As most of you guys now know, I love science fiction movies. I love them so much, in fact, that I have almost no standards whatsoever when it comes to picking out ones to watch. My favorite of all the various sci-fi genres out there are the ones that are about humans exploring space. Man, I love space. Space is totally the coolest. If I had a bazillion dollars, I’d be one of those crazy bazillionaires giving half my fortune to the Russians in exchange for letting me go up in one of their shuttles. I’d give my left nut, if I had one, and pardon the expression, to chill out with the stars.
A GOOD science fiction movie, though, is an extremely rare commodity. So rare, in fact, that I would estimate that out of the dozens of sci-fi flicks I watch every year, there is maybe one really good one in the entire bunch.
This year, I suspect this might be that one.
This movie, written by Alex Garland and directed by Danny Boyle (the brilliant team behind the best zombie movie of all time, 28 Days Later), opens with a group of astronauts in space. We soon learn they are on a mission to save the sun, which has begun to burn out billions of years too early, leaving Earth to slowly freeze. It’s actually the second attempt — the first group of astronauts sent to do this job suddenly disappeared shortly after they got into deep space. And right off the bat, Mom and I were raising an eyebrow at each other, because as it turns out, both missions share the same name, and that name is “Icarus.”
Now, anybody who knows anything about Greek mythology knows that Icarus is the fabled dumbass with wings made of feathers and wax, who got so sucked into the glory of flight that he forgot that heat and wax don’t go together, flew too close to the sun, watched his wings disintegrate in front of his eyes, and then, just before falling to his untimely death, paused momentarily in the air and held up a sign that said, “Oops!”
No wait, that last bit — that was Wile E. Coyote, not Icarus. But anyway, you catch my drift here. What kind of pessimistic space agency names their mission — a mission sent to fly right up to the sun — “Icarus”? Hell, why not just name it “Totally Doomed” and get it over with, I ask you?
Anyway, the answer to that question is that this film is for smart people, and the Icarus fable is going to serve as an allegory for many of the things that are about to happen to the characters before us. And that, my friends, is why I loved this movie sooooooo much. Only smart people are going to have that word, “Icarus,” stuck in their minds while they watch the story unfold. Only smart people are going to pause the DVD three times to try to figure out the science behind the enormous bomb the Icarus II mission is carrying up to the sun — a bomb with the “mass of an island” that, theoretically, is going to reproduce the Big Bang on a smaller scale and completely reboot our star. Only smart people are going to find this movie in any way entertaining. This is not a sci-fi movie for those who thought Bruce Willis’s Armageddon was hard science. This movie is for nerds, my friends, and it’s not afraid to just drop stuff in our laps and let us figure it out for ourselves. It was a nice change to feel like the filmmaker trusted my intelligence enough not to have to beat me over the head with his point, you know what I mean? I love that.
Incidentally, this movie is also for film geeks who love to be blown away by creative camerawork and brilliant pacing. Visually, this film is absolutely stunning. There were dozens of shots that totally blew my mind, as well as a variety of extremely creative little touches here and there. That Danny Boyle, I tell you — the man is a genius, pure and simple.
Okay, back to the plot. The Icarus II team gets out into deep space and quickly finds themselves with a conundrum. They’ve picked up a signal and the ship’s radioman has determined it’s the distress call from Icarus I. They manage to locate Icarus I, and it’s not too far away from them, but it’s in the wrong direction from where they’re supposed to go. And now they’re faced with a choice — go after Icarus I to see if there are any survivors, or stay focused on their mission and save Earth. For many of the astronauts, the choice is clear: the mission is the priority. But the ship’s physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), talks them into going after Icarus I, making the argument that even if everybody is dead, they could take Icarus I’s bomb and add it to their own, thus giving themselves TWO chances to save the world.
Reluctantly, the rest of the group agrees. But while changing the ship’s course, the navigator guy forgets a crucial detail, and pretty soon the captain is dead, the ship’s “oxygen garden” (a greenhouse where they grow plants for food and air) has been destroyed, and chaos is about to ensue.
One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie is that the whole first half is primarily focused on telling the story of how this group of people are managing to live for years together on a tiny ship with the weight of the entire human race on their shoulders. We were a bit concerned at first, actually, that it might be a little too like Solaris (the Clooney version anyway), which both Mom and I had found almost insufferably dull. Yet, even though not a whole lot really HAPPENS at first, the way their life in space is laid out for us is just fascinating all by itself. Plus, I liked the twist of having an on-board psychiatrist instead of just your standard ship’s doctor, because that only makes sense, if you think about it. Talk about stressful living conditions — not only are these people crammed together in a small space for years without ever being able to get away from each other, but they are also ultimately responsible for the future of mankind. Blow the mission, and everybody they know and love is dead. In fact, everybody they don’t know and can’t stand is dead too.
Man, you gotta have SOMEBODY up there who can prescribe some Xanax, right?
There was a negative element of this movie for me, though, and that was the last thirty minutes. Suddenly the film goes from creative genius to. . . and I hate to even say this because argh!. . . the incredibly bad space-horror flick Event Horizon. After Icarus II discovers that everyone on Icarus I is dead (I won’t say how or why), they return to Icarus II and try to resume their mission. But someone has come back on board WITH them (again, I won’t say how or why), and that someone is, well, both really, really crazy and really, really pissed.
I didn’t understand the reason for this final “twist” — and to me, it sort of cheapened the movie, taking it from hard sci-fi to subpar horror, complete with gruesome murders and people’s arms coming off their torsos. Gugh. Boyle was doing a phenomenal job with a set of truly believable circumstances and characters — why throw an icky monster into the mix at the last minute? I found that final half an hour both frustrating and incredibly confusing, and had the rest of the film not been so great, it would’ve really ruined the whole thing for me.
But though I was disappointed by this part of the story, it wasn’t awful enough to detract from the movie’s overall effect on me, which was an effect, in short, of both fascination and awe. I loved so many aspects of this film — I can’t wait to watch it again to see what things I may have missed the first time around. So, if you like science fiction movies that actually make you think in addition to entertaining you, this is definitely one to pop into your Netflix queue ASAP. One of the best movies I’ve seen so far in 2008, and I’m extremely curious to hear what you guys think after you’ve seen it too.
[Netflix me | Buy me]
Genre: Science Fiction
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Mark Strong, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada