SUNSHINE and the Summer of Films Without Plot

25 08 2007

First, I want to say two things.  One is that I really really liked SUNSHINE, which I finally caught at the only theatre in LA which is still playing it — the Arclight.  Second, is that when I say without plot, what I really mean is without complex plot.

I haven’t seen a lot of films this summer.  For some reason, NOT going to Jordan to teach has cut down on my moviegoing.  Hmmm, perhaps writing has had some effect.  Or maybe it’s the heat.

In any case, I finally got to see SUNSHINE last night and, with the great picture and amazing sound, it was an amazing experience.  Amazing filmmaking, and some interesting characters kept me interested all the way through.  However, even while enjoying it, I had this sense of deja vu all over again.  Pinning it down was easy — I flashed back a month or two to when we saw THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM.  That was also a film which I enjoyed.

But both films had another similarity for me — they gave up plot complexity and exchanged it for continuous energy.  As a result, I enjoyed them, but found myself wavering in places.  My memory of Bourne, several weeks later, is one of pleasure but with absolutely no memory of content whatsoever.  In both films, exciting incident follows exciting incident without much respite.  In SUNSHINE, I barely had time to time to internalize one disaster (the film is a chronicle of an ill-fated futuristic space flight to the Sun) before another one was upon us.

Danny Boyle, the director of the really well done SHALLOW GRAVE and the truly amazing TRAINSPOTTING, sets up a small crew of astronauts, each of them with their own psychological makeup, and puts them on a ship heading for the center of our solar system.  After they come near to another spacecraft, an earlier space mission sent to do the same thing that they are doing (drop a nuclear payload in our Sun, to help restart it and keep it from dying out), they make a fateful decision to divert course to dock with it.  It is the beginning of a series of horrible disasters that follow them, one upon the other, without respite.

The film is fascinating in many ways, both in filmmaking and in subtext.  From its opening shots of extreme close-ups of eyes, to its visual special effects of the dancing gases that make up the Sun, to its incredible close photography of most of the events (extremely claustrophobic), to its fascinating use of subliminal sound effects, the film is clearly interested in how its characters perceive the world around them. There is an expression, drummed into me by a therapist I saw back in the eighties, that times of stress are the best opportunities for learning about ourselves.  That is what this film does with its characters — whether they are introspective or macho.

What SUNSHINE doesn’t do, is spend much time beyond those things.  It is a series of barely connected horrible incidents, and the characters must react to them in their own ways.  There isn’t much else going on here — besides the murky subplot of how humans relate to god and the unknowable.

BOURNE had no such lofty goals.  It was all about maintaining an E-ticket ride pace.  Despite its overt plot of a man trying to find himself, it was really more interesting in how a man reacts to danger.  Bourne is smart, clever, and strong.  And that is what gives the film its most entertaining moments.

My point is this — despite enjoying both rides, and realizing that the plots were convoluted, I missed any depth in them.  Each were a series of barely connected incidents, which provoked reactions from their characters.  TRAINSPOTTING had an extremely different level of plot — there were characters and relationships and there was a plotline, just like in SUNSHINE.  However, there was also plot turns that brought depth to my involvement in the storyline. There were mutliple plot threads that interacted or not.

And that made it a more interesting film for me.

Even though I liked this.  Really.

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