Archive for the ‘Sci-fi films’ Category



June 28, 2008

Futurama Movie: The Beast with a Billion Backs Review


Length: 89 min

Précis: Futurama movie number two of four is focused on the theme of love … examined through a plot about an inter-universe rift and a planet-sized tentacle monster.  Most importantly though, it’s funnier than the first Futurama film!

Review by Matt:

Good news everyone! Futurama, the animated sci-fi comedy show created by Matt Groening, continues its afterlife with the release of the second of four post-television movies: The Beast with a Billion Backs. The Futurama fan base is large and diverse, so some of you will inevitably dispute my assessment – but let me tell you: The Beast with a Billion Backs is much better than the first Futurama movie. To quote one high profile film scholar, Bender’s Big Score was a “weak, boring disappointment”. Inexplicably, Beast with a Billion Backs is just a whole lot cleverer and funnier. The difference between the two is like watching a bad Futurama episode (like, say, The Deep South or That’s Lobstertainment!) and watching a pretty good one (like, say, Godfellas or The Farnsworth Parabox). Who knows what changed in the well-populated Futurama team – but it was the right thing. Beast with a Billion Backs is like the good old days of Futurama again. The jokes come frequently, they’re a combo of slapstick, black, offbeat and witty, and it’s all couched in the kind of sci-fi action that tickles your nerd centre.

Hopefully viewers know the premise of this show already. The movie doesn’t take any time to bring outsiders up to speed. No help from me – read the premise of the show if you need some background. Beast isn’t as “fans only” as the first Futurama Movie though, and there are less in-jokes. You’re also fine to watch this movie without having seen Bender’s Big Score.  The Beast With a Billion Backs gets straight into it: within the first five seconds, space has ripped open leaving an inter-universal portal hovering above New New York (presumably this was caused by Bender’s careless time-hopping in the previous film). Terrified earthlings are beginning to grow exhausted from pointing at it and screaming. It’s the kind of parallel-universe premise that Futurama loves (I also love it). But, in case the title didn’t already alert you, you’ll soon realise that this second Futurama film is mainly a big riff on the topic of love and sex. Despite the hovering gash in their universe, our main characters are largely concerned with romance:  Fry is preoccupied with his new girlfriend’s fancy for polygamy and Kif and Amy are headed to Kif’s home world to take part in a swampy, otherworldly marriage ceremony.

Meanwhile, Professor Farnsworth – aided by arch-rival Professor Wernstrom and the super-powered head of Stephen Hawking – investigates the anomaly.  In a typical Futurama parody, scientific efforts are brushed aside by the brash American president (the delightfully cantankerous Nixon’s head) who launches an all out military assault on the parallel world.  “Hell of a thing to send a universe to certain doom… “, philosophises mission leader Zap Brannigan, “Fun though! Makes a man feel big!” Of course, incorrigible robot Bender also has a primary plot thread, as he plays with his fellow robots (including one of my favourites – the pompous soap-star, Calculon) searching for a mythical cult called “The League of Robots”. He’s in fairly good form in this film, irascible and amoral as ever.

That’s just the beginning really. Messing with the anomaly soon unleashes an almighty universe-altering adventure, featuring a tentacled Casanova, voiced by David Cross. I won’t go into detail, but it’s another one of those extravagant sci-fi ideas for which Futurama is well known. This one adds a little dash of philosophical weirdity too, which I quite enjoyed. Potentially it has a level of absurdity that might not gel with everyone. Me? I love the absurdity. It’s kind of a War of the Worlds meets Everybody Loves Raymond caper that allows the love/sex theme to take centre stage. As you’d expect, the background to the film is also bustling with neat, nerdish ideas and parodies of modern life.

But the only reason these traits actually shine is that they are housed in 90 minutes that mostly stays sharp and funny. For me, that’s where the previous movie lost it. Beast with a Billion Backs is not off-the-scale funny – not all the jokes hit home – but there are still enough winners to make it pretty enjoyable. My biggest struggle was with the film’s meandering plot. I think it might be hard to stretch the Futurama style over 90 minutes, and the plot sometimes clunks forward a bit awkwardly. After so many jokey sidetracks you might start to wish there was something sturdier at the core. But there’s the rub: which do you want? It’s difficult to pump out constant irreverent humour and still maintain intricate plotting and deep characters. So, hey, overall I’m satisfied.

I lamented in my last review that the Futurama movies could do better than Bender’s Big Score. Effort number two, The Beast with a Billion Backs is a decent step up. It’s at least made sure it’s delivered on its core promise: there are plenty of moments to make you laugh!

(Note: Add your favourite lines from Beast With a Billion Backs in the comments section)



June 24, 2008

Cloverfield Review


Length: 95 min

Something has found us.

Précis: Energetic monster-mayhem in NYC, filmed through a first-person account.

Review by Matt:

One of the main characters in Cloverfield, Rob (Michael Stahl-David), is having a farewell party. It is being filmed on handycam by Rob’s friend, Hud (T J Miller). It is this “home movie” that we the audience are seeing. Pretty mundane. Rob is leaving Manhattan the next day for a new life in Japan. Unfortunately, before he goes, Japan comes to him … in the form of its favourite city-smashing giant lizard, Godzilla!  BOOM!!

Actually, the enraged creature that suddenly descends on the Big Apple is not exactly Godzilla (and in a remarkable display of copyright compliance no character ever utters the world “Godzilla”). But it could well be Godzilla’s cousin. In any case, it is just as good at pulverising a cities as the famous reptile . Naturally, it quickly scares Rob and his party out into the panicked streets.

Hud keeps his handycam running. The result is 90 minutes of shaky, first-person footage documenting a small posse’s attempts to find a lost friend and escape Manhattan, while chaotic monster-action goes down all around. Cloverfield’s style basically parallels the infamous Blair Witch Project. We only see the perspective of one person and one camera throughout the entire account. Doing away with the constructed, edited narrative of other monster movies makes Cloverfield a much tastier film. We’re as confused and uninformed as our cameraman. We’re only given glimpses of the invidious invader and of the army’s desperate attempts to contain it and evacuate the city. Some viewers might find it frustrating that we do not receive a complete picture, but I liked the fact that the horror is left to brood in our minds. There are scores of other “invaded city” stories if you want to go and see a plotted explanation. I was mostly on-board with the turbulent “oh my god what’s happening?!” style because I appreciated that within the framework it sets up (mysterious monster crushes city), the action in Cloverfield is fairly realistic.

What the film has going for it is that it has picked a simple story and style and just pumped it out in a tense and exciting ninety minutes. Explosions, monsters, deaths, panic. Repeat. It’s not groundbreakingly original but that doesn’t really matter. One influence that Cloverfield has obviously plucked from the zeitgeist is the 9/11 world trade centre tragedy. The visual parallels are striking, as Manhattan buildings collapse and dust spews through the streets engulfing the city’s shocked denizens. The film’s effects are done brilliantly and for the most part it really looks like the footage of a hapless victim stuck in the thick of it. I didn’t find the bumpy hand-held style annoying or nauseating (as some viewers apparently have). If anything, the camerawork was probably too steady and convenient, considering the amount of city-stomping monster-mayhem going on around these poor sods.

The film’s biggest problem is its characters. Often acting is only ever noticed if something is amiss. Here, it is noticeable. Cloverfield’s band of twenty-somethings seem incurably two-dimensional, even though the film gives us twenty minutes of “home movie” with them before the monster even comes a-knocking. Somehow our guides through devastated downtown don’t look like everyday people who’ve stumbled into a spontaneous documentary. They just look like actors whose attempts at appearing realistic are a bit hammy. So Cloverfield’s relationship/romance strands swirl away in the New York dust, along with our potential empathy. But at least you won’t feel too guilty if you cheer a bit for the monster.

In any case, the immersive sci-fi action is still ample for a good cinema experience. Cloverfield delivers an exciting monster film that is much better than your standard “city under threat” blockbuster. Provided you don’t demand a conventional narrative and you can take a bit of mystery, shaky camera and hammy characterization, Cloverfield is worth a look as an enjoyable piece of fluff-entertainment.


IRON MAN (2008)

June 7, 2008

Iron Man Review


Length: 126 min


Mark 1. Mark 2. Mark 3.
Suit up.
Launching May 2 2008.
Armor up. Fully charged.
Armor up.
Fully charged.

Précis: Superhero film rockets far above others in the genre with a smart, contemporary story about the origins of an eccentric self-made hero.

Review by Matt:

Iron Man is the latest piece of popular culture (a Marvel comic book from the 1960s) vacuumed up by Hollywood’s all-devouring machine, and reconfigured into a blockbuster film. ‘Here comes the crap’, you say, and you’d be right to be dubious – Hollywood’s action blockbusters are too often like a showbag: they promise so much, but ultimately they’re a bag of junk. But – holy superheroes Batman!Iron Man is actually a rare exception where Hollywood hits the mark. Sit back and enjoy a big-budget, comic-book-action extravaganza which also manages to be smart, exciting and relatively believable.

That’s not to say it’s a masterwork of depth. In a nutshell, Iron Man is a fairly simple ‘origins’ story (a la Batman Begins) augmented with some slick action and sly humour. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) is a high-tech weapons whiz and and amoral playboy who’s earned billions by arming the good old USA with the WMDs it needs to rule the world. Stark suffers a traumatic epiphany (so often the catalyst for a superhero transformation) that melts his patriotism and spurs him to put his techno-prowess to better use. So he constructs a flying armoured exo-skeleton suit and starts thinking about how he can do good in the world, starting by disentangling himself from his profit-hungry company.

It’s a story that is fun and interesting for most of it’s length. The best thing Iron Man does plot-wise is to lay a proper foundation. Most superhero movies would busy themselves by having their guy face off against some monstrous villain or other threat. In Iron Man, the meat of the story is the birth of the character and his transformation into a unique hero. It’s refreshing to see a story more focused on the realities that would nettle a superhero. How do you invent your super-technology? How do you deal with the messy company/military/media pressures? etc.

Spending most of your viewing time with the jocular and fast-talking Robert Downey Jr is also a joy. He brings a naughtiness to the superhero stereotype and an arch tone to the film. It contrasts to the heaviness of other superhero flicks like Hulk and Batman. The contemporary setting also provides a nice touch of realism that is sometimes missing in the genre. The technological advancements featured in Iron Man don’t require a huge leap of faith – it’s modern military technology boosted by a bit of sci-fi imagination (that’s right, his suit isn’t actually clunky old iron – technically he should probably be called High-Tensile-Polymer Man”, but that’s not as catchy). The film uses contentious contemporary issues (war, weapons, insurgents etc) as decor, but the commentary on them is fairly light-on. Also, in true Hollywood style it gently questions the profit-focus of companies, but then shoves Burger King and Audi products in our faces (please note, Hollywood: I’m not going to buy an Audi and drive it to Burger King no matter how much you show them).

Amazingly, Iron Man was one of those productions written then rewritten and assembled by a cast of scriptwriters. So how does it work so well? It’s saved by the shining centrepiece of Iron Man/Stark and the intelligent directing by John Favreau. Get away from this core and it gets a bit jumpy. Some of the more Hollywood-esque elements are disappointing. There are a few moments of questionable reality, a bit of a truncated action-ending, and some watery support characters. Poor Gwyneth Paltrow has the worst deal – and the worst name – as ‘Pepper Potts’, Stark’s prim assistant/romantic interest. The almost unrecognizable (big, bald, bearded) Jeff Bridges has the best of the secondary roles as Stark’s paternalistic business partner who starts to flip when Stark switches sides.

Jumpiness aside, the movie is done smartly, maturely, and with gusto. Which makes it easy to get into and lifts it well above your average superhero movie. Hey, who doesn’t want to see a profiteer-of-war snap out of it, acknowledge his complicity, and then start kicking butts with giant rocket feet?

Review by Adam

I went to see Iron Man on its opening night such was the grip that the hype had on me. I tried to convince my five flatmates to come with me but none would. So I went solo. When I got there the session I wanted to go to was full and I faced a 50 minute wait till the next one. I sat and waited. Boy was it worth it!

I never got into the Iron Man comics nor the little I saw of the cartoons. For some reason it just seemed lame compared to all the other mutants and super powered freaks out there. The movie however transcends that , and it’s the personal connection that viewers have with Iron Man (aka Robby Downey Jr) that makes this movie smooth to watch. RDJ carries the wit and arrogance (and later the passion) that only a weapons billionaire could, and he does it with ease. There’s something all fuzzy and warm about seeing a purveyor of death turn into a defender of freedom and all that’s good in the world. For a second it makes you think that if all the weapons manufactures in the world saw this, the world would be a better place. Then you realise that that won’t happen and you start to plan how your robot exoskeleton would hunt them down (mine would land on the bonnet of their car, freaking them right out!).

A personal highlight for me in this movie was Jeff bridges, with his bushy beard and bald head. Fifteen bucks worth it right there! Gwenyth Paltrow is kinda average in this but really her part wasn’t ever going to be much more than sexual tension and the role of precarious attractive human facing death by villains. She does face death well though.

Ultimately I wanted this movie to be everything it was. Simple plot, superhero moral complexities, explosions… Did I mention simple plot and explosions? It delivered on all these fronts in a wonderfully enjoyable way. Don’t expect more than that, and boy oh boy will you be rewarded. 4 out of 5 Robot Exoskeletons.


JUMPER (2008)

May 3, 2008

Jumper Review


Length: 90 min

Anywhere is possible.
Anywhere. Anything. Instantly.

Précis: Shallow sci-fi/action tale about a guy who can teleport and the ridiculously-hair-styled religious nut who wants to eliminate him.

Review by Matt:

David Rice (Hayden Christensen) is a ‘jumper’. That means he is a special – and lucky – type of person who is able to ‘jump’ instantly to any place in the world just by willing it. Teleportation. A nice science-fiction premise. The slick new action film Jumper, directed by Doug Liman (who previously directed Mr & Mrs Smith and The Bourne Identity) tells David’s story, provoking fascinating thoughts in its audience like “Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to teleport?” and… no. Wait. Actually, that’s as thought provoking as Jumper gets. It’s one of the weakest and woolliest films around, barely managing to articulate even its simple plot. Nope, teleportation is all you get. Fortunately, this is an inherently interesting concept, so with a bit of action jumbled around it, you might forgive Jumper as a semi-interesting piece of escapist nonsense. I can be no more generous than that, because films like Jumper keep making me have to try and defend science-fiction as a good and thoughtful genre (it’s true – just read some novels, ok?).

Just like Gyges, Plato’s original super-powered everyman, once David discovers his god-like power he cannot resist temptation. He lifts money from bank vaults and quickly sets himself up as an emperor of decadence. He spends his time ‘jumping’ from his flashy apartment to the world’s most exotic locations, drinking life’s nectar like a selfish jerk. This is problem one with Jumper – our lead man is thoroughly unlikeable. Hayden Christensen’s acting certainly doesn’t bring any charisma to his flawed character. To begin with, you think maybe he is portraying omnipotent ennui. You later realise that it is just dull acting. So why should we care when amoral Mr Jumper is suddenly threatened by a fanatic jumper-hating group called “Paladins”, led by the hilariously coiffured Samuel L Jackson? We don’t care really. But it’s a little exciting at least to watch David fill out the rest of the plot by jumping away from these pursuers, along the way getting a little help from Griffin (Jamie Bell), another jumper. David also has some time to try wooing his equally bland love interest, Millie (Rachel Bilson), and to try and protect her when she becomes entangled in the Paladin-pursuit.

Nevertheless, there are a few thrills and curiosities. It’s actually nice to see that Millie’s character is appropriately scared and angry at this crazy jumper’s unexplained behaviour – as anyone would be. Too many film heroines are unrealistically trusting of the outlandish behaviour of their protagonist friends. Secondly, Samuel L Jackson’s ridiculous snow-white hair is like a free trip to the freak show. And, of course, if you’re interested in sci-fi concepts such as teleportation, it is at least nice to see it manifested on screen with some fine special effects and some frenetic, nicely-styled action.

I’m stretching, of course, because Jumper is so shallow it’s almost empty. Morality is always the most interesting theme when it comes to human superpowers. Naturally there’s no attention given to it in Jumper. The deepest it gets is the reasoning of the boss-Paladin as he eviscerates his captured jumpers: “Only God should have this power!” The actual plot – when it finally appears – is simply this: will he escape? And there’s no embellishment of that simple story. Where does David even get his superpower? Who knows? A slight effort is made to introduce some themes about parental abandonment, but this ends up being one of the most underdone plots imaginable. Ditto to the film’s sloppy ending, which does not exactly give us a sensible resolution. Presumably, Jumper 2 will clean up the mess, but I wouldn’t put any faith in it.

I admit to experiencing some guilty pleasure watching this film. But you should know that I have not read the book by Steven Gould on which the film is based, so I didn’t have a pre-conception that could be sullied. You should know also that I took very low expectations to Jumper, so the mildly entertaining result was a pleasant surprise.


I AM LEGEND (2007)

December 27, 2007

I Am Legend review
I am legend

Matt: Three stars

Length: 101min


The last man on earth is not alone.

Précis: The world’s last human being hangs in New York and battles zombies in a disappointingly flimsy rendition of an idea rich with potential.

Review by Matt:

In the future of 2012, humanity has turned into zombies. Not crap meandering Night of the Living Dead style zombies though. Smarter-than-your-average-zombie zombies who are also fortunate to be about as agile as Spiderman. Sounds like a super-race. Except – and this is always the bummer with zombies – they keep wanting to act rabid and eat people. That’s what Robert Neville (Will Smith) the last human on earth has to put up with after a mutated virus either killed or zombified all of humanity. Neville’s story is told in I Am Legend, the new blockbuster for the 2007-08 holiday season, adapted (with considerable liberties) from Richard Matheson’s famous 1950s novel of the same name.

It’s an exciting premise. Post-apocalyptic films are always exciting, as they’re a ripe genre for exploring big themes. I am Legend starts promisingly. Neville screams through the grass-ridden, abandoned streets of a moribund New York in a red-hot mustang. Deer and lions roam the streets with him (one assumes they escaped the Manhattan Zoo, unless savannah animals just materialise wherever there is grass) and he hunts the deer, creeping with a rifle through the literal urban jungle. Cool. Soon after, Neville is whacking golf balls from a stealth bomber out into the Manhattan Harbour. Neat. Some time later he pokes around in the zombie-ridden alleys, the audience plunged into the darkness with him. Scary.

Ok, but when does the day-in-the-life of the last human finish and the interesting and thought-provoking plot begin? Hmm, it pretty much doesn’t. Turns out that this is only an averagely interesting portrayal of the post-apocalyptic future. I Am Legend spends too much time showing us the eerie streets of future New York and there’s only a sophomoric sophistication to the rest of it. A quality dystopian film like Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006) will weave the intricacies of the future society into the actual plot without slowing down. I am Legend doesn’t get a jump-start until its second half when an event actually pushes the plot forward. From there, the remainder consists of zombies leaping video‑game-style at our hero. Something we’ve seen one thousand times in a variety of monster, alien and horror films.

I was not at all surprised to learn that director Francis Lawrence’s previous film experience consists of Constantine and a bunch of pop music videos (given these connections could he not have got Britney Spears in as a more realistic zombie?). I am Legend is generally pretty, but a bit anemic. The plot is a thin, straight line with a gasping little lurch every now and then. It even finishes with a weak deus ex machina which, considering the blundering way the plot was charging toward it, is really pretty predictable. The film also leaves plenty of frustrating questions about why Neville and the world are in this situation, and even about how some of the immediate plot makes sense (as you watch the second half, remember that Manhattan is an isolated island, with all bridges destroyed). Even with the flesh-eaters battering at the screen before me, I was distracted by some of the film’s inconsistencies.

Will Smith (who’s really starting to develop an oeuvre of Hollywood sci-fi flicks – I Robot, Independence Day, Men in Black) is at least easy to watch. It’s a tough gig for Neville: alone, pestered by surprisingly poorly rendered CGI zombies, with only his loyal German Shepherd to accompany him (the other dogs have rudely mutated into slavering hellhounds). Smith looks suitably forlorn and holds the screen pretty well. I think it might actually be to his advantage to be able to act without having to interact with other humans; he seems better when he just expresses quietly. It’s a good thing he has his trusty dog to work with; together they’re able to stir up some genuine moments of emotion. In Cast Away, poor old Tom Hanks only got a volleyball.

But none of this is really enough is it? Adequate acting from a man and his dog; a nicely computerized future New York; a kernel of an idea stolen from a classic? I’m disappointed to say that I am Legend is just a nice idea executed ineffectually, and it grazed right off me. I just hope that it’s not too long before Hollywood starts work on the magnificent-sounding Superman vs Batman movie that’s advertised in the background of I Am Legend’s 2012 Times Square. Of course if the filmmakers forget the plot and just try to string together a few action sequences, even Superman vs Batman will fail, despite its compelling premise. Just like I Am Legend.


FUTURAMA: BENDER’S BIG SCORE (Futurama Movie) (2007)

December 16, 2007

Futurama: Bender’s Big Score review
Futurama bender’s big score

Matt: Two and a half stars
Tracy: Two stars

Length: 88min

Précis: You need to be a fan; but sadly even the fans will think this is like an over-long, low-quality Futurama episode.

Review by Matt:

I’m genuinely unhappy to be writing a review about the Futurama Movie: Bender’s Big Score. Because ever since it first aired in 1999, I’ve been a fan of Futurama, the animated sci-fi comedy show created by Matt Groening. And now I’m going to have to tell you that even though Bender’s Big Score is the first exciting glimpse of Futurama since its axing from the Fox network in 2003, and it’s the first ever feature-length Futurama film, the movie is a weak, boring disappointment. Sigh, I’m sorry. I really wanted it to be great as well.

The plot of Bender’s Big Score is an ok idea, reminiscent of the kind of time-travelling paradoxes that often formed the spine of the old Futurama episodes. Extra‑terrestrial email scammers (yep, like cockroaches they’ll still be around 1000 years in the future) trick their way into ownership of the Planet Express Delivery Service and then discover that delivery boy Phillip J Fry is unknowingly holding the secret to time travel on his person (guess where – on his butt – snigger). The scammers exploit it to quickly conquer the world. And then, as anyone who has seen the Back to the Future series should know, the overuse of the time travel secret begins to endanger the fabric of the space/time continuum. It’s left to parallel versions of Fry and the reprobate robot Bender to make things right again.

All of the main characters from the television show play some kind of role along the way – Zoidberg, Professor Farnsworth, Hermes, Amy, Leela, Zap Brannigan, even Scruffy the Janitor – though it’s obviously difficult to let them all shine properly in just 90 minutes. Unlike The Simpsons Movie, which made a successful transition to the big screen and brought with it quite a coherent movie-length plot, Bender’s Big Score feels uneven and piecemeal, as if a few short episodes were roughly cobbled together. The Simpsons Movie also brought the show’s charisma with it. Bender’s Big Score somehow leaves that behind, which is a real shame because the television Futurama was really packed with charm.

The major problem though, is that the jokes are lacking! In some old episodes of the series it felt like the writers were in a golden mood and every moment had a clever zing. In Bender’s Big Score, like in some of the worst episodes, it seems they’ve just stacked together a bunch of forced, half-baked gags. There are a few crackling moments – such as the two excellent musical numbers – but mostly the wit and ebullient mischievousness that featured in the best episodes of the show seems muted.

And fear ye who comes to this movie with no knowledge of Futurama the show! Characters and ideas from the series appear with no context. I just know there will be viewers out there looking at Ethan ‘Bubblegum’ Tate the interstellar Harlem Globetrotting space physicist, or at the rampaging robotic Santa from Neptune, or Leela’s sewer mutant parents, and just holding their heads in utter confusion. In fact there are many references in the film that are exclusively for the loving fans (such as an explanation for the fossilization of Fry’s dog Seymour, and even an explanation for the buildings that are lasered to the ground outside the cryogenic chamber in the very first episode) so die-hards should at least appreciate that.

Bender’s Big Score is still Futurama at heart. There is still lots of nerdy sci-fi joy, cool ideas, lovely animation and some decent chuckles. But it’s not enough to just service the fans with in-references and a pretty sci-fi setting. I wanted a film that shone like the cleverest and most innovative episodes of Futurama (and there was much clever writing over the five years of the show). The good news is that three more Futurama movies are on the way. They can really be better than this.

I can hardly bring myself to do this to a show I’ve loved, but, Bender’s Big Score: two and a half stars.



November 11, 2007

Sunshine review

Matt: Four and a half
Tracy: Four Stars

Length: 108min


If the sun dies, so do we.
Dark days are coming.

Review by Matt:

Forget about global warming. In Sunshine’s cold future our beautiful sun has fizzled out. It’s global cooling we have to worry about now. Polluting like crazy hasn’t helped to warm things up (bummer – that would have been such a handy solution). So humanity has resorted to sending an elite team of seven astronauts on a mission to ‘jump-start’ our star by smacking it with a massive bomb – kind of like a stellar defibrillator. Earth has tried this mission once before and failed. Seven years ago a crew of seven astronauts navigated the inauspiciously-named Icarus to the Sun before suddenly vanishing before the mission was completed. An uncomfortable prelude for the new batch of astronauts. Sunshine begins as the tenaciously‑named Icarus II enters the same communication ‘dead-zone’ where the first Icarus disappeared, and is preparing to deliver its crucial payload to save humanity.

Unsurprisingly, the plan does not unfold smoothly. The crew faces a major dilemma when it suddenly detects a distress signal from the drifting Icarus I. What is it doing there? What could possibly have happened to it? The ship’s physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy), is asked to decide whether the team should deviate to dock with the ship and harvest its unused bomb. Two payloads would mean the team has two chances to jump-start the Sun and save the world and, as Capa puts it, ‘two last hopes are better than one.’ The decision is made and, needless to say, things get complicated. The poor viewer is sucked into a vortex of solar terror.

Sunshine provides some of the best and most tense humans-in-peril viewing around. Director Danny Boyle (best known for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later) is adept at constructing a menacing atmosphere and expertly employs some of the tried and true sci‑fi/mystery/horror filming techniques to achieve it. Consequently it feels occasionally feel like you’re walking through familiar sci-fi territory. At different times during Sunshine I distinctly felt the ghosts of Armageddon, Alien, Event Horizon, and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also sensed a ripple of modern Doctor Who; not only in Sunshine’s plot and mise-en-scene, but in its strong themes of human frailty and noble self sacrifice (the David Tennant incarnation of the Doctor has been particularly big on selflessly offering his own life to save humanity).

Despite the sense of sci-fi familiarity, Sunshine still treads its own path through the genre and it generates an electric (or solar?) experience for its viewers. And anyway, it’s probably near impossible to make a quality space film these days without having some residue of the work that came before. For me the Sunshine experience was also enhanced by the eerie and poetic undertone that Boyle infused into the film. It’s primarily felt through the portrayal of the Sun as a kind of god-like force. It seems appropriate that the representatives of humankind act out our strengths and frailties under this divine solar gaze.

Although Sunshine tells a fairly straightforward story, there’s actually a considerable profundity in the situations that arise and in the characters’ reactions. I found the script (written by Alex Garland, who also wrote The Beach and 28 Days) satisfying in the way it pressures the assortment of characters into making inescapable difficult and moral choices. It devotes time and attention to developing the scenario and the characters, which means the film has a slowish build-up – but this is necessary and it’s worth it. Sunshine’s cast is familiar, but not too well known (Rose Byrne, Chris Evans and Michelle Yeoh would be the most well-known). The actors’ performances are earnest and effective and they solidify the depth of these ‘characters in calamity’.

Many viewers and reviewers were unimpressed with this film. But not me. Sunshine is an unexpected sci-fi gem that tells a great story from start to finish.