Monday, October 31, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Sunshine" and "Sunshine" (1997 & 2007)

"Sunshine," made in 1999 as a multi-national production about three generations of a Jewish family, with Ralph Fiennes portraying a trio of male leads. And "Sunshine," directed in 2007 by Danny Boyle about an international crew of scientists traveling toward the dying sun to reignite it and save mankind.

They have nothing in common other than the same title and the fact that Film Yappers Christopher Lloyd and Austin Lugar each hadn't seen one of them. As happenstance would have it, we had both watched the one the other hadn't.

Our mission: Watch the other film, and see our how opinions square up.

The Intro: Sunshine 2007

Chris: I'd liked virtually all of Danny Boyle's previous films up till then, but heard nearly all bad things about "Sunshine." It seemed rather derivative to me, a combination of "2010: The Year We Make Contact" and "Alien." Coupled with the still-too-recent memory of another slow-paced space dirge, "Solaris," I was convinced to stay away. Plus, my memory is that it came and went from local theaters in a flash.

After watching it, some of my preconceptions were reinforced while others were shattered. In terms of plot and tone, it really does bear a lot of similarity to other deep-space stories: A spaceship of humans is sent on a mission (or diverted from its mission) to explore the mysterious case of a missing ship (possibly a predecessor sent on an identical journey that failed), which suddenly reappears more or less intact.

The claustrophobia of the ship quarters and hallways, the conflicts between crew members, and the eventuality of a malevolent presence invading the ship and offing the astronauts are familiar tropes, especially evoking "Alien."

The only thing really interesting about the "Sunshine" crew is their international makeup, with a strong Asian contingent, including the captain.

Still, I found it fascinating and well-paced, until the crew reaches the sun and the plot goes kerblooie.

Austin: I'm pretty much alone in this opinion, but I really like the third act. That's when the movie becomes really exciting to me. It's one thing to establish a debate like free will vs. fate/God and it's another thing to personify those sides so they can literally combat each other. Declaring a winner makes the debate far more interesting.

The Intro: Sunshine 1999

Austin: While I've been working on my podcast, "And the Nominees Are," I've seen a lot of movies where they try to fit a character's entire life into two hours. Those films are usually based off novels that accomplished the goal in several hundred pages and the transition feels cramped. This version of "Sunshine" tries to be even more ambitious. In three hours, it tries to tell the story of three generations of men. All played by Ralph Fiennes.

The story starts in Hungary at the turn of the century. Fiennes starts by playing Ignatz Sonnenschein, a rising judge in the community. He always seems to be on the outside of political arguments about the growing level of hatred towards Jews. The real heart of his story -- pun intended -- is his controversial relationship with his cousin, who he ends up marrying.

One of their sons is Adam Sons (also played by Fiennes) who is a fencing expert skilled enough to play in the Olympics for Hungary. He too faces a forward relationship and anti-semitism. Then his son is Ivan Sors (also played by Fiennes) who is the most active in politics as he is one of the rebels of the Communist party.

Each story has an hour devoted to it, but they have the contradiction of being too much and too little at the same time. Only a few scenes per segment have the strength the movie needs. A lot of the time feels like padding to get people to the proper place. In a novel, repetition can play to its strength as motifs and themes are formed. With the span of the movie, it all feels too familiar.

Chris: I really like "Sunshine," though I admit your points about the long movie unable to devote enough time to all the characters as valid. I tended not to see it as three separate stories but an evolving, revolving look at one European family and the persecution it faces over the decades. For me, it's almost like a minor-league "Godfather" Part I and II rolled into one movie.

Main Guy: Sunshine 2007

Chris: Cillian Murphy plays Capa, the physicist whose job it is to oversee the massive payload into the sun's core, reigniting it. The payload is essentially a massive bomb comprising most of the fissile material left on Earth.

Capa slides right into the shoes of other spaceborne protagonists of this (Ripley) ilk: He is reserved but speaks up with necessary, brave but not demonstrative, dedicated to the mission but willing to embrace existential crises and man-made context when considering their actions.

In this way he is forcefully contrasted with Mace (Chris Evans), the deliberate and martial crew member ready and willing to make any sacrifice to ensure the success of their mission. The two scuffle frequently, especially when Capa makes the call to divert their ship, Icarus II, toward a rescue of Icarus I.

Capa's reasoning here is sketchy. Since the quasi-sentient ship computer estimates the payload's chance of success at only 45%, Capa figures that two shots is better than one. But this ignores two critical pieces of logic:
  1. Whatever force, internal or external, that derailed Icarus I seven years earlier is likely to affect their ship, too, if their vessel becomes compromised. This is exactly what unfolds, as the insane and horribly burned captain of the first ship, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), sabotages the Icarus II and kills much of the crew.
  2. Why couldn't they deliver their payload, and only if it is unsuccessful seek out the Icarus I for a second try?
Austin: I've never been the biggest fan of Cillian Murphy. He always serves his purpose, but never impresses me. I did like how he didn't try to be too heroic with the character; he almost played it down. The first leap of logic was a gamble on their part. The second makes sense to me in a sci-fi way. It's easier to break a window with a big rock instead of throwing two small rocks at different times. To me, the guy who stole the show was Chris Evans. What an unexpected performance by him, especially at this time.

Main Guy: Sunshine 1999

Austin: This is an actor's dream: play three different characters linked by linage. There is so much room for nuance, but I never got that feel from Fiennes. I saw more of a difference between the men through the costume choices and the degree of their stubbornness. Fiennes can be a great actor when his range is better understood. He just felt flat the whole time during this movie.

When the characters really came through is when they were more focused on their emotional journeys instead of their political ones. I never cared about Ignatz being a judge, but his messed up marriage felt a lot stronger. Adam as a fencer was better than Adam during the war. Ivan struggling to interrogate his friend was better than him as an activist. They each only had an hour, but there still felt like there dramatic shifts of interest.

Chris: There's a certain remoteness to Fiennes in most of his performances; you always feel like there's a veil his characters are drawing up against anyone who might peer too closely at them. I thought that quality well-served him in this film, especially when playing the judge.

Guys Behind the Camera: Sunshine 2007

Chris:Visually, "Sunshine" is quite spectacular in a contemplative sort of way. The scenes in the observation deck where the crew can stare straight at the sun -- shielded to 2% of its power in order to protect their eyes -- are the signature image from the film.

Boyle displays a less than sure hand in shooting many of the "hardware" scenes endemic to the science fiction genre. The spaceships largely remain confusing masses of metal spires, and we never quite comprehend exactly what fits where. The scene where Capa separates the Icarus II from its payload and then blasts himself across the gulf between them in a golden spacesuit is meant to be the action high point of the film, but I had to stop and rewind several times just to grasp exactly what was happening.

The screenplay by Alex Garland similarly loses its way. Much of this is found in the figure of Pinbacker, who apparently went nuts with some sort of religious-inspired fever. He incinerated his crew in their observation room by cranking down the shield, and he himself looks like a well-done side of beef, his flesh largely seared away from his body.

But how did Pinbacker survive for seven years without food? Why does he seemingly have super-human strength? There are even shots were Pinbacker seems to blur, suggesting that he's somehow morphed into a being caught somewhere between the physical world and a plane of energy. What exactly drove him bonkers?

The movie never really attempts an explanation, beyond a lot of mumbo-jumbo about talking to God.

Austin: Whenever a sci-fi movie has any sort of reality struggles, I just think back to Rob Lowe in "Thank You For Smoking." Aaron Eckhart questions whether or not they can have sci-fi characters be able to smoke in an all oxygen environment and Lowe says, "One line of dialog. 'Thank God we invented the whatever device." In this case it's less sci-fi and more religious. Pinbacker stayed alive because God did not want the sun to be saved.

Guys Behind the Camera: Sunshine 1999

Austin: It's weird that I never heard about this film before talking to Chris. This is a three hour World War II epic starring some of the most respected actors of our time including Rosemary Harris, Rachel Weisz and William Hurt. Why else do the Oscars exist but to honor a film like this? Really, I think it's forgotten because of how unemotional it is.

The director is a man named István Szabó who has made a lot of films in his home country but only a few here in America. His most popular film is "Being Julia", which is mostly known for being the movie where Annette Benning lost to Hilary Swank for Best Actress ... again. A story of this scale really ought to be important cinema, but it missed the mark. In an attempt to be educational with the history, it ends up being too dry to make an impact.

The ending really shows what an odd film this is. There is this sense of romanticism and connectivity with the generations that isn't like anything else we've seen. Where was that for the first 170 minutes? I appreciated it near the end, but it still didn't work because I never cared about the characters enough. The plot was never strong enough for the characters. A stronger director could have created a proper balance, but instead there is awkwardness.

Chris: I guess I felt a stronger emotional tie to this film than you, Austin. The early romance seemed quite passionate to me, and the scene where Fiennes is tied up by the Germans and sprayed with a water house and left to freeze to death in the bitter cold still brings a lump to my throat. I often wonder what he was thinking at that moment, or if he felt his loyalty was worth the price being paid, even as those to whom he gave his allegiance proved most unworthy.

Final Word: Sunshine 2007

Chris: "Sunshine" is 75% of a really good movie. Although its pacing is ... shall we say, "deliberate" is the kind term, it's a reflective, thought-provoking film filled with wonderful images and dark moods.

Alas, it contains some plot holes you can drive the Icarus II through, and the last 30 minutes or so runs right off the rails. For almost two hours, "Sunshine" made me think, and the last act made me scratch my head.

Austin: I really dig this movie. It remains my favorite Danny Boyle film. So many films create an uneasy atmosphere in space, but this took it a step further by having a great story with it. This is just making me want to watch it again.

Final Word: Sunshine 1999

Austin: When it comes to World War II epics, this is Ralph Fiennes's fourth best. It relies too much on its backdrop to be relevant that it misses out the family at the center. When there is that much distance created, it questions what did the filmmaker really want to focus on? Either this is an muddled political movie or it's a static family drama with some moments of true possibility.

Chris: I really think "Sunshine" is a minor gem, one of those movies I always mention when people ask me for the names of great movies nobody's ever heard of. "Red Rock West" and "Fresh" are two others.

Sunshine 2007

Chris: 2.5 stars out of four
Austin: 3.5 stars

Sunshine 1999

Austin: 2 stars
Chris: 3.5 stars

No comments:

Post a Comment