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Any Story is Better if Set in Space

Published: August 31, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


Of the many films that Ive managed to view this summer, quite a few have been very good. They have ranged from pure popcorn brilliance (Transformers, Superbad) to intriguing (The Lives of Others) to among the best Ive ever seen (This is England). A large number have been terrible (The Simpsons Movie, Hairspray). However, no film seemed to strike my imagination quite like Danny Boyles Sunshine.

A contemporary science fiction movie, Sunshine tells the story of a doomed crew of astronauts as they hurtle towards the dying sun, armed with a stellar bomb, in an attempt to reignite it and save mankind.

Heard this plot before? Feeling a strong Armageddon vibe? Dont count on it. Sunshine is a hodgepodge of various styles and genres, and is a visual stunner to boot. Reviewers opinions of the movies worth put aside, nearly everyone has reached a consensus that the film indeed looks beautiful.

But there is an issue at hand: no one can agree on whether this film is an epic work or pure faux-artistic garbage. The movie has received just as many scathing reviews as it has celebratory ones. Debates rage on IMBDs message boards (of which yours truly is indeed a member). How could a movie that is so fascinating to many be so reviled by others?

I sometimes have a hard time seeing others points of view, but this just baffled me. Every person Ive seen Sunshine with has flat out not liked it, and Ive seen it three times now. I have tried to pinpoint what has turned others against this movie. Its certainly not the cinematography, nor is it the international and talented cast (including Ireland's Cillian Murphy and Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh). It seems most negative reviews feel that Sunshine has no constant genre.

True, Sunshine does transition from an ambient and quiet meditation on sanity to a horror film between moments of action-packed stunts and characters exploring their sense of mortality. But many of the positive reviews cite this “genre-hopping” as one of the films greater assets.

Thinking about this debate, another notion pops into my mind. Is sci-fi a genre of its own? Or is it merely a setting for other genres to take place?

Certainly science fiction movies have particular defining elements, such as space, aliens, and futuristic technology. There are specific character archetypes that fill the genre as well. Take for instance the rogue and debonair captain, a character made famous by icons as James T. Kirk, Han Solo and to a lesser degree, types such as Mal from Serenity.

It is also a genre that has been kind to strong-willed women such as Princess Leia or the Alien series Ripley. There is also the powerful and ominous villain, obvious examples including Darth Vader or Blade Runners Roy Batty.

So there are defining elements to any sci-fi story. But do sci-fi films (or novels for that matter) have defining plots, as say horror or romance or thrillers do? I think the answer is no. Sci-fi pictures contain the elements and stories of many genres.

Lets start with the essential science fiction films in history. We should examine one of the first, Stanley Kubricks 2001: A Space Odyssey. A brilliant opus of a movie, 2001 spends its over 2 hours of screen time starting as a survey and exposition on the notion of space travel as a means of human achievement.

To an audience viewing this movie in 1968, space missions were an utterly new and mind-blowing realization. The movie flies from this reference point into oblivion, eventually covering topics such as technology, human nature, and, in the end, shatters our notions of reality and God.

A true art film, 2001 remains a sci-fi classic. Other movies have indeed followed its lead, ranging from the Russian classic Solyaris to Spielbergs Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Lets not forget some failed attempts, like Red Planet or Contact, which come off as just pretentious.

We also must talk about the other defining moment in sci-fi filmmaking (also a defining moment in cinema): the Star Wars series. George Lucas took sci-fi from one extreme (the artsy THX) and revolutionized it as pop art. Star Wars remains an epic story, but an extremely campy, fun, and exciting one at that. Characters exchange witty banter amidst high octane space battles and meet all sorts of affable and often amusing space creatures. Star Wars is a pure adventure romp, similar to creator George Lucas and star Harrison Fords other great work, the Indiana Jones series.

Since Star Wars, many a film has followed its lead, from the underrated and wonderful The Fifth Element to the more recent Serenity. We must not forget another sci-fi staple and Star Wars precursor continuing its iconic science fiction status in its various and more current incarnations, Star Trek.

Serenity is a film worth noting, however, as it contains some elements of another frequently used science fiction genre: Space Horror. Space and horror genres have always been intertwined, and many of horrors defining works are sci-fi in nature. Films like Alien are classics which have spawned several sequels (although the sequel Aliens is pure action-film glory).

Other notable films include alien invasion tension builders like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or War of the Worlds. Movies like The Thing or Event Horizon even embody a bit of the slasher film as well.

It doesnt stop there, though. Family movies are present (E.T.), as well as comedies like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (although most tend to be parodies like Galaxy Quest or Mars Attacks!), and post-apocalyptic nightmares like Blade Runner or Twelve Monkeys.

The notion of the future being a dark place is a prevalent sci-fi theme, as any of the Philip K. Dick adaptations will tell you. Of course so will popcorn action flicks like The Matrix, The Chronicles of Riddick or I, Robot (although it should be noted that Asimovs book was intellectual and interesting unlike its movie contemporary, which was pure garbage).

This is where we get to the heart of the matter. So many great sci-fi movies contain multiple genres intertwined to form a coherent whole.

The Matrix films were so compelling (the first one was, at least) because of their fusion of martial arts, dystopian future, and vague metaphysical antics into a dynamic concept.

Minority Report operates as an action film, but it may also have something to say (at least the original story did). Blade Runner mixes adventure, mystery, and a strong morality tale into a powerfully realized dystopian setting.

Even old stalwarts like Star Trek tried to branch out, adding some real horror elements into the First Contact movie. Less successful attempts exist as well, like the horror/religion/alien invasion misfire that was Signs.

So in the end it appears that science fiction is less of a genre than it is a setting. Within science fiction you can have any sort of movie, with action and horror and more existential aims all represented, often times in the same movie.

While there are specific characteristics to the science fiction world, the stories that drive them exemplify many of the great archetypes present in all of cinema. And here we return to our original question: does the criticism that Sunshine tackles several genres during its course hold any water? My answer is no. However, the effectiveness of this genre intertwining is a whole separate debate. Hey, at least its not Battlefield Earth.