My last post discussed the treatment of violence in Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011). Another theme in Drive is urban alienation, a theme explored in greater depth in another film which came out the same year: Shame, written and directed by Steve McQueen (no, not that one). Like Ryan Gosling’s Driver, Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is a man isolated in the urban wilderness, both men deriving meaning from specific activities, driving for Driver and sex for Brandon. Amusingly, both encounter Carey Mulligan, who plays Driver’s neighbour and potential romance Irene, and Brandon’s emotionally damaged sister, Sissy. Both films are made by non-Americans who turn a penetrating eye on American urban environments, Los Angeles in Drive and New York in Shame. A key element which emerges from these environments is isolation, and a key tool is high-definition digital film.
When discussing Shame with fellow movie buffs, the film has been described as “beautiful”, “haunting”, “hypnotic” and “mesmerising”. The underlying commonality among these responses is that Shame draws you in and maintains your attention, compelling the viewer to keep watching. McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt achieve this effect by staging much of the action in long takes. Many shots last several minutes and capture a lot of action, sometimes lasting for entire scenes. Furthermore, these long takes make use of deep focus, capturing detail in the distance as well as that close to the camera. In high definition, this detail is clearly visible, resulting in a rich and textured image, but not a cluttered one – everything within the frame is neat and ordered.
This style is used from very early in the film, as a naked Brandon rises and goes through his morning routine, a single take capturing him in his disciplined but sterile apartment as he walks, urinates and ignores the phone ringing. Through the expansive windows appear the first indications of his isolation – various anonymous buildings whose detail can be seen in high definition deep focus. This visual arrangement continues through the film, Brandon situated in expansive environments in which he is isolated. This isolation is achieved both by long shots which make him diminutive, and the high definition deep focus which does not emphasise him. The viewer identifies Brandon as different from the metal, concrete and glass around him, but with everything in equal focus and definition, the person is no more or less emphasised than what surrounds him. People are not only anonymous in Shame’s vision of New York, they are practically part of the scenery.
This scenery features many flat panels, including the plate glass windows of New York buildings, glass walls and doors in the office where Brandon works, sleek, shiny tables and computer screens. These smooth panels are visually echoed in the sleek planes of Brandon’s body, the naked breadths of his chest, back and legs are similarly smooth and almost featureless. These planes again integrate Brandon with his environment, which further expresses the disengagement he has with others. The protagonist glances off people as though he were made of glass or stainless steel himself. A subsequent role played by Fassbender was David in Prometheus, and his role in Shame serves as a fascinating precursor to the android. Although Brandon does have emotions, he as unable to operate as a human being as the artificial person.
McQueen’s long takes serve to emphasise Brandon’s isolation and immersion in his environment, in some scenes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This is especially striking when Brandon goes jogging, the camera capturing his progress in continuous tracking shots. As he jogs, he passes people, shops, restaurants, cars, never stopping or pausing, his progress uninterrupted either by obstacles or camera cuts. Again, his disassociation and alienation is emphasised by the film’s style, as the HD footage places the fibre of Brandon’s clothes and the texture of his skin and hair within an equally detailed environment – the reflections on water and oil patches, the sheen on car bodies and the detail of other people, not to mention the mottled walls of buildings. Everything is equally detailed, and so nothing is emphasised, our protagonist one feature among many, equally apparent and only discernible by the camera following his movement. This creates an intimacy between Brandon and the viewer, taking us (literally) along for his journey, sharing his isolation and disconnection which may be a reflection of many viewers’ experience of 21st century urban life.
Another version of this alienation appears during two scenes between Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They have a dinner date in which Brandon explains his aversion to relationships, his longest being four months. The scene occurs in a single take, the camera focus slowly narrowing either through a zoom or tracking shot, drawing the viewer closer to this intimate conversation. Outside the windows of the restaurant, the New York street is once again exquisitely detailed in the high definition deep focus, the couple, such as they are, merely the details that we can hear. Later, the deep focus creates an even more isolating effect, as Brandon and Marianne go to a hotel room and begin kissing and undressing, but Brandon stops before they proceed to intercourse. It seems that if he has an emotional connection to a sexual partner, he cannot become fully aroused. His isolation is again emphasised by the high definition deep focus which allows the viewer to see what takes place outside: rain spattering on the floor-to-ceiling windows, cars passing on the roads outside, cranes at a nearby construction site. Urban life progresses, this failed attempt at intimacy occuring in the midst of indifference. Brandon is emotionally distraught but, cruelly, the camera remains on him even once Marianne has left, a tearful Brandon gazing out at the uncaring city which continues uninterrupted. The viewer’s focus cannot focus on Brandon and Marianne, because the background action is a constant distraction. This distraction expresses the alienating effect of urban life, perpetual motion and empty expanses, in which Brandon, at least, cannot connect.
The long takes express Brandon’s discipline and continuity, his sexual addiction compartmentalised alongside his work and home life. Even when Sissy arrives unexpectedly, Brandon surprising her in his shower, the discipline continues as their first heated conversation occurs in a single take, Sissy’s naked form seen as a reflection, expressing her separation from Brandon. In a later conversation, when they talk on Brandon’s sofa, the focus becomes shallower, reducing the TV in the background to a blur of indistinct movement which is situated between them. Even while Sissy tries to find some way into her brother’s compassion, he coldly rebuffs her, the indistinct image of the TV expressing the barrier between them. The scene occurs in another long take, but the shallower focus helps to use the mise-en-scene to express the characters’ strained relationship.
Amongst these scenes of long takes, there are also moments of discontinuity, especially during Brandon’s virtual breakdowns. When he is overcome by shame and throws out all his pornography, the scene is presented in short takes, punctuated by jump cuts as he sweeps magazines, videos and a laptop into bin bags and dumps the bags on the street. A more intense and indeed upsetting scene occurs later, when Brandon goes to the apartment of two prostitutes and engages in a furious but agonising threesome. The scene is a montage, cutting between the expressions of Brandon and the women, their pumping bodies and the room’s furniture. It may rank as one of the most uncomfortable presentations of sexual intercourse ever committed to film, bereft of intimacy or even simple pleasure, Brandon screaming as though under torture.
Not that the prolonged takes are far away, as in probably the film’s most distressing scene, Brandon returns home in a panic to find Sissy in the bathroom with her wrists slashed. His discovery is captured in a long take, but without sound, Brandon’s anguish expressed through his face, contorted into a howl of agony. Here the film expresses the ineffable – the unspeakable and incomprehensible pain at finding a loved one dead or dying. Such scenes are common in films – Heat features a very similar one – but Shame offers one of the most effective encounters with an attempted suicide. Once again, the long take prolongs the agony, lingering on Brandon to an uncomfortable degree.
Shame demonstrates remarkable cinematography and editing choices, as one is largely merciless and the other restrained. New York is used to great effect, the HD footage capturing the city in exquisite detail, which serves to demonstrate the isolation of the protagonist. In another heartbreaking scene, Brandon sinks into an almost foetal crouch in a wasteland part of the city, crying out for something beyond his addicted and hollow existence.
Once again, we see everything, the pores of his face as richly textured as the tarmac around him. This is one the great effects of HD, creating a visual palette in which people and environments are presented in equal detail (I have published elsewhere on the use of this in Collateral). It need not be used in this way – particular shots as well as depth of focus can still emphasise actors’ faces. But in the case of Shame, urban alienation is effectively conveyed through long takes, deep focus and high definition digital film.
Olympus Has Fallen was a better experience than I anticipated. Antoine Fuqua’s film received mediocre reviews so I was not prepared to pay for it; fortunately I got a free ticket and it turned out to be good fun. As is often the case, low expectations led to a pleasant surprise as the film is far from awful. It is no masterpiece and has plenty of problems, but it is an entertaining piece of action cinema.
I would summarise this film as the missing link between Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) and Air Force One (Wolfgang Peterson, 1996). As in Air Force One, the President of the United States and senior members of his cabinet are taken prisoner by VERY EVIL terrorists. As in Die Hard, only one man stands between the VERY EVIL terrorists and even greater disaster. Air Force One had the conceit of this man being the President himself; in Olympus Has Fallen, the lone hero is Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), while President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) must the inflictions of Korean supremacist, Kang (Rick Yune). None of this is a spoiler as it’s all in the trailer.
Olympus Has Fallen is very much Die Hard in the White House, due to its confined setting and internal/external conflict. Banning used to be on the President’s security detail, but was removed when he saved President Asher but allowed the First Lady (a momentary Ashley Judd) to die – saving Asher is Banning’s redemption as well as his duty. Further parallels appear as Banning moves through crawlspaces in the walls, has to contend with a helicopter attack mounted by his supposed allies outside, the VERY EVIL (I’ll stop now) terrorists’ heavy artillery, some interchanges with Kang that (poorly) echo Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s banter in Die Hard, and even a moment when he encounters an enemy who pretends to be an ally. If the last two Die Hard films hadn’t been larger scale it would be easy to see John McClane in Banning’s position. This does appear to be the premise in 2013’s other film about the White House going down, entitled, imaginatively enough, White House Down. In Roland Emmerich’s film, Channing Tatum is a Capitol policeman touring the White House when it is taken over by terrorists and only he can save President Jamie Foxx. Perhaps it’s best that Willis never got there, there’d be nothing left for Tatum and Butler.
Not that Banning is simply McClane with a vaguely Scottish accent and a quarter of the wit (like Fuqua’s previous efforts Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter and Brooklyn’s Finest, Olympus Has Fallen is very serious). Part of Banning’s arsenal is his familiarity with the White House and its security, so the required suspension of disbelief is not as big as it could be. It is still pretty big though, as the terrorists (who know everything) target a secret nuclear strategy to unleash hell on earth; the Pentagon action committee (headed by a rather wasted Morgan Freeman) make every wrong decision except to occasionally trust Banning; a heavily armed plane opens fire on Washington, gunning down the jets sent after it as well as dozens of civilians on the ground.
I enjoy action movies very much, and indeed rate Die Hard as one of my favourite films of all time. There is a thrill in the spectacle of blazing guns that only just miss our hero, and generic conventions give us confidence that he will save the day. Despite this confidence, action cinema only works if there is tension and suspense. We may be confident that the hero will survive, but how? When Banning needs to get Connor Asher (Finley Jacobsen) away from the terrorists, will he wait them out or fight his way through them? How many of the hostages are expendable, and how many are necessary for Banning’s redemption? There are also stylistic considerations. As I argued in relation to Safe House, constant shaky-cam completely undercuts any tension. Fuqua favours steady cinematography; pans, whips, and tracking shots propel the action, while close-ups and fast editing convey the danger. Suspense like this invests the viewer in the action, which is heightened whenever a significant character dies.
How people die though is interesting. Many of the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen are very bloody, as civilians as well as numerous Secret Service agents are gunned down, many of whom we have got to know a little. Indeed, during the assault Banning is left alone as his friends die around him, and close-ups on his face allow us access to his grief. There are scenes of pain and suffering, as we see blood-stained bodies and several victims dying in agony. Kang obtains vital information from his hostages through torture, including a very ugly scene in which he punches and kicks Secretary of Defence Ruth McMillan (Melissa Leo), whose injuries and agonised screams of defiance are palpable. The physical emphasis of Olympus Has Fallen begins in the opening scene with Asher and Banning boxing, and many of the interpersonal clashes are brutal, not least the final, largely unarmed, fight between Banning and Kang.
This emphasis on physical action with associated embodied pain and suffering seems less common than it used to be. Historically, when movie characters were shot they coiled into a ball with a pained expression and then collapsed. Under the Hays Code, this was an acceptably sanitised way to present death on screen. With the withdrawal of the code and introduction of the MPAA rating system, New Hollywood saw more explicitly violent movies gain prominence, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather and Taxi Driver. These were not action movies per se, more westerns and crime films, but their success demonstrated the audience’s appetite for destruction.
The model for modern action films was fine-tuned during the 1980s, with the high concept approach favoured by producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Directors like Tony Scott and James Cameron as well as actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis became household names as a result of various loud, flashy, high concept action movies which could earn revenue through ticket sales, video rentals and, perhaps most importantly, merchandising. Many of the action films from this era were very violent, such as The Terminator, Commando, Predator, Lethal Weapon, Tango & Cash, Cobra, Nico and Hard To Kill as well as, of course, Die Hard. I knew these were violent because I saw them in video rental shops in the 90s and they all carried 18 certificates. In the US they were R, but the more stringent BBFC would have no thirteen or fourteen year-olds seeing such things (my first 18 certificate at the cinema was Se7en, and I was sixteen at the time).
Many of the prominent action films of the 90s, such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Speed, Die Hard with a Vengeance and The Matrix, only warranted a 15 in the UK (although there were exceptions, such as Face/Off). Stronger stuff was needed to qualify for an 18 certificate, which was largely the province of gangster films, such as Casino, The Usual Suspects, L.A. Confidential, and in the 21st century other titles including The Departed, Training Day and Drive, as well as horror films like Saw and the torture porn cycle. Action films were largely embraced by the 12A category, especially with the growth of the superhero genre. The X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Dark Knight and Hellboy franchises largely received 12A certificates, as did other blockbusters including Transformers, Inception, Avatar and Oblivion, not to mention contemporary-set action films like the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible franchises, and the seemingly unstoppable James Bond.
I was keen to see Olympus Has Fallen because it was awarded a 15 certificate, which seemed unusual for a film like this. Why would it be unusual, I thought? Is this level of violence and profanity that rare? Reflecting on the last decade of Hollywood action cinema, I realised it was, since the introduction of the 12A certificate in the UK. Recently, A Good Day to Die Hard was submitted to the BBFC and awarded a 15 certificate. The studio recut the film and resubmitted it in order to receive a 12A certificate, which increased the size of its audience. The same happened in 2012 with The Hunger Games as well as Taken 2. As a result, in recent years there has been a dearth of a certain kind of macho action film. In order to reach a wider audience, films are distributed with little explicit violence or strong language and minimal sexual content.
What is striking about these films is that, while they feature plenty of action, the emphasis is more often on the spectacle of scale than of death. Characters certainly die, but our attention is quickly drawn to something larger, often a digital creation such as a giant robot or an alien creature. We marvel instead of recoil, the action aesthetic has moved in the direction of “Wow” rather than “Ow”.
This change of direction has marginalised the macho action movie, where MEN are manly in their swearing, shooting and fighting. Nostalgia for 80s-style action has fuelled The Expendables franchise, as well as Sylvester Stallone’s return to Rambo and Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand. These films emphasise guns and bodies, rather than technological spectacle, and seem quaint and curiously niche.
Olympus Has Fallen emphasises physicality, yet much of the action is digital, especially the aerial assaults both by the terrorists and the Navy SEALs who attempt to retake the White House. This is clearly practical – create a completely digital Washington and you can have as much destruction as you like without having to pay or wait for the disruptions you cause in the city. Yet this sits uneasily with the emphasis on down-and-dirty physicality. In an interview with the BBC, Butler commented that he was left very sore after filming the climactic fight scene, which seems at odds with the CGI sequences.
Olympus Has Fallen falls into a peculiar niche of action films for non-family audiences. Action cinema has moved away from the graphic spectacle of pain, as this restricts audiences. That said, there is clearly still a market for harder action, which need not be serviced by Hollywood – the most intense action film in years was 2012’s The Raid from Indonesia. The Raid is a little different for being a martial arts film, where the emphasis is still very much on physicality and digital sequences are less frequent. For Hollywood action movies like Olympus Has Fallen (and perhaps White House Down), there remains a tension between the grit of physical action and the wonder of digital animation.
A couple of films in 2013 have been concerned with mental health, in different but interesting ways. The first was Side Effects, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on Contagion. Like that earlier effort, Side Effects takes a clinical approach to its subject, presenting its themes and narrative through a cool, detached aesthetic rather than drawing the viewer in through an arresting style. This proves to be appropriate, as the film becomes not an in-depth, probing expression of mental illness, but a conspiracy thriller that fails to engage and carries some troubling subtext about mental illness as well as gender and homosexuality. Conversely, Danny Boyle’s Trance begins as a glossy crime film but becomes steadily more convoluted and psychological. While not explicitly a film about mental illness, Trance is certainly about the mysteries of the mind.
Side Effects boasts a palette that is both clear and at times sickly, suggesting the oppressive atmosphere of contemporary urban life, which can be depressing. This is a topic ripe for cinematic exploration, which I will discuss in a future post relating to Drive and Shame. In Side Effects, it is not entirely easy to see why Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) would suffer from depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns to her after serving a prison sentence for insider trading, she has a decent job with a very supportive boss and an equally supportive mother-in-law. Why then, does she attempt to hurt or even kill herself and end up seeing Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and being treated with anti-depressants?
Initially, this appears to be the point: depression is not something to be easily explained by external stimulus. Emily suffers from something debilitating and real, but very hard to be understood by someone else. Jonathan describes depression as “the inability to construct a future”, which would have been very interesting to see on screen. Jonathan is sympathetic and, as the plot develops, insightful as he investigates further, but the film not only fails but actively avoids a cinematic representation of clinical depression.
This is not necessarily a problem, as the film also suggests criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and the conflict doctors encounter between care and commerce. Frustratingly, these issues are touched upon and skirted over, as a change of direction takes the viewer into a different sort of film, conspiracy thriller rather than mental health drama. Yet this thriller element is unengaging once it is revealed, largely because of a lack of thrills. Jonathan’s life is steadily disassembled, but he never seems panicked or more than fairly frustrated. This is not down to Law’s performance, but the script’s disinclination to get under the skin of who is, it turns out, the film’s protagonist, as well as the director’s unwillingness to express his mental state. Soderbergh is more than capable of taking us inside his characters’ heads, such as Terrence Stamp’s grief-fuelled anger in The Limey and George Clooney’s confusion and wonder in Solaris, or even the disillusionment of Michael Douglas and the doggedness of Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. Indeed, Side Effects is especially disappointing as it is lower than Soderbergh’s usual standards, the director following the writer’s swerve into mundanity and a deeply problematic final plot twist.
In my review of Skyfall last year, I commented on the problematic gender relations that film presents, effectively culminating in a reassertion of patriarchal power. Women do not belong in espionage, except as secretaries, is a persuasive reading of Skyfall. It was minor enough in that film not to spoil it for me, but in Side Effects the sexism and homophobia is rather more distasteful. The eventual revelation that Emily has been involved in a cunning plot/salacious relationship with her former therapist Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is narratively dull for being both reductionist and lazy. Furthermore, to have a pair of scheming lesbian lovers behind everything is somewhat offensive: Men, beware of women getting together, they might tear things down for you, could be construed as the message of the film. Jonathan’s eventual triumph over Emily is more than him getting his life back: it is a reassertion of patriarchy far more disturbing than that in Skyfall. Skyfall may discredit women, but Side Effects condemns them.
Perhaps cinema is not capable of truly expressing a mental state that is acutely individual, and Side Effects expresses the ineffability of mental illness. I have heard accounts from people who suffer from depression but never really understood how it feels. As a film ostensibly “about” mental illness but ultimately far from it, Side Effects has the unfortunate effect of cheapening this serious social issue by replacing depression with deception. As a narrative device, this feels like a cop-out, the film abandoning what was initially moving and disturbing in equal measure, to fall back on cliché. The film feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it never had much chance in the first place.
MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
That said, cinema has proved itself adept at simulating the mind, especially dreams. This is demonstrated in such works as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, eXistenZ, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Dr. and Inception. These simulations may not be entirely recognisable – I doubt anyone ever had a dream as cogent and organised as those in Inception – but filmmakers utilise techniques like the cut, fade and dissolve, as well as the ability to construct fantastical landscapes, to present something on screen which is akin to dreaming. Even films that do not take place within mindscapes, such as Avatar, reference dreaming in their aesthetic. Of particular note is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, which features sequences within a character’s hypnotic trance, much like Trance.
I’ve written previously on Danny Boyle and the excessive style he often applies to his films, with varying levels of success. Trance suits his style perfectly, as Simon (James McAvoy) has a fractured mind, and the handheld cinematography and discontinuous editing that were distracting in Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire serve to express the character’s mental state. Furthermore, Trance offers no aspirations, or pretensions, of social conscience or engagement with serious issues. It is a slick, dynamic genre film, a neo-noir directed by someone at the top of their game. Boyle’s skills as a director have been demonstrated across a variety of genres and media, and Trance serves as the ideal project for him to run wild. Doubtless hypnotherapists and psychoanalysts will decry the film’s inaccuracies and many a viewer may doubt its plausibility, but none of that stops Trance from being an engaging ride which displays Boyle’s characteristic visceral thrills.
Boyle is an intensely dynamic director who truly utilises the moving element of moving pictures. Trance is doubly dynamic as it is both a crime thriller with some brutal action sequences and a psychological thriller which expresses confusion and disorientation. When Simon visits hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) and is placed into hypnotic trances, we are taken into the trances as well. Sometimes the trances are clearly delineated from the rest of the action and other times less so, but stylistically the film becomes increasingly erratic and unreliable, as Simon becomes increasingly confused. Trances mix with memories, fantasies and events bleed into each: a key shot (also used in the trailer) is repeated, of Simon tapping glass while light shines upon it, a beautiful encapsulation of our protagonist’s status, seeing something he is unable to reach. But is this a memory, or a hypnotic suggestion? And is the difference between what happens to us and what we believe happens quite so clear?
As the film progresses, the viewer is presented with alternatives to the original set-up. Simon is our point of identification, the film’s protagonist who addresses the camera directly in the opening sequence, explaining (with a clear sense of irony and barely disguised contempt) an auction hall’s “policy” for dealing with attempted robbery. He is quickly injured in such an attempt by Franck (Vincent Cassel), inviting our sympathy further. But quickly we learn that Simon is not all he seems, as he was Franck’s inside man, but he remains a victim as Franck’s gang tortures him for information that he cannot remember. The introduction of Elizabeth at first seems like assistance for Simon, but she becomes an active partner in the plot, and something else as romantic (not to mention dangerous) liaisons develop between her and Simon as well as Franck. Similarly, Simon transforms from oppressed victim to borderline psychopath with explosive moments of violence, eventually subduing Franck who becomes a victim. By the final scene, Simon has become monstrous and very different from how he originally appeared, while Elizabeth’s duplicity (along with her motivation) has been exposed. If we have an identification point, it is with Franck, a helpless victim whose (almost miraculous) escape is cause for celebration. Our loyalties and expectations are confounded and rearranged, as fractured as Simon’s mental state and the film’s method of presentation.
Trance’s great strength is to play games with its narrative expectations, generated both by its genre and its early narrative. Simon is less heroic protagonist as psychotic villain, demonstrated by his re-emerging violence. There is a hint of this at the start of the movie, as Simon’s voiceover mentions several times: “Do not be a hero” – indeed, he is far from that. Furthermore, Franck is less villainous master thief as the patsy duped by Elizabeth. And Elizabeth is far more than romantic interest, as she fills the role of the femme fatale, but ultimately proves to be a former victim who turns a dangerous situation to her advantage. Franck becomes our point of identification by the end of the film, as Elizabeth is left all-knowing but unknowable. Simon knows that he was duped and used, as does Franck, but Franck is left with the option of remembering or forgetting what he knows. As are we, since the film ends on an ambiguous note, reminiscent of The Prestige and Inception, Boyle (like Nolan) leaving us hanging because, in the end, we “want to be fooled”. Screens and panels are prominent throughout the film, including panes of glass like those mentioned earlier, paintings, and tablets (product placement ahoy!), which add to Trance’s meta-cinematic conceit, drawing parallels between Simon and Franck’s investigations and the viewer’s consumption of the film. We don’t want to forget what we’ve seen, so we don’t see Franck take that option. But then again, he might…
Side Effects and Trance provide an interesting demonstration of genre versus “quality”. Side Effects makes gestures towards engagement with a serious social problem but fails to deliver on its promise. Trance presents itself as a straightforward genre piece, but imbues that genre with engaging twists, a highly expressive style and meta-cinematic moments. This is the great opportunity genre has provided filmmakers with for decades. John Ford famously “made westerns”, westerns that have been read in many different ways. Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh have both worked in a variety of genres and demonstrated their respective styles in a multitude of contexts. Soderbergh tends to present his action from a distance, whereas Boyle does not so much draw the viewer in as grab them by the eyeballs and yank them into the diegesis. Both methods are effective, but with Side Effects, the script turns away from its “quality” elements into “lowlier” generic elements, and the style is too uninvolved to compensate with any great tension. Not that there is anything wrong with being generic, as demonstrated by Trance, but if you’re doing a genre piece, be up-front about it. Side Effects’ transition could have been more effective if the thriller element were better handled, but without that, it feels lazy. Trance, however, is imbued with a mischievous energy that dazzles and delights in equal measure. This makes Boyle’s film far more satisfying, and also a more interesting and persuasive expression of the mind on screen.
Spiritual themes run throughout the work of Danny Boyle, from the rise of greed in Shallow Grave to the transcendent states in Trainspotting, “what is written” in Slumdog Millionaire and the delirium of 127 Hours. In my previous post, I discussed the themes of salvation and the soul in 28 Days Later…, Boyle’s visceral and frightening non-zombie zombie film. Five years later, Boyle experimented with science fiction in Sunshine, which works as an interesting counterpoint to 28 Days Later…. The spirituality of Boyle’s work is especially apparent in Sunshine, and while parts of the film do not work as well as others, it remains a fascinating psychological and philosophical journey.
Whereas 28 Days Later… quickly breaks into a mad, frenzied dash, Sunshine has a more sedate opening act, the voiceover of Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, again) easing us into the steady movement through space. The voiceover provides simple and necessary exposition, informing the viewer that the sun is dying so the vessel Icarus II has been sent to reignite the star with a gigantic bomb. We also learn that the first mission, Icarus I, failed and, as the film progresses, this failure and its ramifications will form both the narrative and spiritual conflicts of Sunshine.
Much of Sunshine resembles other space travel science fiction: the living quarters of the Icarus II and the banter between the crew are reminiscent of Alien; the film’s spiritual concerns are similar to Solaris, while the isolation and alienation, as well as the gardens, recall Silent Running. I greatly admire Sunshine’s willingness to engage with serious themes of spirituality and confrontations with death, life, God and science. When science fiction does this, like in other recent films such as Inception, Avatar and Prometheus, it is at its most satisfying. Inevitably, “serious” sci-fi echoes 2001: A Space Odyssey, and there are moments in Sunshine that echo Stanley Kubrick’s opus. One of 2001’s many memorable scenes is when astronaut Dave Bowman moves through a stargate, described by some as “the ultimate trip”. Sunshine features similar moments when the screen is filled with light, a golden expanse that is both beautiful and terrible. The general aesthetic of films set in space is to emphasise the void of blackness, but Boyle uses light in Sunshine to extraordinary effect, bathing the Icarus II and the performers in golden radiance.
The characters’ entrancement (see what I did there?) is mirrored by the viewer’s envelopment, as the film transports us into its world through its “retina-scorching” visuals. For me, the best science fiction is that which transports you, and Sunshine certainly does that. A key element of this transportation is the film’s spiritual concerns, closely tied to the film’s use of light. The first scene after the opening voiceover presents Searle (Clifford Curtis) viewing the sun at what appears to be intense brightness, yet it is only 3% intensity, and much of Sunshine is almost unbearably bright. Searle describes his experience as something transcendent and profound. This element of the mission through space remains prominent throughout, an encounter with something immensely powerful and magnificent. Salvation for the Earth is the goal of the astronauts, but beyond this, each of them seek spiritual salvation or enlightenment in different and often misguided ways. Mace (Chris Evans) is the most cynical of the crew, committed only to completing the mission, which he does not live to see. Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) focuses upon life through the ship’s garden, which is both a living environment and the means to life for the crew, but the garden is destroyed by fire and she dies among its ashes. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and the film, caring for everyone as much as she can, and there are suggestions of a (nascent) romance between her and Capa. Of course, it comes to nothing and her compassion and sympathy is overridden, largely by Mace. Harvey (Troy Garity) and Trey (Benedict Wong) are more minor, but it is interesting that after his mistake endangers them all, Trey seeks redemption in suicide. But the most interesting quests for salvation are those who seek it in light.
For Searle and, to a lesser extent, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), salvation/enlightenment is achieved by “touching” the Sun. Searle demonstrates this conceit through his fascination with seeing as much light as he can. When Kaneda sacrifices himself to the Sun’s rays for the good of the mission, he turns towards the approaching wall of searing heat that will destroy him. At the moment of his death, Kaneda is calm, humble and seemingly embracing the great power that consumes him. Searle is intensely curious, repeatedly asking Kaneda over the radio “What do you see?” What Kaneda sees is his death, his eternal darkness, in the midst of light. What can you see when the retinas are overloaded by light? Too much light is ultimately blindness, while in the midst of darkness one heads for light. This paradox again reflects the film’s spiritual journey, a journey simultaneously into light and darkness.
The major contrast, of course, is between Capa and Pinbacker (Mark Strong), captain of Icacus I who went mad and killed his crew. Capa describes the ignition of the bomb, and by implication the Sun as a whole, as beautiful; Pinbacker has embraced death as he sees the Sun as expressive of God’s majesty, before which humanity should die. Pinbacker believes he has found salvation in death, Capa does so as well, but his death is life for Earth. Sunshine’s final explosion of light, and Capa’s almost ecstatic face as the reaction takes place, confirms his prediction that it will be “beautiful”. Indeed, Capa seems to achieve the transcendence that Searle pursued and that Pinbacker possibly found, but without the murderous madness. In its ultimate embrace of death as a transcendent experience, Sunshine resembles another film that came out the previous year, which also involves travelling to a dying star and confronting death: Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain. To an even greater extent than Sunshine, The Fountain fills its frame with almost tactile light, blinding and beautiful all at once. And in this enveloping light, both films express transcendence and spiritual salvation.
Sunshine does have problems, especially the final sequence which suffers from Boyle’s over-stylisation. When the character of Pinbacker appears, naked, scorched and space-crazy, the erratic editing and cinematography distracts from the danger. Narratively and thematically, the ending is fine, but stylistically it is a problem and straighter presentation might have been more effective. This is a recurrent problem with Boyle’s films, although I think he gets the balance right in Trance. In Sunshine, the final spill into horror undoes some of the tension generated in earlier scenes, but the spiritual journeys continue, presenting a route to salvation even, or perhaps especially, in the face of death.