Rocketmen: Ad Astra and Sunshine

ad astraI was going to write about Ad Astra, which I watched for a third (maybe fourth) time a few nights ago, but then I realised I’d written two posts about it before (once from its original cinema showing, and then again when I bought the film on 4K UHD) making anything I have to say this time around pretty much redundant. I do find it rather curious that the film, flawed as it is, still maintains some fascination for me. I sometimes think flawed films can be like that- you can watch it enjoying it for what it does very well, and then fall into a sort of mental trap considering what was wrong with it, how it could have turned out better, second-guessing the creative team’s choices. I wonder if those very same creative teams (chiefly the director and producer/s) end up doing the same themselves, or perhaps just walk away from it and happily never go back to it. Well, I suppose the recent example of Oliver Stone’s repeated tinkering of Alexander (four cuts so far) would indicate that some of those creatives really do find it hard to pull themselves away from nagging doubts and second thoughts. The truth of course is that in the case of my own considerations, they are seperate from the business pressures and considerations that are the harsh realities of making a film- films are rarely ever made in a vacuum, and one has to make allowances, the higher a budget climbs, regards the pressures and doubts of executives putting up all that production money. In my head there is a perfect Ad Astra film that pretty much tells the same story but does so without manic space baboons and perhaps with a more genuinely space-crazed father out on the edge of human civilization and cosmic void. 

You do take different things from films everytime you re-watch them. This time in particular I was troubled by how the film played it fast and loose with scientific accuracy while at the same time it acted like some kind of successor to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It posed as one thing but was really something else; maybe not to the extent of space fantasy’s like Star Wars but maybe closer to something like Alien or Sunshine

sunshineMentioning the latter, I re-watched that again last night. The curious thing about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is that it is also one of my wife’s favourite movies; she’s not a great fan of space movies in general but there is certainly something about Sunshine that she really enjoys, and indeed whenever we re-watch it, its usually down to her suggesting it. Not something that ever happens regards re-watching Blade Runner, I can tell you, but nobody’s perfect. But Sunshine... well its a weird film; on the one hand it is heavily indebted to Alien and often gets criticised by its nods to Event Horizon later on in its proceedings. I described Ad Astra in the past as two films vying for dominance and neither really winning out, and the same is very true of Sunshine, which makes me wonder, what is it with these space movies? They are made as if they are one thing, and then they suffer a midpoint crisis and become quite another. Maybe its a bit of the old pre-2001 sci fi b-movie thing that was going on for decades, and which has left films post-2001 stuck in this weird cosmic no-mans land of trying to be entertaining but at the same time acknowledge that Kubrick’s film changed everything. 

What makes Sunshine so successful, I think, are the characters who are so well realised by the very good cast. In that respect, its something that Alien succeeded with in a clever shorthand that Boyle mimics well, and something that 2001 ironically failed at totally. Which is not to ignore the subtext of 2001 in that the humans were deliberately less human than HAL 9000, as if the bestial man-apes of the films prologue became less and less natural and ‘human’ as they evolved into technological creatures, the tools from bones becoming the spaceships of their space odyssey but their lives soulless and bland. That’s an intellectual argument that only Kubrick could get away with, but it does alienate many viewers. Films need empathy, some connection between the viewer and the characters depicted, in order to engage with those viewers. Something Sunshine succeeds very well at. Indeed, maybe it succeeds better than Ad Astra in telling the same story, as the Icarus II crew’s journey into space brings them in contact with a character who has been driven insane by the sheer immensity of space, the revelation of our place in space and time. Roy McBride’s journey to his father in Ad Astra is inherently the same as the Icarus II crew encountering the commander of the doomed Icarus I mission- Pinbacker’s violent and bloody rampage that threatens the second Icarus mission rather more intense and traditional, story-wise, than the encounter McBride has with his Dad, but in real terms its the same; character/s trying to save the Earth in opposition to an individual driven insane by a cosmic perspective. I suppose one could even argue both films owe a sly debt to the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, maybe.

Ad Astra

asastra1Ad Astra is really two different movies, and I liked one of them, and didn’t care much for the other. The one is a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and perhaps also Contact– it  wonderfully uses cinema as a visual medium to show us the immensity of the cosmos, and our place in it. It shows us a cosmos wholly indifferent to the human race and how the very immensity of it can challenge our sanity, our sense of reason. It asks the question ‘is there life Out There?’ and suggests a possible answer, and examines what that might mean to us, our place and importance in the immensity of space and time.

The second film is about pirates on the moon and carnivorous apes running amok on deserted space stations, and boys looking for their fathers when their fathers aren’t interested.  Its a Captain Nemo In Space film about as hokey as it was in The Black Hole.

If you can sense there’s a dichotomy there then you can understand my very mixed feelings about this film. We don’t get enough serious science fiction films, and we don’t get serious money and talent invested on space sagas in which we travel into the depths of space with real-space physics and no sound depicted in space (oh God I’m so thrilled at just that alone). Films like 2001 and Interstellar and Solaris are very rare, and even the rather flawed ones like Event Horizon or Sunshine are to be applauded, just for existing.  I’m thankful we even have Ad Astra, and kudos to 20th Century Fox bankrolling it, taking a risk on it. So much about Ad Astra is perfect, so much of it is so damned exhilarating, that it just feels so incredibly frustrating too.

When I saw advance word describing the film as Apocalypse Now meets 2001, I thought it was a bit of a wheeze, maybe a shorthand way, as Internet writers and YouTube reviewers often have it, in describing its sense of a journey across the solar system. I didn’t understand that this film literally is Apocalypse Now meets 2001. I suppose to be more charitable, I should describe it as Heart of Darkness meets 2001, but director James Gray is too on the nose with a narration that is so indebted to Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic that it feels like they should have had Martin Sheen voice it. Surely they could have dropped it, or most of it. Initially its interesting but it becomes far too indulgent and distracting.

adastra3Its also far too obvious, almost as bad as the clumsy narration that Blade Runner had, its so relentlessly describing whats happening and why and what Brad Pitt’s internal thoughts are about everything around him. Coppola’s film had a narration that was perfect, but that’s such a rarity and you have to be careful going there, especially if your basic narrative is also so indebted to its source. It was so obvious, I half-expected Tommy Lee Jones to mutter “The horror! The horror!” as he stared up at the stars. It shouldn’t have been so literal, and it also backs the film into the same quandary that drove Coppola nearly mad making Apocalypse Now– when we finally reach Kurtz, whats the revelation? Whats the endpoint, the grand insight that the previous few hours of film have been leading to? If you’re building up the mystery, you have to have a suitable answer, even if its just wrapped around another question. Gray ends Ad Astra with a mind-numbing revelation akin to ‘home is where the heart is’, and almost even that hoary chestnut ‘love conquers all’ – that’s fine, but helplessly anticlimactic after all the build-up.  Perhaps Ad Astra is too measured, too collected to really warrant the comparisons to Coppola’s hallucinatory trip up the river. Perhaps it needed more product placement, a way of ramming home its suggestion of commercialisation dumbing down what space is, what it means- we can’t have Coppola’s drugs in space, but maybe more Coca Cola would serve the same purpose in showing the inanity humanity brings to the void. What on Earth, I wonder, would a Terry Gilliam-directed Ad Astra be like?

There are some wonderful moments in Ad Astra, but some damningly awkward ones too, and no matter how strange and huge the grand canvas the film shows us, its also depressingly small and human-scaled too. I suppose that may be deliberate, a message in itself, but it also suggests a lack of confidence or a reluctant nod to the mass audience that perhaps thought that what Arrival really lacked was gunfights and action. A research station sending out a mayday message is devoid of bodies/signs of crew, because the sense of ensuing mystery serves the plot, maybe, but later when Brad Pitt finds his destination, its corridors are full of cadavers floating in zero g, presumably for decades. Even a crazy man would have jettisoned the dead into space, right? I mean, air is limited and its full of putrefaction and decay? That’s beyond unhealthy, its beyond stupid.

adastra2There is an awful lot to appreciate in Ad Astra, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again at home in 4K (in January next year, I guess) and possibly enjoying it more with reduced expectations. Its a remarkable achievement that it was made for something just a little north of $80 million (by all accounts) as it looks rather bigger. Some of the world-building and art direction is truly amazing, and it feels very grounded most of the time. The cast is great, and Donald Sutherland in a rather short role leaves such a real mark on the film, he perhaps should have been on the journey longer. The cinematography is quite exquisite, and the majority of the visual effects flawless. The music score is perhaps functional at best- it works, but its surprisingly subdued in the audio mix, unless that was an issue at my screening.

The film runs just under two hours, which is refreshing for some perhaps, but I thought it a little short, I think it would have benefited by more time and less narration- less concise, more obtuse, that kind of thing. Dwelt a little longer on the empty spaces between worlds rather than Space Monkeys and Space Pirates, but that was possibly a more intellectual exercise than 20th Century Fox was willing to make.

The Wandering Earth (2019)

This is almost infinitely bonkers. I don’t even know where to start regards reviewing it. If I were to suggest its best bits compared to the worst excesses of Armageddon, and that it also just went beyond that in featuring almost blatant lifts from Interstellar and Gravity and The Day After Tomorrow and Sunshine, becoming some kind of sci fi Disaster Movie Greatest Hits package, well, I guess that would just about sum it up and make the rest of this post quite redundant.

Its not that I haven’t seen anything quite like it, it’s just that, well, I have, but it was spread across several movies, and this thing condenses it all into a two-hour effects marathon that just assaults your eyes and intelligence in ways that even The Transformers movies stumbled at. I remember everyone scoffing at the science of Gerry Anderson’s Space:1999 back in the 1970s, and here we are with somebody suggesting that, well…

The sun is dying (Sunshine) and the only (?) hope for humanity is to pilot Spaceship Earth by, er, strapping several thousand huge bloody engines to it and letting rip, er, breaking out of orbit and literally flying the planet Earth to another star. Wait, just pause and digest that a moment, they are taking the Earth on a two-thousand year journey out of the solar system across interstellar space to another star. Okay. This also involves building a huge spaceship to lead the way with a Chinese astronaut sacrificing his family duties in order to step up and do his astronaut duty (Interstellar/Armageddon) and leaving his estranged children rather pissed off. Earth of course plunges into winter as it moves further from the dying sun (The Day After Tomorrow) and as the cities above plunge into icy horror (Snowpiercer) the remnants of humanity live in gigantic underground cities, busy maintaining and fueling the massive rockets on the surface pushing the planet into space. Unfortunately there has been some miscalculation or freak act of interplanetary gravitational mechanics because the Earth is moving too close to Jupiter (2001 etc) and is caught into its gravity well and planet Earth’s journey to another star (no, I can’t quite get my head around the sheer audacity and stupidity of that) is threatened to be cut short by the Earth plunging into Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

It really is that insane, and I haven’t gone into the details about giant trucks on Earth or the HAL9000-wannabe up on the spaceship or the disparate groups and arcs running through the film. Its like someone took the sci-fi writer’s handbook of credibility and chucked it into the bin. A hugely successful blockbuster in its native China, it seems to have slipped onto Netflix out of nowhere and is quietly gathering some notoriety as being the film to make Michael Bay seem the very definition of restraint. I suppose the one good thing about it appearing in the West so quickly on Netflix is that it nixes some damn fool in Hollywood deciding to make a Hollywood remake. Its not to suggest that Hollywood could have done it any better or worse- one thing I can say about this film is that it definitely puts Chinese film-making on the map, technically at least, as it’s certainly up there with the kind of scale of effects spectacle previously the domain of the major American studios. Sure, it does look a bit too much like videogame cutscenes much of the time, but that’s true of some Hollywood stuff too.

Its just a shame, really, that instead of being uniquely Chinese and its own thing, it spends so much effort clearly mimicking Hollywood and recent Pop Culture excess, but on the other hand, it is refreshing to see a film in which its someone other than the Americans saving the world. Thinking about it, it perhaps indicates the future and real world order- I suppose in the Victorian era, it would have been the British Empire saving the world, in the last century it would have been America saving the world, but in this new millennium power is clearly shifting, and perhaps its true that it will be Asia and the Chinese that will step up in future apocalyptic movies to save the world.

Its stupid. Its a blast. I felt a little dirty after sitting through all of it. I mean, really, it’s almost insulting, how daft and spectacular this thing is. But it’s certainly something. Just not really sure what it is. Crazy, yes, certainly. Lousy. Noisy. Eye-candy. Its the film that almost makes Armageddon seem like an arthouse movie. Perhaps there will be a sequel where they take a wrong turn near Saturn… I mean, considering the film’s huge success in its home territory a sequel is surely inevitable, it’s just I’m rather scared at where they will take the next one.

 

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

levi4For any genre fan of my age, the cast is to die for: Peter Weller (Robocop, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Naked Lunch), Richard Crenna (Rambo 1, 2 & 3), Amanda Pays (Max Headroom), Daniel Stern (DOA, Diner, Blue Thunder), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Meg Foster (They Live)… A cast like that, you’d think Leviathan would at the very least be a poor-man’s The Abyss with a gloriously nostalgia-filled 1980’s genre cast- forget the movie, just bask in the nostalgic joy of seeing these stalwarts of 1980’s-era genre film and tv in something ‘new.’  Well, as ‘new’ as a film can be when you watch it for the first time when it is, what, something like 28 years old. You have to make allowances I guess, and just, yes, enjoy the nostalgia.

But it is so bad it isn’t even that- indeed, it’s just a stark reminder of just how good Alien, The Abyss and The Thing were, because this film is a horrible imitator of all three- a dodgy replicant, if you’ll forgive another reference to Blade Runner here, and a reminder that the fondest memories of actors can be sullied by the reality that they appeared in bad films too- talent no indicator of quality.  Actors are just working people looking for jobs/gigs, jumping from film to film, tv show to tv show. Just as long as it pays. Rarely the job turns out to be something classic or memorable. Over the years we tend to remember the good ones and forget/ignore the rest- well, this is clearly one of ‘the rest’.

Leviathan came out originally in 1989 at around the same time as Deepstar Six and The Abyss, imitation clearly the sincerest form of flattery and that year undersea thrillers were the next Big Thing (except it wasn’t, all three films failed at the box office). Well, I loved The Abyss, but steered clear of the other two. Until now, with Leviathan rising up from the depths and dragging me back down with it.

A deep-sea mining base on the ocean depths stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a Soviet vessel and unwittingly becomes contaminated by the genetic experiments that were taking place before the Soviets evidently scuttled the ship to destroy/hide their grisly work. The opening half of the film seem overly familiar but also almost gently quaint, in how the scene is set and the motley characters established- its all very Alien– indeed, the Alien nods in particular seem endless and continue behind the camera- Ron Cobb was a production designer, so the sets look like the Nostromo and indeed Deepcore from The Abyss (which he also worked on), and the score was by Jerry Goldsmith (although to be fair, it sounds nothing like his Alien score). But you know, as guilty pleasures such as Event Horizon (and better efforts like Sunshine) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sci-fi film with nods to Alien- it can almost be cosy and reassuring. The cast is along the lines of so many ensemble films like Alien, we see them at work, we see them come upon the derelict, watch them enter and stumble upon a horror that they unwittingly bring back aboard their own ship whereupon after a lull the true horror begins…. wait, what film am I watching here…? You get the idea.

But Leviathan is vastly inferior, not just to Alien and The Thing, but to both Event Horizon and Sunshine too- and if that statement makes you nervous then good for you, you’ll know to never give in to nostalgic temptation and ever give this film a try. Well, here’s one I took for the team then.

levi2Seeing Peter Weller and Amanda Pays and Richard Crenna back ‘in their prime’ as it were is always something good, but this film can’t even be saved by pleasant surprises such as seeing Amanda in the shower in her underwear, a reminder of something of a crush I had back in the day watching her in Max Headroom (God, I’d long forgotten, was I ever that young?)It’s really a pretty empty and banal film all told, sodden (well, it is underwater) with cliches and predictable plot points and general stupidity. Nothing really surprises, and to be honest it is the awful execution of everything- the cinematography and lighting (the sets are shot in such an unimaginative way devoid of tension or atmosphere), the creature effects are laughable (even with Stan Winston’s crew involved). In truth, the best thing about Leviathan is that it makes you appreciate the achievements of films like Alien and The Thing even more. It makes you realize just how difficult those films must have been to make and how much they just get so right. The casting, the photography, the music, the pacing, the visual/creature effects… they get so much so right, and that why they are deemed classics, decades later, when imitators like Leviathan just sink (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

last22016.80: The Last Days on Mars (Network Airing, Film Four HD)

The Last Days on Mars isn’t a terrible film by any means, its just badly flawed and hampered by a thin script, poor editing decisions and the fact that its missing what should be its first reel. That aside, considering its low budget it looks pretty terrific and remains fairly impressive visually even compared to Ridley Scott’s rather more handsomely-budgeted The Martian of a few years later.

In the failing hours of a six-month mission on Mars, the second manned expedition to the Red Planet starts wrapping things up in anticipation of the long journey back home. The mission has been successful but is still deemed a failure by one of the frustrated science leads as no evidence has been found of life once existing on the planet. However, one scientist notices some tantalising clues in some of the extracted soil samples and in an effort to presumably claim the discovery for himself (why?) sneakily goes out on one last excursion pretending its forced on him due to faulty sensors at the dig site. His attempt for scientific immortality goes terribly wrong however when in the midst of his euphoric confirmation of life on Mars a tremor opens up the ground beneath him and he plunges to his death, whilst unleashing alien microbes upon the rest of his team that turn his corpse and that of his victims into, er, Space Zombies.

Okay. It sounds terrible.

The thing is, so much wrong about this film was easily fixable. Take that missing first reel. Part of the genius of Scott’s earlier Alien is its slow build-up, the first forty-five minutes spent introducing the characters, the dynamics of their individual relationships, the space of the Nostromo and its hardware. By the time they land on the alien planet and the shit hits the fan, we know who they are and where they are and the mechanics of it all. We don’t have that in The Last Days on Mars. We are thrown into the events not knowing who is who or the mechanics of their mission (it later transpires they are waiting to be ‘picked up’ rather than launching on a rocket themselves). We don’t understand why Vincent Campbell (Liev Schreiber) is acting a bit oddly and isn’t looking forward to the trip home, or why  Kim Aldrich (Olivia Williams) is such a bitch, or why Capt. Charles Brunel is so weak-willed (Elias Koteas getting so typecast now as such hopeless leaders we just know everything he decides is just plain wrong).

Just twenty minutes spent with them in the base beforehand, explaining their relationship dynamics and the mechanics of their mission and timeline for getting home would have benefited the film immeasurably. There is a reason why the first important scene in Alien (and likewise in Sunshine) is a communal meal in which the banter of the crew sets everything up.

Instead we are launched into the crisis almost immediately, something intended to be gripping but ultimately just proves confusing. We don’t know anyone or what they do. We don’t understand why there are two habitats or that they are linked by subterranean tunnels. We don’t understand where the base is compared to the dig site or where the pick-up location is or when it is due. Thanks to clumsy editing we don’t even know why Campbell keeps having odd visions of a spaceship (they are actually flashbacks to a claustrophobic attack on the journey to Mars, but I didn’t work that out until much later- for most of the film I thought they were visions of the future or messages from the aliens or something).

last3It doesn’t help that these characters are such lousy astronauts who can’t obey commands or keep their cool and ‘work the problem’ in NASA tradition. If any one of these guys suffered the fate of astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian they would be dead within a week. They are stupid and selfish and emotionally strung-out; maybe they were intended to be like the working-jock space truckers of Alien but they should instead be trained astronauts on a billion-dollar expedition.

So the film has its moments, but most of the time its painfully frustrating. It could have been good. After all, the cast is pretty high-profile for the most part and they could do much more with better material. In the end its all just a pretty vacant, dumb b-movie about alien bugs on Mars turning people we don’t care about into Space Zombies. It might have been more fun had it looked a bit more low-rent akin to the old Hammer movies; as it is, its a competently-shot, overly-serious film hampered by a weak screenplay needing much more work in an impressive-looking but frankly vacuous sci-fi/horror movie. In a way, its a bit like a modern-day Space:1999. Bit of a shame really. We need more competently-made, low-budget sci-fi films like this, but ones with great ideas, not the stupid stuff usually reserved for the big blockbusters that use spectacle and bombast to get away with it.

Space Zombie Martians. Ugh.

But the Max Richter soundtrack is pretty good- deserves a better movie infact.

Another Sunshine Reprise

sun1Sunshine (2007)

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something endlessly rewatchable about Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. I must watch it once, sometimes two or more, times a year. Infact, of all the films made in the last twenty years, its one of the few that I have rewatched several times since its release, and possibly the one I have rewatched the most. It’s not a huge blockbuster, it wasn’t even particularly a success, either financially or critically, on its release, but something about the film just ‘clicks’.

Part of it might be that it’s like a Sci-Fi Greatest Hits. It takes elements of Alien, The Black Hole, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, amongst others. There’s all sorts of stuff in the film that can be recognised from other films, but for once it doesn’t really irritate. For one thing, it might be imitating other films but it’s doing so with a small budget and pulling it off well too. It looks fantastic on a budget of something like $30 million- compared to bigger films it looks remarkable and shows what is possible with careful planning and craftsmanship.  Really it’s astonishing how good the film looks for what it cost and it stands as some kind of testament to what can be done. Most importantly, the film has a genuine sincerity to how it borrows from the other films, a genuine care and appreciation and respect to those films. It doesn’t feel like a rip-off, or anything remotely negative.

sun2When the crew sits down around a table to eat together, of course it brings to mind the similar scenes from Alien; the set design, the banter, all of that, but you sense that Boyle is being respectful of Alien, not simply ripping it off. Its something that resonates so well from Alien that Boyle and writer Alex Garland obviously felt it was the right way to introduce the characters and the setting. Some shots even seem choreographed to echo shots from Alien– look at the scene when Cillian Murphy’s Capa fills the foreground and extreme right of the frame when he is informed its his decision regards diverting to the Icarus One: it perfectly copies an early scene in Alien with Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert filling the same part of the frame when she is told she is on the excursion team and she mutters “shit” in response, just as Capa voices his own bitterness at having to make his decision.

The characters are a big part of Sunshine. The cast is diverse and top-class, but wisely lacking huge ‘star’ names that might distract (although inevitably some of the cast are certainly ‘star’ names now from more successful ventures since). All of the cast bring their A-game and something to their characters, and the film is carefully threaded with character beats and moments that are important. Not all of them are likeable- some of them irritate but only because they seem so genuine and convincing with their flaws and mistakes. There is a sense that they have been stuck together for sixteen months and frictions are brewing as well as friendships. It always seems convincing to me, how they relate to one another and interact. It’s all very well-written, well performed and well-observed/directed.
sun3Some moments in Sunshine are extraordinary, like when the crew all gather at the viewing port to witness the transit of Mercury across the Sun. It is a beautiful and awe-inspiring spectacle, with a real sense of the wonder and majesty of space that most films would make us think mundane. But more than just the magnificent visuals and music, Boyle takes time to examine the faces of the crew so we can compare and contrast their seperate reactions to what they are watching. It informs us subtly what they are thinking, and where they are ‘at’ regards the mission, in a much more profound way than simply through dialogue and exposition. Its one of my favourite moments from any science fiction film.

Its when Sunshine slips into Event Horizon territory that most viewers seem to think it jumps the shark. I like Event Horizon, I think it’s the best Alien film that isn’t part of the official franchise (and to my mind is likely a better Alien film than Resurrection or Prometheus or even -controversial!-  Aliens). And I certainly don’t mind when things go all apeshit as the Space Madness-inflicted Pinbacker runs amok. What’s so nuts about a Captain whose mind has collapsed under the stress of his mission, in the face of sights no human has likely witnessed before? Its something that the transit of Mercury scene surely portends, in how the Icarus 2 crew react to what they see. Some are awed, some are bored.  Pinbacker saw stuff like that and saw God. His brain pulls a Hal 9000 and he kills his crew and aborts the mission thinking he’s doing The Right Thing.  Boyle and Garland are reaching to 2001 here even when they slip towards exploitation-horror territory. What does ‘Space’ really mean, or our place in this vast unthinking/unfeeling universe when you are millions of miles from home trapped in a steel can on a likely one-way mission probably destined to fail? What does that mean when that failure dooms all of humanity? You can’t wrap your head around stuff like that. It could drive you nuts and with Pinbacker it does (even the name Pinbacker nods to a character in the John Carpenter comedy Dark Star, itself an anti-2001, another example of the thought and respect running throughout Sunshine with its nods to past films).

Yes, Sunshine suddenly shifts in tone from semi-serious 2001/Alien hybrid towards a slasher flick, but you have to appreciate what Garland and Boyle are doing. They are making a science fiction film to entertain, and are no doubt enjoying taking the risk in pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet.  Its also adding dramatic conflict to the piece and ramping up the tensions regards will they/won’t they succeed in nuking the sun. It’s putting greater and greater obstacles in front of Capa and forcing sacrifices from the remainder of the Icarus 2 crew. And even though they succeed, no-one on Earth will ever know what happened or what sacrifices they had to make or tasks they endured.

You either buy it or you don’t, I guess. But I think Sunshine is a hugely satisfying and rewarding little film far superior to so many bigger-budgeted blockbusters. I wish it might have been successful enough to enable more similarly-themed, similarly-budgeted films. You don’t have to spend $200 million to make a convincing and entertaining space movie, and for all that critics moan about its last third, it still isn’t likely as daft and nonsensical as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, for instance. Sunshine is the little guy that done good.  I only wish Garland and Boyle might one day return to the genre again, and make another great little sci-fi movie together.

Interstellar (2014)

inter2I’m not quite sure what to make of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. On the one hand its a bold, intelligent and epic movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe, and on the other hand, its an incredibly flawed, dumbed-down and infuriating movie concerning space exploration and our place in the universe. How can it be both things at once? I saw the film in Imax (if you see the film, it HAS to be in Imax) last Tuesday and have refrained from writing this post, preferring instead to consider the film for awhile, discussing the film with colleagues at work who I saw the film with. Over the past few days I’ve started to reflect more on what the film does well than its flaws, but I’m still worried this post will swiftly degenerate into a confusing morass of conflicting thoughts…. its that kind of movie.

Its certainly no masterpiece though. Its a good film in many ways, but anyone going to see this expecting something as important and profound as 2001: A Space Odyssey is going to be disappointed.  Sets your sights more towards 2010: The Year We Make Contact or perhaps even Sunshine and you’ll be happier with it. If that sounds like a damning comment then there it is. The one thing I will say in its favour is that they simply don’t make many films with space exploration  as a serious subject so we should cherish Interstellar for all its flaws- we simply are not going to see another science fiction film like this again for some years to come. That makes its flaws all the more frustrating, obviously…

What annoyed me most about Interstellar? For all its touted vision, all the huge effects and scope and acting talent, what this film lacks is a commentary, a voice of its own. Its bloodless. For me one of the most interesting parts of the film is its first act, on the blighted near-future Earth and a humanity that is facing a long, slow extinction. Text-books are rewriting history (the Apollo landings were faked, claimed to be a successful ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union), farming is the only thing that matters, there are no armies, no space programmes… but nowhere does the film state a reason for this End of the World scenario. Climate change? Global Warming? Rampant population growth? Is the film so afraid to be outspoken, afraid to alienate viewers by being political? With a premise like this , the film should be pissing people off, if only the current political establishments of this planet. Maybe it should be pissing all of us off, blaming us and our way of life for the blight. Have we killed the Earth? If so, do we even deserve to survive? The question isn’t even asked, as if believing that humanity is some innocent victim itself. There is an extinction event going on, God knows how many species already wiped out by the time the film begins, but no explanation offered, no reason or blame for it. We are meant to just accept it somehow. Its the reason for the odyssey that follows, and that’s all. The central premise of the film is stated as ‘Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here‘. It doesn’t ask why. Why are we not meant to die here, considering its us that fucked it up? The film should be asking do we deserve to survive, and the rest of the film demonstrating the answer.

inter3Doubly troubling is that everything is American-centric, a throwback to films decades past. There’s an irony that if its the free-capitalism and mass-consumption of the Western way of life that has destroyed the planet, its only the Americans that can save it. There’s no Big Picture here, despite the films huge subject. Beyond the rural land of Cooper’s farm, or the rather ridiculous subterranean hide-out of NASA, the big world picture is ignored. Bear in mind that as I write this in 2014, America and NASA cannot even get a man into orbit any more, in light of which the basic premise of the film (forget the Rest Of The World, America Can Save Everything) is insulting, frankly, in something that’s supposed to be so intelligent. Its more Armageddon than Contact, something I found quite surprising.

Some sequences are indeed jaw-dropping pure cinema, as one would expect of a director of Nolan’s credentials. When Cooper finally leaves home to pilot the mission to the stars, he leaves behind his young daughter begging him to stay. The music swells up powerfully, he drives off into the horizon, and as the music lifts up even more the picture cuts to the launch of the rocket, the magnificently bombastic Zimmer score propelling, simply willing the rocket into orbit. Its huge, exhilarating stuff, worth the price of admission alone. Indeed this may well be Zimmer’s finest score in years (it’s up there with The Thin Red Line in my eyes). But goodness is it loud. It drowns out so much of the dialogue some of these plot-points I’m moaning about may indeed have been addressed in the film, I perhaps simply missed it in all the noise. The sound design of this movie is problematic to say the least. It seems to be by design, but if so then I’m not sure it worked to the film-maker’s intentions.

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So once we get into space, and all the promised spectacle of a blockbuster movie, its surprising how mundane it all seems. Have we lost our propensity for awe? Its troubling that Interstellar lacks the sense of wonder or spectacle that the Birth of the Solar System sequence of The Tree Of Life had, or so much of Gravity had (indeed, much of the film looks spectacular but Gravity remains visually superior, and it must really irk Nolan that it beat him to it). Going further back, Kubrick’s 2001 had such a grace in its scale, a sense of the vastness of space, our place in it: the Discovery a dot in the vast blackness of the 70mm frame, and then the humans in turn dwarfed by the construct carrying them. Nolan deliberately avoids hero-shots of the ships, perhaps to maintain an intimacy, or docudrama approach, but this hurts the films sense of scale and majesty. Originally Steven Spielberg was lined up to direct this film, if he had, I don’t think the film would have suffered this particular failing.

Nolan seems so distracted by time dilation and the years separating Cooper and his family back on Earth that the sheer physicality of space travel, the distances and the zero-gravity, food and air supplies, don’t seem to interest him. Even a film as derided as Sunshine had a greenhouse on its ship and a concious concern with supplies and survival. Interstellar is in such a rush to get to the wormhole it treats the odyssey to reach it (the wormhole orbits way out at Saturn)  as something ordinary, like a regular outing. We don’t have time, funnily enough in a three-hour movie, to really get a sense of the ship they are travelling in, establish its internal and external spaces, its functions. The crew leave Earth orbit, jump into cryosleep and wake up at Saturn minutes later. Sure, it moves the film forward but it loses so much grandeur and sense of awe, and once through the wormhole and we reach the Other Side, this sense of the ordinary continues, the prospective planets all (apparently) fairly close to each other, the astronauts tripping between them like in some kind of Star Wars movie. It’s necessary to keep the running time down, but it really diminishes the scale, which is odd, because this film is close on three hours long, and if that’s not long enough to maintain a proper sense of scale in a space movie, then are you doing it wrong? If sub-plots are forcing your hand condensing it all into three-hours, should it even be there?

Its as if they shot two three-hour movies and cut it down to one. Sort of like making a Peter Jackson movie in reverse.

I have endeavoured to keep as much of this spoiler-free as I can. People who have seen the film will have noted that I haven’t even raised certain elements of the film up. Derisive as I may already seem, I haven’t yet brought up a number of elements of the film that are really contentious. Bookcases and coordinates and surprise actors, rather problematic robot designs…  I’ll leave that for another day, perhaps when the Blu-ray comes out.

Suffice to say that while people still argue about what 2001 means, there’s no such argument regards Interstellar– its love conquers all. Yes, I’m afraid its about as high-concept as that. Which is not to say that its a bad movie, its just a frustrating one. Not quite worthy of all its ambitions. This post makes it seem as if I hated the film. I really quite liked it. I look forward to seeing it again. It just isn’t what we had hoped it would be, what it really should have been- a really great space movie. Nearly there, I guess.

Well, we’ll always have 2001...