Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sublime and Unstable in Danny Boyle's Sunshine

This is a riff on a review I posted a week or two ago on BlogCritics. I'm going to cut some of the review fat and elaborate on the philosophical theme a little. Be warned... there are no explicit spoilers, but I've been fairly liberal in alluding to plot points.

Danny Boyle's current film, running on a lower profile than some of his previous work, is a sci-fi thriller called Sunshine. Like Boyle's other films, like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, Sunshine is about a traumatic experience that taxes both the mind and the body. The Earth is at the mercy of a dying galaxy, and a small crew of a ship called the Icarus II is charged with piloting an apocalyptic bomb into the sun in order to restart its fusion mechanisms.

Boyle flaunts his influences. At times, the film seems like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially during the first half, when the imagery is dominated by slow, balletic interstellar maneuvers and stunning lights and colors. This half of the film is also when the psychological elements are most developed, and it’s this first half that audiences should remember most fondly. This also may be when Boyle seems most an artist: the visuals are unique, sublime, and engaging, and the film looks like it might develop as a ghostly portrait of a crew, rather than as a horror sci-fi scramble.

After the first hour, there’s a key change in tone and pace, and Sunshine becomes less about psychological balance and nuance and more about tension and claustrophobia. The key scene, where the transition takes place, is the crew’s exploration of another ship, the Icarus I, and this scene is punctuated by one of the most ruthless little cinematic tricks available to the filmmaker (a trick popularized by Tyler Durden in Fight Club). This tense, ghostly stretch is where the film breaks down into certain accepted horror conventions.

Reviewers reacted both positively and negatively to this shift. Certain horror aficionados simply didn't find it stimulating enough, and others saw it as eccentric and indecisive. However, as I turn my thoughts back to the film, I can see that it was a whole structure, designed with a creative vision behind it. And I think this vision is centered around a traditional philosophical concept in art called the sublime (also addressed in detail on Wikipedia).

The sublime, according to traditional aesthetic philosophy, is the pleasure derived from regarding nature and not being able to fully understand or assimilate it... the pleasure of being overwhelmed. The better-known philosophers differentiated this sharply from beauty, which could be represented and appreciated by human faculties (i.e. a painting could be beautiful, but it could not be sublime). The sublime is linked with an almost masochistic pleasure, because it usually goes hand-in-hand with a degree of danger, or lurking fear of the unknowable.

For the first half of Sunshine, the sublime was certainly a theme. The characters were reaching toward the sun, intellectually and sometimes physically, and it was almost within their grasp. The earliest deaths in the film are the result of the astronauts letting the beauty of the sun overtake them. They are all overwhelmed by it... it undercuts their powers of reason and invades their dreams.

The first half of Sunshine is a distillation of sublime reflections... it's taken its cues from Kubrick's masterpiece, and it's turned them outward, so the cold, dispirited emptiness of the characters in 2001 is replaced with the hopeful sadness and resignation of the crew of the Icarus II. However, this tone changes dramatically after the crew visits the Icarus I. At this point, the film's psychology shifts from disconnected reflection on nature to the sliding terror of a mission going out of control. The Icarus I seems to represent the danger of losing yourself in your reverence.

If the change in pacing and atmosphere aren't enough, we're introduced to a character who has most certainly slid from veneration into obsession, inhumanity, and madness. Okay, so he isn't developed as a character, so much. Rather, he sweeps through the second half of the film as a sermonizing force of nature, an obstacle that the crew has to deal with to complete their mission. He's hardly even shown on screen, except shrouded in low-lit film grain or obscured in shaky camera motion blur. In this sense, it's not quite a horror film, because the horrifying figure is never shown... he stays a figment, an embodiment of the desperate gravity of the situation.

Ultimately, I think it's the deaths in Sunshine that bring out this theme, and bring unity to the whole thing. The first and last deaths are sad, but they're also celebrations, as characters stand before the overwhelming power of nature and let it snuff them out. It's worth noting that almost all the deaths are either the characters burning up, or freezing to death, either under the sun's gaze or in its absence. The film is poised on the edge between beauty and terror... an edge represented by the sublime in all its philosophical incarnations.

And Danny Boyle makes a noble effort to approach this unapproachable ideal, in all its metaphysical impossibility.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Healthcare! Viral Agents! And the well-being of the media according to Michael Moore and Mika Brzezinski

Oops... Michael Moore freaks out a little at Wolf Blitzer.

Here we see another moment of rampant leftist opinionation. It follows closely on the heels of this video of Mika Brzezinski, which contradicts it, in a certain way. Here are two people who really seem to care about what they're doing. For the moment, I'm going to talk about Moore, because... his clip is longer, I guess.

The man is not just running a media stunt. He's not a good enough actor to pull that off. No, indeed, Moore is stuttering and twitching because he's truly pissed at the segment that ran about Sicko, and I can understand why... the segment's mildly oppositional tone is irritating, and its argument is pretty incomprehensible. Let's look at that for a moment.

The segment concedes, almost in passing, that the US is #37 on the WHO's list of national health care systems. It makes an even briefer mention of the fact that we're the only industrialized nation without universal health care. After conceding these EXTREMELY important facts, the segment grants exaggerated importance to some rather empty arguments. The US is superior in terms of waiting times for non-essential medical procedures? Now THAT is a highly-qualified achievement. And then the segment inadvertently reminds us that the United States has worse waiting times for physician appointments than four out of five other industrialized nations, surveyed by some unnamed source. HOW does this demonstrate that service in the US isn't so bad? WHY are we supposed to care so much about Canada's wait times?

The segment was a pretty strange logical construction, and it seemed to take its points pretty seriously. This annoyed me as a viewer, but it really annoyed Moore, whose film was its subject.

As my roommate confirms (another good contribution from Dom), Moore has an unfortunate habit of wrecking his own credibility by freaking out at newscasters who are interviewing him. Why he spends ten minutes spazzing at Wolf about his underrepresentation is beyond me, especially when Wolf makes it clear that Moore has, in fact, been invited back, and Moore has consistently declined.

Contrast Michael Moore's credibility issues with Mika. She's part of the media industry that she's criticizing... mainstream television news... and as a result, she's pre-stocked with a solid reserve of credibility. She spends some of it here, but spent carefully, as Mika does it, the net result is more credibility in the future. After all, she's just demonstrated that she cares more about her job as a social function than as a service to her bosses. Moore has spent too much of his credibility on partisan rants, and at this point, his outburst at Wolf seems like a cliche instead of a statement.

In light of this shortcoming, I was glad to see the interview turn reasonably intelligent at around nine minutes. When Moore calmed the fuck down, his arguments became much more persuasive.

Jesus Christ... the equivalent of six 9-11's a year. Moore says he doesn't debate in sound bites, but as far as sound bites go, that's a powerful one.

Moore knows how to drive a point home, as he's demonstrated in each film he's released. However, in terms of standing up to the news agencies themselves, I think Mika Brzezinski does a better job from within the confines of the institution than Moore does from outside.

Finding the PoMo in Super Paper Mario (a Postmodern statement)

I'm gonna confess... I've been playing a video game quite a bit. Or at least, I've been facilitating and observing its being-playedness by a passing resident of the household. That game is called Super Paper Mario.

Okay, so in the history of Mario, we've gone from a fully-restricted two-dimensional world (Donkey Kong) to a non-restricted two-dimensional world (Super Mario Bros. through Super Mario World and beyond) to a three-dimensional world (Super Mario 64 through the forthcoming Super Mario Galaxy). Paper Mario is, in a sense, a reflection on the history of the two-dimensional Marios, which the game undertakes by offering a third dimension.

Now, because it's oriented around a two-dimensional game, the third dimension isn't that well developed. That's why it's called Paper Mario... the game is conscious of, and in a sense apologetic for, its two-dimensionality. However, for what it lacks as a three-dimensional game, Paper Mario makes up for as Postmodern Mario. Meta-Mario -- that's what we've been playing, and it's a fascinating experience.

To start, there's a level of historicism in Mario that's been a defining feature of postmodernism for a long time. Just as pop-art brought kitsch and self-conscious reference to art, SPM brings to the Wii a salvo of self-conscious references to Mario history, from the enormous 8-bit Mario you become when you grab a star, to the Princess's ability to float... it's sort of futile for me to list them. There are millions.

There are also references to the world outside the game. Occasionally, the characters mention you, the player, in order to explain their discussions of controller buttons, which Mario himself apparently doesn't understand. One of the enemies even has the Wii "processing" animation playing in its eye. These are discursive and semantic break-downs of the fourth wall that parallel Mario's own breaking of the fourth wall when he "flips" from 2-D space into 3-D space.

And about that "flipping" action, which takes Mario beyond the standard platform game world . He reveals hidden enemies, items, and landscapes that are on other two-dimensional planes, thus retreiving a certain more literal meaning of the phrase "parallel dimension." Most NPC's in SPM can't sense or interact within these alternate planes, making Mario unique, a sort of bodhisattva... come on, doesn't anyone else read a certain Eastern mysticism in that move? A moment of transcendence, perhaps? The same theme that appealed to Heidegger and Jung seems to have appealed to the Nintendo developers. Mario even learns it from a sage.

PoMario. That's the game, my friends. PLAY IT.