By Ben Herr
No. 3: Sunshine (2007)
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Cillian Murphey, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans
What it’s about
The sun is dying, and the spaceship Icarus II is the only chance humanity has of reigniting our star and saving planet Earth from becoming uninhabitable. “Sunshine” joins the crew, already en route, as they deal with the stress of such a long voyage, attempt to solve an increasing number of problems the mission faces, weigh their moral responsibilities as our planet’s last hope and try, at any cost, to keep the mission moving forward.
Why it’s worth it
When a film sets such high stakes, I’ve come to expect to be underwhelmed by the result. However, “Sunshine” handles the stakes perfectly, focusing on characters early on while the mission is still going fairly smoothly. By establishing their concerns, problems, hopes and personalities first, the audience is more likely to get sucked in based on the crew, not just the enormous stakes. Then, when more and more goes wrong and the decisions faced have less clear answers, the audience is still attached to the fate of the crew. Because of this, the stakes feel real and experienceable, unlike a lot of disaster movies which focus primarily on the widespread catastrophe. The mission to save earth factors more into the themes of the film than its dramatic tension, serving up ethical and philosophical issues for the crew to wrestle with.
Additionally, the visuals and sounds of “Sunshine” distinguish it from other space travel movies. Minimalistic score and sounds (apart from a few spectacular pieces of music) create a vastness to the shots of space, and the sun is shown as a thing of incredible beauty as well as immense power for destruction. The sun is more than the destination, it is a constant danger to the mission, factoring into the plot, and its depiction captures both the sense of awe that it inspires and its immense danger.
For the first two-thirds of “Sunshine,” it is easily one of my top three favorite space films. The final act, however, serves up a plot twist that turns a beautiful, visionary, philosophical film into almost a horror flick, filmed like the slasher genre. The transition is so sudden and such a jolting derailing of everything that had been building up beforehand, that the negative effect it has on the film as a whole can be difficult for the viewer to move past. Therefore, the biggest benefit of this review is that if someone watches “Sunshine” expecting one of the worst climaxes in recent memory, then it will not have such a jolting, crushing impact on all of the great things about the film. And rest assured, the final five to ten minutes rights the course and concludes the story in a way that is at least fleetingly on par with the great ending “Sunshine” deserved.
No 2: Contact (1997)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew
McConaughey, William Fichtner
What it’s about
Dr. Ellie Arroway’s lifetime of passion for what lies beyond our own skies has led her on a hopeful search for alien life. When her scanners finally pick up a cryptic radio signal from an unknown source, her formerly scoffed at body of work receives the international spotlight. Just when her life’s efforts are about to yield rewards, however, Ellie’s systems and their use become controlled and hindered by government, public and even religious opposition. After the message is decrypted and appears to contain plans for a spaceship designed to carry one human, the media frenzy goes completely off the rails and Ellie’s struggle to maintain a role in her own project becomes a battle.
Why it’s worth it
“Contact” holds the distinction of being an alien contact movie that focuses on earth and on humans. It doesn’t look at what the discovery of another species could mean for space travel or intergalactic relations but examines how we humans would respond. Fear and borderline hysteria sweep across the public, religious extremists take it upon themselves to try to stop the “ungodly” efforts to reach out to the possible aliens, military leaders in the government want to shut down the whole operation due to the potential risk of attack, and all of these decisions are placed in the hands of those in power, not those who are actually educated on the matters. The efforts from different groups to obtain control of the situation result in a chaotic, yet totally believable, political standoff.
The main theme of “Contact” also makes it unique as it devotes a lot of time to the discussion of science, religion, and their places within the other. In many instances, these conversations feel like clunky efforts to cover all the bases, which only scrape the surface of deep theological issues and scientific perspectives (most hilariously when two characters raise broad new points, have the conversation interrupted, and never revisit the topic). By the end, however, “Contact” presents a fairly balanced view of each perspective (though the exclusion of a single line would have left things perfectly balanced and made for a better film) and resolves science and religion as not mutually exclusive, a refreshing change from most equivalent films that masquerade as fair and balanced before trying to bludgeon the opposing side with the conclusion.
For a bonus plug, famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has named “Contact” as the science fiction film that was most impactful to him, so fans of his may want to check it out.
Before sitting down to view “Contact,” keep in mind that it is a two and a half hour, slow moving film that is, at times, a disorganized mess. It’s a great example of a film that would have been much better had it tried to do much less, as several subplots pull the emergency brake on momentum and challenge our suspension of disbelief. If the previous paragraphs seemed fascinating, it is still worth a watch, but will probably lose the attention of those only casually interested.
No. 1: Moon (2009)
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell, Kevin Spacey (voice)
What it’s about
Lunar Industries has become Earth’s No. 1 power supplier by harvesting the sun’s energy from the surface of the moon. Their efficient robotic systems only need a single human to make repairs and operate each station, keeping costs to a minimum. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is nearing the end of a three-year contract and is anticipating the end of his solitary employment and reunion with his wife and child. With just two weeks to go, however, a string of incidents has Sam wondering if he can make it to the end of his term, and questioning whether he’s already lost his sanity.
Why it’s worth it
“Moon” delivers a down-to-earth, smart science fiction thriller that doesn’t rely on a big budget, action, or elaborate and imaginative settings. The colors are bleak but beautiful and the sets are simple yet engaging. The film’s success hinges on Sam Rockwell’s performance as the only person on screen (for most of the movie), and he entertains the audience and makes them care. Almost everything that the bloated, flashy, big budget sci-fi flicks that fail every summer do wrong, “Moon” does right.
With much of the film being “one guy in one place,” “Moon” could have been a dull, plodding story. Instead, it creates a captivating aura with unique visuals, striking music, and a masterful revealing of the plot. The story of Sam living alone and discovering, little by little, how much more there is to his world becomes captivating and offers plenty of twists and turns without getting too far fetched.
It might not be possible to discuss what makes “Moon” interesting in a spoiler-free format, but don’t just take my word for it. “Moon” can be found on lists of underrated science fiction films all over the place, and is a must-see for fans of the genre.
The big disappointment accompanying “Moon” is that the 2013 film “Oblivion” shares certain key plot points (by coincidence). With Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman headlining the picture, and a much bigger marketing campaign, it gained wider exposure and more viewership. Thus, a lot of people (like me) who saw “Oblivion” first will feel like it spoiled “Moon’s” plot twists, making it more predictable and diminishing its impact. Still, both films are unique enough that they can be appreciated separately.
Ben Herr lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he works as a dorm adviser for international high school students. He writes short stories, humor and opinion pieces about whatever current ideas and projects interest him.