Brother sun, sister moon: In the Shadow of the Moon (****) & Sunshine (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 29, 2007)

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I thought we’d take a spin around the solar system tonight, via two new films; one that gets my vote for the best documentary of 2007, and the other…well, we’ll get to that.

Normally, I make a conscious effort to not shamelessly gush about films in this column (it’s so unseemly) but pardon me while I gush over a documentary about the Apollo space program, In The Shadow of the Moon. Admittedly, I walked into the theater with trepidation; it would seem that the NASA legacy has already been milked for all its worth, from feature films (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and IMAX documentaries, to lauded TV fare (From the Earth to the Moon).

But somehow, director David Sington has managed to take this very familiar piece of 20th century history and infuse it with a sense of joyous rediscovery. In the process, it offers something rarer than hen’s teeth these days-a reason to take pride in being an American.

The premise is simple enough; surviving members of the Apollo moon flights tell their stories, accompanied by astounding mission footage (some previously unseen). There are a few of the “tumultuous 60s” clichés tossed in (clips of student demonstrations, political assassinations, etc) but they remain onscreen just long enough to provide brief expository reference. The film is beautifully scored (Philip Sheppard) and edited (David Fairhead).

The term “hero” is carelessly tossed about with reflexively wild abandon in our post 9-11 world; but as you listen to these astronauts recount their extraordinary experiences with such eloquence, fierce intelligence and self-effacing candor, you realize that these people truly do represent our best and our brightest, they are “heroes” in every sense of the word.

It’s interesting to hear the astronauts expound on the pragmatic geopolitical perspective that results from being in a position to “blot the entire earth out with (your) thumb”, as one gentleman puts it. Several marvel at how truly fragile the Earth looks hanging “like a jewel” in the vast blackness of space; one interviewee ponders incredulously as to “how we can worry more about paying three dollars for a gallon of gas” than we do about attending to the health of the planet. I lost count of my “amens” halfway through the film.

This is also the first time (to my knowledge) that these men have been given a public forum to extrapolate on the profound spiritual, metaphysical and philosophical questions that arise following such literally out of this world experiences as walking on the surface of another planet; it’s fascinating and extremely moving at times.

As your fake physician I am prescribing that you run out and see it immediately, as In the Shadow of the Moon is a perfect tonic for the Bush-Cheney blues. It reminds us that there was a time when the rest of the world looked to this country for inspiration; a time when people were not ashamed of hailing from the great state of Texas, because it was then better known as the home of Mission Control.

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We move now from science fact, to science fiction. For his new  thriller Sunshine, director Danny Boyle teams up again with writer Alex Garland, who provided the screenplays for both 28 Days Later and its sequel. Ostensibly about a team of astronauts on a mission to salvage the dying Sun and save the Earth, Sunshine aims to take its protagonists on a Homeric journey, by way of Tartovsky and Kubrick. Unfortunately, after a fairly successful liftoff, the film quickly veers off course and loses its trajectory.

The story is set in 2057, when the Sun is suffering from a condition that, as near as I was able to tell from the rather sketchy scientific exposition, is akin to some type of solar constipation. There’s something blocking the star’s ability to generate its own nuclear fusion…uh, I think. Well, whatever “it” is, there ain’t no sunshine when it’s gone…okay?

Anyway, the highly specialized 8-member crew of Icarus II is mankind’s last hope (the crew of Icarus I apparently stopped sending postcards some months back). It is up to them to launch and detonate a powerful bomb that will presumably jump-start the Sun back into its preferred central heating mode for our solar system.

I know what you’re thinking-sounds familiar? Yes, it is pretty much a glorified rehash of Armageddon. Well, Armageddon for philosophy majors. Because, you see, things get “deep” between the requisite scenes of stuff blowing up real good. There’s an awful lot of brooding and gnashing of teeth among the crew once they set the controls for the heart of the sun. It is also implied  there are metaphysical conundrums afoot, but the screenplay fails to extrapolate on the significance. By the time the third act disintegrates into a cheesy Alien rip-off, you’ll be likely to  have stopped caring anyway.

Boyle regular Cillian Murphy stars as the brooder-in-chief, the crew’s egghead physicist, ‘Robert Capa’ (I’ve racked my mind over that one…why is a fictional nuclear physicist named after a famous war photographer? I invite your speculation. These are the types of things that keep me awake at night, folks.) To his credit, Murphy maintains a compelling presence, even though you suspect that he doesn’t have much more of a clue about what is going on in this film than the viewer does. Michelle Yeoh does an earnest turn as ‘Corazon’, a biologist who nurtures the ship’s on-board green houses, quite reminiscent of Bruce Dern in Silent Running (hmm…if Capa is the ship’s Brain, then I assume she is the Heart?)

Some have hailed this as a masterpiece. I am not one of them. Granted, it is handsomely mounted, with some nice set designs and impressive special effect work; but it lacks a cohesive story. It’s like someone reached into a hat full of interesting ideas, threw the scraps of paper up in the air, and just let them blow about the room while trying to follow them with a camera. For a story that flies so close to the Sun, Sunshine left me pretty damn cold.

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