villains who get their usual comeuppance, and it has the usual tidied-up happy ending with the text appearing on-screen to tell us how our heroines’ lives turned out. I don’t know that much about the real-life events the story was based on, but I’d be willing to bet the heroines’ problems weren’t all completely solved within the time frame of this movie. And that’s the problem I have with most inspirational movies based on real life–real life is a lot more complicated than they make it seem, and simplifying it doesn’t make it more inspiring.

But this movie’s main purpose isn’t to be a surprising, suspenseful story with lots of twists. Its purpose is to bring to light some important women whose achievements never got the recognition they deserved. And it achieves that goal. I had never heard of any of these women before the movie came out, and it made me want to learn more about them. So in that sense, it does what it set out to do.

Let’s play a game called “find the main character.”

Considering the constraints of an “inspirational” movie based on historic events, it’s very well made, too. Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson, and Janelle Monae all turn in fantastic performances. Henson has the most to do, since her character gets the most developed story arc, and she makes Katherine’s intelligence and determination totally believable. But she’s very down-to-earth and sympathetic, too. Everybody gets a big speech about racism in this movie, because that’s just the kind of movie it is, but Katherine pulls off hers the best. I think it’s because, while some of the other speeches come more or less out of nowhere, hers comes after a good hour of built-up frustration and is about something we can all relate to–the need to use the bathroom. The irony of a top-level NASA scientist being able to calculate the trajectory of the first manned orbit, but not being allowed to use the same restroom as her peers, is not lost on either the character or the audience. And of course, the cinematography, the 60s-era costumes, the music, the shots of the rocket taking off spliced with the original news footage–it’s all very well done.

Also, I find it really hard not to love any movie that has to do with NASA’s first few missions. Just the idea that we sent people to space in a time when a basic computer filled half a room boggles my mind. It’s one of the very few things that can make me feel proud to be an American. And knowing that black women helped make that possible, even back when most colleges wouldn’t let them get degrees, just makes it all the more impressive.

“We shall crush the white patriarchy under our high heels!”

So there’s nothing wrong with this movie, per se, and it probably deserves its Best Picture nomination as much as any other movie on the list. But I wish that, just once, we could have a movie about historical figures overcoming racism and injustice that didn’t beat us over the head with speeches all the time, didn’t wrap up everything so tidily at the end, and wasn’t so darn predictable.

But I highly recommend going to see this movie–in the theatre if you can. Not just because it’s a decent film in its own right that will get you thinking about an oft-ignored bit of history–but also because the more successful movies we get with black female leads, the closer we come to getting a movie about my favourite real-life black woman: Harriet Tubman. If done right, her movie wouldn’t just be inspirational and uplifting–it’d be cool. Harriet Tubman was a spy! She rescued hundreds of slaves! She led troops against the Confederates! She was like Indiana Jones and Batman in the body of a five-foot woman! Why haven’t we made a movie about her yet???

Hidden Figures is a good movie with a good message. But it’s a little too safe. It follows the “inspirational movie formula” a little too closely for me. I wanted a little more complexity and a couple fewer speeches.

Oh, well. At least now I have three more awesome scientists to read about. Any day I find out about brilliant women making a difference in space technology is a good day.

Grade: B+

Seriously, though, Hollywood: make that Harriet Tubman movie. We’ve waited long enough.