Sci-fi is hard to get right. The aesthetics of sci-fi, particularly space-based sci-fi, have become more and more familiar to audiences. Seeing gigantic ships and swirling galaxies is nothing new anymore, and so at least in a visual sense it is difficult to be original. Ironically for a genre often concerned with the infinite reaches of space, sci-fi has become very self-reflective, and films are often filled – intentionally or otherwise – with reference points to their predecessors. Knowing how to integrate those inevitable influences will determine whether a film ends up looking like a derivative replica or an original homage (even if that is a little oxymoronic).
The last decade has thrown up some interesting sci-fi projects that fall into myriad subgenres – some successful, others not – and the obvious ones (Avatar, Star Wars, Star Trek) will take a back seat for now. What is great to see is that directors are not being frightened away from the sci-fi genre because of its traditional budgetary restrictions: Duncan Jones’ feature debut, Moon, which was critically acclaimed, was made for $5m and had some genuinely interesting ideas. It also helps reinforce the idea of sci-fi as a genre not afraid to reference itself: anyone who has seen Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey will attest to that while watching Moon. A similar story comes in the form of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, which punched far above its $30m budget and raked in the profits, instantly making a name for its director while lifting unknown property Sharlto Copley into the mainstream.
Aside from the big guns mentioned above, Steven Spielberg has weighed in this decade with not one, not two, but three sci-fi projects: in chronological order AI: Artificial Intelligence (which originally came from Kubrick, of course) Minority Report and War of the Worlds (the latter two both starring Tom Cruise). But for this edition of Unsung Heroes we’ll stick with two projects that were made for similar budgets (relative to Avatar, tiny) but that are nevertheless completely different, both excellent in their own right, and both not seen by enough people, particularly in cinemas.
Danny Boyle is currently about to release 127 hours, a drama recounting the life of Aron Ralston, an American climber who got trapped under a boulder for five days in 2003. Before that he directed Slumdog Millionaire (you’ve probably heard of it). Before that, he produced the sequel to his 2002 hit horror 28 Days Later (considered by many a great entry in the genre) which was preceded by the film that we will focus on – Sunshine – a sci-fi project that is probably one of the director’s lesser known films.
The purpose of introducing the film in this way is to establish that Danny Boyle is not a director that feels inhibited by crossing between genres. The opposite, in fact; he seems to have flourished by constantly doing it. Let’s not forget his most loved film is probably still Trainspotting, which is completely different tonally to any of the projects named above. The point is Boyle moved into sci-fi – a genre he hadn’t tackled before – and settled in like he’d always been there. The visual references in Sunshine are obvious but brilliantly implemented, and Boyle has talked about his influences for the film lovingly, and this shows in the finished product.
Sunshine tells the story of the aptly named Icarus space project, a manned attempt to reignite mankind’s dying sun. The sun – beacon of all life on Earth and perhaps beyond – is, fittingly, the gravitational centre of Boyle’s film. Through the confined windows of the ship itself to wide shots of the star in space, the burning behemoth is never far from our attention, always looming, beautiful but malevolent, in the distance. The sun thus becomes the film’s ever-present antagonist, the thing that keeps us alive but is going to kill us; the symbol we’re obsessed with and afraid of. That obsession is characterised brilliantly in the form of Searle, the ship’s doctor (Cliff Curtis), whose interest in the sun is literally starting to burn his features away.
The film is heavily symbolic and meditative but plays out as a confined, tightly-paced thriller. At times expansive and dreamlike (there is some stunning, effects-aided photography in the film), the film also feels oppressively constrained and claustrophobic; the space-suits, purposefully designed to feel clumsy and confined, are an excellent touch. Cillian Murphy’s charismatic performance as Capa, the ship’s physicist, carries the thing (his growing weight of uncertainty and responsibility feels believable) but the supporting cast are well-chosen and likable. Chris Evans – who has been threatening to become a megastar for years now, and probably will as Captain America – is excellent as engineer Mace, while Hiroyuki Sanada as Kaneda, Icarus’ captain, brings a great warmth and likability to only his second English-language role.
Crucially, as things begin to go wrong (I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that things go wrong) the film maintains a sense of realism, even as psychological elements begin to play an ever increasing part. You get the impression these people really have been away from home for a long time, and are suffering for it. Tensions are beginning to spike, particularly as the long-awaited rendezvous with the sun looms closer. Boyle keeps everything tight but intermittently throws the odd curve ball here and there. The image that haunts Capa’s dreams is powerful, symbolic and terrifying, and there is a section in which the crew explore another ship that, thanks to some subtle lighting effects, (and brilliant use of editing), effortlessly builds a sense of fear.
The film’s final reel has turned some viewers off slightly, and whilst it is possible to appreciate why that might be, it does not damage the film as a whole and actually brings things to a close in a satisfying way. The film belies its $30m budget – the whole things looks great, and there isn’t a dodgy moment of CGI anywhere in sight – and this leads us nicely on to our second case study: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Change and uncertainty can cripple a film. The Fountain was originally earmarked for a $70m budget and was set to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (who found on-screen love a few years later in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). It is difficult to say what kind of film would have emerged hadthe original stars remained in place, but by virtue of the eventual film’s quality, it is safe to say that they were not missed. And neither was that extra $30m. The Fountain, like Sunshine, is a film that looks absolutely beautiful in spite of its potentially restrictive budget. The two even share a vaguely similar aesthetic, awash with warm yellows and bathed in golden hues.
For The Fountain (which ambitiously takes place in three entirely disparate time periods) this aesthetic is maintained as the film’s linking strand, in particular the vibrant golds that permeate most scenes. It is dreamlike and esoteric, conceptual, unique and brilliant. A lot of people will tell you that The Wrestler is Aronofksy’s best film, but those people probably haven’t seen The Fountain.
The absence of Pitt and Blanchett allowed Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz to step into the limelight with wonderfully measured performances. In the same year that he shone in Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, Jackman’s performance here is probably the best of his career. Aronofsky asks a lot of his leads. Jackman and Weisz (Aronofsky’s wife) each play three different characters across three very different time periods: a conquistador and his queen, a modern-day scientist and his wife and a space traveller far into the future, searching for his lost love. The film’s strands are not directly linked, but are connected through visual trends, thematic concerns and conceptual ideas. For some audiences, the film lacked cohesion, but for others the film transcends the needs for a concrete narrative and offers something that is never set in stone, but always mesmerising.
Simple at heart, complex on the surface, the film is as broad and as insular as you want it to be. Most of the time it is both. There are underlying themes of mortality, love and infinity, but everything is played with such affecting humanity that none of it feels forced or ostentatious. To put it simply: it feels genuine. The film’s colour scheme soothes and tempts, whilst the performances shake off the shackles of the multi-layered narrative to simply exist, which is the heart of the film. The film will make you think and make you feel, and it does all of that whilst looking beautiful and running to only 96 minutes.
Two very different sci-fi films – Sunshine and The Fountain – both made for (relatively) sensible sums of money, both very different, but both deserving to be seen. And neither, despite their concerns with stars, managed to set the box-office alight.