Sunday, 15 April 2007

Danny Boyle's Sunshine

Watching Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, I realised that I hadn’t watched a new sci-fi film in a long time. Maybe the genre just does not appeal to me. But that can’t be true as I am an avid fan of films such as Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris. Popcorn movies such as Armageddon don’t pose any deep or philosophical questions (and neither should they have to) and in that sense, they do not appeal to me.

It’s such a vast universe, a universe that has the might to quieten, to frighten and to awe the human spirit. A sci-fi film set in space could at least acknowledge the beauty and the horror of being away from earth.

Sunshine, therefore, is a ray of sunshine. And no it is not about love, money or even the moon… It is about the sun (I think you’ll agree that this is not a character featured in many films). Set somewhere 50 years into the future, a team of astronauts are sent to restart the dying sun by throwing a bomb into it. An extremely high-risk task considering that the last batch of astronauts did not survive on the very same mission. The team of eight members (with Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans and Rose Byrne in the strongest roles) struggle to cope with the psychological aspect of isolation as well as the dangerously decreasing levels of oxygen.

I’ve already mentioned Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and Boyle gives a gentle nod to all these films. He did say in an interview that it was hard trying to match up to the standard of these filmic landmarks set in space. He may not entirely succeed but he does give an impressively good try.

Sunshine creeps up on you without saying anything. The moments of silence reveal so much about the feeling of isolation and panic that such a mission would trigger in a human being. And accompanied by the silence, each sound effect becomes a shattering drop in the ocean. The orange-tinted lenses, the blurred shadows and the shaky point-of-view shots add up to provide a claustrophobic atmosphere. The many reflections of the characters in windows and screens are a constantly unwanted reminder to them of what they are and where they are.

The sun is a daunting character and it envelops you in its unforgiving heat. The story begins immediately in space and the sun follows the characters (and you) all the way from the start to the end. I felt as if the spaceship was already trapped into the arms of the sun and that there was no point of return. This feeling is conveyed through the people who slowly begin to lose their humanity. At the end of one scene, there is a shot of Curazon (Michelle Yeoh) sitting on her own after a shattering near-death experience. None of her colleagues make an effort to comfort her. Death is a difficult reality that everyone has to face up to at some point.

It is the third act that really does let you down. As a sort of homage to Alien, an enemy sets out to sabotage the spaceship. Who survives and who dies becomes the main point of focus. The change of pace, from the tense atmosphere of forever waiting to running around the spaceship like maniacs, makes for an uncomfortable leap. The introduction to the twist itself is hazy and could leave some viewers completely confused (as I could see by the reaction of some people in the cinema audience). Thankfully, with a least starry cast, you cannot predict which character will save the day.

And the ludicrous twist doesn’t detract from the film’s powerful ending. There has been a lot of criticism for naming the spaceship Icarus II. Jonathan Ross sarcastically commented on his chat show that it’s not a sensitive name to use in a hypothetical situation like that. And Peter Bradshaw (from the Guardian) also commented that the name is “tactlessly chosen”. My take on it is that it perfectly compliments the mythological undertones in the story. Deep down, every character wants to fly as close as possible to the sun unaware that this fiery planet doesn’t take everyone into its confidence that easily. And the name also symbolises the greedy and needy optimism of the people back on earth who are acting in full belief that they can control the sun.

The cast are wonderfully believable as the people sacrificing years of their lives for what seems like a hopeless mission. Cillian Murphy (who was also in Boyle’s 28 Days Later) stands out with his piercing eyes that are just as striking as the sun. Chris Evans is a pleasant surprise as the calm leader close to breaking point. The rest of the cast provide strong supporting turns. And, considering the low budget, the special effects and the make-up are fantastic.

Whatever its faults, Sunshine is a rich treat worth devouring.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Mr. Bean's Holiday

Yes, I admit it. I went in and watched Mr. Bean's Holiday. I felt a certain sense of loyalty to this character as watching the TV series is one of my many happiest childhood memories.

There is an unspoken rule that movie versions of popular television series are just not meant to be the same (the Ben Stiller-Owen Wilson version of Starsky and Hutch is playing on my TV set right now, ahem). Watching Bean on cinematic celluloid you do become aware of how hard the makers are working at trying to not be an extended TV episode. I just about remember the last Bean movie that I saw ten years ago but in all fairness, I think this movie version is more rooted to its character than the 1997 film.

Add to that, there are certain changes. Not huge earth-shattering changes but little ones where the humour seems more oriented towards children (perhaps from being influenced by the belated but popular cartoon spin-offs of the sitcom). Having said that, I do notice that Mr. Bean's teddy, which is a popular fixture in the animated series, seems to have vanished completely.

Plot- Bean picks a winning raffle ticket and jet-sets his way to France. In England, he has always been a fish out of water and in France he gets to be the fish out of water landing onto a hot dry desert. There are some entertaining comical moments. My personal favourite is the scene where Bean pretends to be grief-stricken nun and mimes along to a melodramatic opera. This is a curious moment where Bean stops being Bean and is now someone else. The funny nun, if you like. It is a wonderful reminder of the versatility of Rowan Atkinson's comic flair and it proves his range as an actor. The watchable climax, set in Cannes, may go over the heads of some young kids but it is funny to see the way that arty and thoughtful films are ridiculed. It is obviously a two-finger salute to the critics that have panned Mr. Bean's Holiday.

I was a fan of Bean as a child, but watching him here from a new adult perspective, he appears to be quite an unlikeable character. That he is a loser is no doubt true. But is he a likeable loser? M Hulot, Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy had more charm (and they are Rowan Atkinson's comedy heroes). Bean is a beany meany. He asks a stranger to hold his video camera and to record a shot of him walking down the platform. The train starts to go off and Bean jumps on just in time but cares little for the stranger who can't make it.

This is where Bean loses its shine for me. He is selfish with a capital S. "Oh, big wow", I hear you say. Laurel and Hardy cared for each other and I can't picture either of them willing to leave the other one behind on the train platform.

Bean gets his 'redemption'. He follows the man's kid (left behind on the train) around like a shifty pervert. When he meets Sabine (played by a natural Emma de Caunes), the unlikeable qualities in Bean become clear and stark. The woman is a breath of fresh air. Giving and kind, she is the complete opposite to Bean. And she brings something else to the picture too - English subtitles for the French dialogue. It's nice to see that the producers didn't think that their target audience was too dumb for subtitles.

Rowan Atkinson is a wonderful comic actor but the gurning and mumbling does get a little too much. Please give this actor something else to do. Doing Bean is not easy and he must be praised for bringing it to life so believably but deep down, I feel that Mr. Bean is not the kind of comic caricature that is worthy of Atkinson's stature. All good things must come to an end and I feel that there really are no mileages to be brought out of the Bean creation.

Let's see the rebirth of another iconic character in comedy. Blackadder is more like it.