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Media Column -- September 2007 by Rogan Marshall
Review by Rogan Marshall
SFRevu.com Essay  ISBN/ITEM#: MC092007
Date: 01 September 2007 /

Returning from hiatus I found a rich and various month for fantastic film, especially at home on DVD. Can it be that such a happy state of affairs is becoming the norm? (Or is it just the time of year?)

Sunshine Directed by Danny Boyle
20th Century Fox/Fox Searchlight
IMDB entry
Starring: Cliff Curtis, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada
Theatrical Release: 7/27/2007
Stardust Directed by Matthew Vaughn
Paramount Pictures
IMDB Entry
Starring: Charlie Cox, Sienna Miller, Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer
Theatrical Release: 8/10/2007

The Host (2006)
Directed by Joon-ho Bong
Magnolia Home Entertainment
IMDB Entry
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko, Scott Wilson
DVD Release: 7/24/2007
Renaissance (2006)
Directed by Christian Volckman
Miramax Films
IMDB Entry
Starring the voices of Daniel Craig, Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm, Catherine McCormack
DVD Release: 7/24/2007
Malpertuis (1971)
Directed by Harry Kumel
IMDB Entry
Starring: Susan Hampshire, Mathieu Carriere, Orson Welles
DVD Release: 7/24/2007
In Danny Boyle's new picture Sunshine, it's the future, and the sun is dying. To save the planet and the human race, the Icarus Project is conceived; a space program intended to jump-start the failing solar fission reaction with a gigantic bomb. Seven years before the movie begins, Icarus I failed by way of a mysterious disappearance in space; Icarus II, the spaceship within which the movie takes place, carries a crew of seven in a living space crouched like a bug behind the immense span of solar shielding and bomb which it pushes toward the sun. Once ever-increasing solar radiation cuts off communication with Earth, the isolated astronauts are forced to make a series of mission-changing decisions, which they increasingly bungle; these, along with the seething psychological tensions space travel engenders, gradually reduce the crew one by one, and reduce Icarus II to a suicide mission.

Despite apparent thinness and unoriginality in the foregoing plot description, Sunshine is, though arguably uneven and not suited to all tastes, a pretty special movie. Danny Boyle has proven to be, if nothing more, that increasingly rare director whose work is sure to be interesting, if often flawed - am I strange for feeling that his biggest box office "hits," Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, are actually his weakest movies? (My favorite is still Shallow Grave, the creepy little thriller that made players of both its director and first-time lead Ewan Macgregor.)

For this movie, Boyle cranked the style knob all the way up to 11; it's as if all the expensive camera tricks and digital effects that he wanted but couldn't afford when making 28 Days Later had to crowd themselves into his next picture. Another kind of movie might have suffered for it, but in this specific instance, Boyle's insistently non-objective eye, his studied nervous intensity and constant visual distortions, perfectly complement the story they illuminate. It's a matter of opinion, but excessive emphasis on design and heavy-handed visual style are part of what I expect from movies that take place entirely in space; I grew up on 2001 and Alien, and so, quite obviously, did Mr. Boyle and his screenwriter, sometime novelist Alex Garland.

Garland's excellent script for Sunshine often draws story points and imagery from genre classics, as did 28 Days Later, the last Boyle picture he wrote; however, the ground so covered here is less familiar, so the recycling works a little better. The "oxygen garden" set recalls the domed space gardens Bruce Dern maniacally took care of in Silent Running; the "earth room" which provides digitally rendered environments for crew members suffering from psych disorders, is obviously inspired by the infamous death chamber in Soylent Green; the mission, and some of the psychology, echo the darker portions of Dark Star. In all these instances, Garland and Boyle have borrowed bits of story at the proper oblique angle, as well as updated and improved the effects involved.

Like Aronovsky's The Fountain, Sunshine offers, within the science fiction genre, believable human drama. Perhaps Sunshine and The Fountain, along with their more-successful (though more action-oriented) contemporary Children of Men, are harbingers of an emergent "adult science fiction" movement, similar to the "adult Western" subgenre that naturally and necessarily began to occur back in the fifties. The ever-decreasing costs of staging SF now allow it; we, the "core" audience, are certainly ready for it.

If Sunshine is notable for this atypical seriousness and maturity, it is almost unique, in that it is "hard" science fiction. Every story development is driven by either the physics of space travel, science that is often discussed in convincing and absorbing detail; or by the psychology of space travel, the complex stresses that confound and crack the highly capable minds of characters whose increasingly desperate actions always express the idea that heroism in space consists not just in combating the environment's extreme physical limitations, but first, and maybe foremost, in overcoming personal, psychological issues. Of the half-dozen or so genuine "hard" space travel movies ever made (Destination Moon, 2001, and Robinson Crusoe on Mars are probably the only screen titles worth mentioning drawn from what, in the prose canon, consists of a perennially thriving subgenre), this may be the movie that is most consistently and carefully conscious of its role as such.

Sunshine is unrelentingly dark and intense and requires thoughtful alert viewers who will be assaulted as much as entertained by its cold intensity and visual overkill. Science fiction fans might want to consider Sunshine required viewing, even those to whom it doesn't sound like much fun; they just don't make much for the screen, in this genre, that is this accomplished.

I saved the big screen big news among genre fans this month, Stardust, for second, not just because I'm apparently in stark disagreement with almost everyone in the "sub-culture," which is of course often the case, but because in this instance, I don't clearly understand how or why. Stardust is spectacularly lousy, a dreadful picture in every way, appalling, offensive, and, most damningly, almost completely incoherent; however, a lot of fantasy fans are apparently enjoying this, the first "major" Neil Gaiman adaptation.

Part of the reason for the wide divide between me and these other viewers lies in this perceived incoherence. I had so much trouble following Stardust from scene to scene, from moment to moment, that I spent the better part of the movie in a state of disoriented annoyance; I still find myself unable to connect the scenes copious notes taken at the time comment on in any way that adds up to a coherent "plot" I can summarize for this review. But apparently Drew Bittner, who posted this review elsewhere at this very site, didn't have any trouble; in fact, Drew's lengthy description of the story clears up a lot of the questions I had. (The fact that one can spend several paragraphs detailing this story, which is rare for a Hollywood movie - in fact that's why I don't do it much, because generally movies are short on story, as a matter of studied intent – is important here too, and I'll get back to it.)

I suspect the reason Drew had no problem following this tangled mess, is that Drew read the book (by Mr. Gaiman, with charming Rackhamesque illustrations by Charles Vess), which I must admit I have not. I suspect that many folks who can and do get right and thoroughly into this movie are prepped by the prose original not to stumble over the problems with clarity that addle the screenplay (by director Matthew Vaughn with screenwriter Jane Goldman, not Gaiman himself, though Uncle Neil was apparently, if unfortunately, closely involved with this production, if a producer credit indicates anything).

However, no book reading entirely accounts for the cult audience Stardust is already attracting, considering how thoroughly bad it really is. This is not a mere question of taste; insofar as filmmaking can be largely easily reduced to technical matters, Stardust is poorly executed in every department. With or without the backgrounding the book perhaps provides, the story told by Stardust, the movie, consists of unlikable characters badly played pursuing muddled goals through a disconnected series of fantastic incidents that almost always occur without accompaniment by a clear explanation of the fantastic elements involved, often along the way indulging in the expression of a really ugly sense of humor; it seems like half the dialogue consists of nasty insults flung at each other by nearly all the characters, "jokes" that only dignify themselves as such at all by the inclusion of an exotic word or two. It works like this: if you call someone a "creepy asshole," that's not comedy; but it is comedy, if you call someone a "spotty toad-chewer". (If you don't happen to be painfully aware that the oft-repeated trope is ineptly imitated from early Monty Python material, you'll just be confused: is this, you'll keep asking yourself, supposed to be funny?)

Stardust doesn't even look very good very much of the time, which is sort of a feat, considering that its designers had, if nothing else, a pile of Charles Vess illustrations, already paid for, to draw inspiration from. You'll hear otherwise elsewhere because some viewers will be snowed by the beautifully rendered digital shots that connect each sequence, during which camera swoops gracefully over and through jawdropping animated/painted landscapes, only to settle, at the end of the transitional shot, back down to earth, where the A-unit director takes creative control back from the digital f/x supervisor, and the picture resumes its general look of haphazard dullness. (Effects supervisors often insist on stepping up to "direct" their own work, and bad directors step aside to let them; the resultant picture is always a poorly staged bore when the actors are talking, and always visually stunning when they aren't. This will distract the hell out of you, once you know how to watch for it; for obvious examples, catch the first two Harry Potter movies again, or go see Stardust, now playing.)

I remain unsure how any audience could miss this rampant mediocrity I'm ranting about, but they are; so by way of accounting for the serious lapse in taste a significant percentage of serious fantasy fans apparently suffer on behalf of this movie, my best guess is this: unlike most Hollywood fantastica (outside the Tolkien and Rowling adaptations which like present company may be aesthetically uneven or questionable but certainly satisfy their audience), Stardust has plenty of story. In any sense that "story" or "plot" can be quantified, there is plenty of it here; incidents often occur; "things" are almost always "happening." If sheer quantity is part of your standard, the story Stardust stumbles beneath the burden of, is plenty adequate; though it's delivered in spectacularly messy fashion, there's enough of it here to capture the interest of contemporary fantasy fans, whose collective taste, when itself reduced by quantification, clearly entertains a preference for the reading of multivolume sagas several thousand pages in length over, say, short stories, of any quality. Of course such an audience craves more than the snack-sized bit of "story" that fits into a Hollywood studio story meeting one-page; which, of course, is all most Hollywood studio movies dare to offer, regardless of genre.

Stardust is already attracting a cult audience because Stardust offers something no one else is offering (outside those other aforementioned uneven adaptations). This limitation of selection is soon to change, at least for a season; take a look around any theater lobby right now and you'll find enough "coming soon" posters for family-oriented fantasies to give you the disorienting feeling of browsing a bookstore's young adult section. (Maybe in the rush Mr. Gaiman will redeem his name, by way of his script for the forthcoming Zemeckis Beowulf.)

The big news on DVD this month is the Korean monster movie The Host. I've had my eyes on the burgeoning Korean cinema for a decade, watching for the picture that puts South Korea as firmly on everyone's cinematic map as Crouching Tiger did for Hong Kong, and this is a definite candidate. Make no mistake – I wield superlatives with surgical precision: The Host is likely to be the most ferociously entertaining movie you see all year.

Following an opening sequence in which an American scientist causes dangerous chemicals to be dumped into the Han River, a few warm deft scenes establish a family-run food stand in Seoul's crowded riverside park, before a hideous flopping thing about thirty feet long that looks like it grew from some kind of tadpole comes raging out of the water and runs amok, swallowing several people and sparking a riot. The last person it grabs before diving back into the water is the little girl from the food stand. As interfering Americans (who misunderstand the monster as a plague threat) shut down the riverfront area (to fumigate it) the lost little girl's family receive a call from her cell phone, and from the little girl herself: she's still alive, but trapped in the monster's lair, somewhere in the sewers...

This is one of those movies critics and reviewers fear (and desire) the most: it's so good words can't describe it. Honest, no kidding, tears are welling up in my eyes, right now, at the thought of how momentous an opportunity I have, here, to convince you to rush out and see The Host. There are few movies with which to compare The Host: maybe if Howard Hawks had made Godzilla rather than The Thing... Perhaps if Akira Kurosawa had directed Jaws, it would have been this good... For effective use of a disgusting unique monster, Alien and Carpenter's version of The Thing come to mind... But really, The Host, like each of the classics I just mentioned, is in a class of its own. I am an unusually tough audience, as anyone knows who's read a few thousand words of me: nevertheless, The Host frightened and thrilled me; it made me laugh, and it made me cry; it even, before it was over, made me cheer at my TV set, and, when the credits rolled, applaud, though I was alone in the room.

No one has made a movie anything like this that is anything like this good in the English language in many, many years; is it any coincidence that one of the special things The Host does, is satirize Americans viciously and accurately? (For the full effect, watch the movie in Korean with subtitles; every time you see a Caucasian speaking English with a Korean interpreter, he makes and implements bizarre bad decisions that drastically affect the action – by halfway through, when you hear someone ask a question in English, you'll cringe and start worrying.) Of course, monster movies, supposedly light entertainment largely intended for children (present company included), have been a special source for social criticism since the beginning of the cinema; to cite some heavyweights by way of comparison, Whale's Frankenstein pictures, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the new remake of which I'll cover next month) and a dozen of their atomic age contemporaries, including, again, Godzilla, come immediately to mind; again, The Host is in a class all its own.

The Host: that's what this movie I'm raving about is called. You don't have to remember that title now, because this won't be the last time you hear it; The Host really is destined to become a worldwide cult classic.

Any other month, any month that is without a nearly-perfect Asian monster movie to trumpet about, the big news on DVD among foreign fantastic film aficionados would have been the French animated faux-cyberpunk Renaissance. In Paris in the twenty fifties, in a stylish but straight rehash of some very familiar plot mechanics, a detective follows the trail of clues left by a mysterious science secret down a narrative like a crooked alley that leads around a trail of bodies and a femme fatale or two.

It's true, this is just hardboiled detective fiction, dressed up to look like science fiction... But wow, is Renaissance spectacular looking! A mix of techniques (traditional, digital, the "rotoscope") contribute to widescreen animation that consistently mimics perfect realism, except it's entirely in black and white, with the color values totally blown out both directions, that is to say, everything is either black or white with no shades between. This is disorienting for about ten minutes; then (unlike the distorting animation in A Scanner Darkly, which is carefully designed to remain distracting) you get used to it, and it just looks way, way cool. Very few movies have ever captured the French fantastic comics vibe as accurately as this one does; in a double feature with the original Heavy Metal, a Ralph Bakshi or Rene Laloux classic, Renaissance might carry enough weight to hold up its end of the bill, purely on the strength of its stunning visuals. Renaissance is worth watching, and worth watching twice, just for the exterior cityscapes; its Paris sets out to stand alongside the Los Angeles of Blade Runner and the Tokyo of Akira, and while this column is already stuffed to bursting with hyperbolic comparisons, the attempt is at least remarkable.

One last honorable mention: Malpertuis, a European curiosity once (more expressively) titled "Legend of Doom House," adapts a novel by under-read Belgian Poe disciple Jean Ray; its cast includes Orson Welles himself, whose supporting role unfortunately requires that he remain in bed, then die early on. Welles plays a moribund patriarch in a mansion on an island whose peculiar will requires that its beneficiaries must continue to reside in the mansion after his death until only one of them is left to inherit the fortune, or two survivors are left, who must then marry to inherit.

Director Kumel's (as well as screenwriter Jean Ferry's) follow-up to their erotic vampire classic Daughters of Darkness (which, by the way, is one of the few truly great vampire movies), Malpertuis is a little dull for a while to begin with, a psychedelicized stab at comic surrealism with a striking Gothic streak that tries but fails to climb onto the top shelf between Bunuel and Fellini. However, after Welles dies and the heirs start squabbling, the story blossoms into the kind of advanced head game played by later cult classics like The Tenant, Fight Club, and Donnie Darko, in the process unfolding some awfully strange supporting elements that are fantastic in nature (how did Orson Welles turn to stone in his coffin? and what are those tiny hideously giggling things scurrying around in the attic?). If it sounds like it's for you, it certainly is; as I said it starts slow, but stick with it, and you won't be disappointed.


Our Readers Respond

From: William Sleator:
    This reviewer is BRILLIANT--a great writer with excellent judgment and taste. Where did you ever find him? I will subscribe to your publication on the basis of this review alone.
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