(Fox Searchlight) Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong. Directed by Danny Boyle
Boyle is the director of such impressive films as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Millions, all of which I would highly recommend (his next movie after this one was Slumdog Millionaire, previously reviewed in this blog). A couple of years ago, I was in puppy heaven when I discovered that he was doing a science fiction film.
It is about 50 years in the future and the sun is dying – take that, you global warming alarmists! A mission was sent to re-ignite the sun with a kind of stellar bomb, but that mission failed and the astronauts aboard the Icarus were presumed lost. The situation on Earth growing more desperate, a second mission – Icarus II – is launched and with it goes the hopes of humanity.
Things seem to be going pretty well, but as they approach Mercury, they pick up the distress signal of the first mission. Logic dictates that the crew continues on their way, explode their bomb and then see about the other Icarus but no, they have to go there first. Hey, what’s logic when you have science fiction? Anyway, predictably, bad things happen when they try to change course, an EVA repair mission goes the way of most EVA repair missions in science fiction movies these days and things burn up, flash freeze, explode and so on. What’s an astronaut to do?
Where to begin? This is a wildly uneven movie. There are a lot of great visuals, some wonderful dramatic tension and Chris Evans darn near steals the show – yeah, I know, Chris Evans – and the soundtrack kicks bootie. To the bad, you’ll notice at no point in my synopsis did I mention a specific human character. That’s because they are so interchangeable and unmemorable. Not all of it is the fault of the generally solid cast – it’s just that they play mostly subdued, as you would expect highly trained astronaut/scientists to be in that situation. In going for realism, Boyle winds up giving his dramatic tension short shrift. With a cast that includes some very good actors like Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy and Cliff Curtis, that’s a bit of a crime.
Surprisingly enough, I found the direction of Danny Boyle to be one of the movie’s weaker points. Boyle is a genuine talent – his resume is nothing if not impressive – but he falls prey to the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” syndrome, taking himself far too seriously, sacrificing story for overly-clever directing moves. For example, the villain – who is apparently fully human – is rarely glimpsed as anything more than an impressionistic figure. When the heroes engage in hand-to-hand combat with him, the results are nearly unwatchable and actually gave me a headache. One of the more interesting moves is that as the crew of the Icarus II board the Icarus I, faces (I assume of the first crew) flash onto the screen like some terrible subliminal ad gone awry. I’m not sure what Boyle is trying to accomplish here, but if a director needs to explain what you’re trying to get across, then he/she didn’t do a very good job in the first place. In the end, the movie breaks down in the third act, just when it should be picking up steam. You get the feeling that they were rushing things more than a bit – in any case, I think if Boyle had paid more attention to storytelling and less to style, he might have made a really super film.
While I complain a great deal here, there are some compelling reasons to see this. For one thing, it’s a “smart” science fiction movie – think Solaris and Event Horizon and those are rare enough as to be very precious. And yes, I listed a number of failings of the director, but in all fairness, he got more right than he didn’t, and that’s a plus too. This is not what you would call a popcorn movie, but at the same time the gorgeous visuals – the screen is constantly bathed in warm golds and yellows of the solar winds – beg to be seen on a big screen or at least an HD plasma home theater.
This is quite the disappointment; I was hoping this could be a sleeper hit, but the box office here in the States was dismal. That’s too bad – but I can understand why people aren’t warming to this movie, and considering how close it comes to the sun, that’s unacceptable.
WHY RENT THIS: Terrific visuals. Chris Evans gives an unexpectedly strong performance. Astronaut-cicle; need I say more?
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Look Ma, I’m directing. Messy third act. Style over storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some icky visuals. A little bit of language too.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The helmet design for the space suits were based on the character Kenny from “South Park.”
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The scientific advisor, Dr. Brian Cox of the University of Manchester and the CERN project provides a commentary track. There are also two unrelated short films that director Boyle included simply so that the filmmakers could be seen by a wider audience.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
The problem is, Boyle DOESN’T incorporate realism. His supposedly best-of-the-best astronauts and scientists are incredibly undisciplined, if not downright stupid. Alex Garland uses ridiculous errors and bad judgment calls to drive the drama in his script, and it simply doesn’t work. You might expect such hysteria and incompetence from a gang of teens in the latest “Friday the Whatever”; I, for one, would expect at least a modicum of professionalism from characters who are supposed to be mature, seasoned astronauts. Not Alex: he needs to make things happen, and the only way he can think to do it is by making his crew act like idiots. Thoroughly unconvincing, and jam-packed with unnecessary tragedy. Really beautiful music and visuals desperately in need of a script with a brain in its skull. For comparison, check out Duncan Jones’ lovely “Moon.”
I agree with your criticisms. I think that Boyle was attempting to be realistic and as a consequence made his astronauts colorless. I haven’t seen Moon yet but I’m dying to see it. It has gotten a good deal of positive press here and Jones appears to be a talent to keep an eye on. Boyle, of course, went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire which won oodles of Oscars and was a much better film. Of course, I’m still far more partial to Trainspotting and 24 Days Later. Thanks for your post!