Saturday, November 14, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 7: Marooned in Time" (October 21, 1978)

In Jason of Star Command (1978-1980), Chapter 7, “Marooned in Time,” Jason (Craig Littler), Nicole (Susan Pratt), and Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) find themselves trapped in Dragos’ (Sid Haig) pocket dimension, a “strange, out of time place” called “The Limbo of the Lost.”

There, on a strange planetoid, they see strange figures from different time periods, and encounter Captain Kidd (Brendan Dillon), who promptly puts them in stockades.  Jason offers a trade, Wiki for freedom, but Kidd takes Wiki and flees, hoping to use the robot to open Dragos’ treasure chest.

When a beam freezes Kidd, Jason and the others, having escaped, come to his rescue, and use the resources in the treasure (gold, platinum and so forth), to power-up the Star Fire and escape the planet.

They get away just in time, as the planet explodes.  Then, in space, Dragos attacks, and traps the star fire in an electron storm.

Jason of Star Command veers towards Lost in Space (1965-1968) camp storytelling in “Marooned in Time,” an episode which finds the dramatis personae encountering the colorful pirate, Captain Kidd.

A larger-than-life character, who seems to accept reality of life in our far future, Kidd walks the line between villain and ally, and tags along with Jason in the gang in the upcoming episode “Attack of the Dragons.”

Still, one gets the feeling that not all the story details have been well-ironed out, or thought-through.  As the episode begins, Jason and the others see other denizens of the Limbo of the Lost, including an Old West cowboy and a cave-man.  Additionally, some of Captain Kidd’s men capture Jason, Nicole and Parsafoot by tossing a net over them. 

Later, however, Kidd reveals he is the only denizen of the Limbo and the Lost.  The others are illusions crated by Dragos. 

Even the ones who threw the net?  Who trapped Jason?  How exactly does that work?  Was the net illusion? Or did illusions find themselves able to move and manipulate matter (the net…)?

On the other hand, I like how the episode depicts Jason, and his resourcefulness.  While in stockades, he notes “when you can’t use your hands, use your head,” and pulls a splinter out of the stockade wood with his mouth.  He then uses it to pick the lock of the stockade.  This is a nice old-fashioned solution to a problem, especially in this high-tech world.

Next week: “Attack of the Dragons.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Monkey Business" (October 22, 1977)

I've been blogging Space Academy for some time now (at least six or seven weeks), and re-acquainting myself with this thirty-year old Saturday morning, live action show. It's been an enjoyable experience, mainly because I watched the series as a child and feel tremendous nostalgia for those bygone days of the 1970s. But also because the series features good special effects, and more importantly, nice, humanistic stories.

Much like Land of the Lost (1974-1977), Space Academy holds up to modern viewing assuming you make some concessions for context (like the idea that people will still be using the adjective "turkey" in the 30th century or so...).

But, every now and then, an episode of this Filmation series is just not very good. Still, a bad episode seems, at least at this juncture, the exception and not the rule.

"Monkey Business" is one of those bad ones.

As if an explanation is in order, just let me state, the episode involves a chimpanzee named Jake. 

You see, Adrian (Maggie Cooper) is working on an experiment involving chimpanzee/human communications. 

At around the same time, there's a disaster on a nearby asteroid mirror array, and Tee Gar (Brian Tochi) and Professor Bolt (Arnold Soboloff) are trapped on a planetoid as it freezes. 

As the temperature drops, both men are reduced to cowering underneath what appear to be tarps. This is actually an improvement, because the professor had been wearing what looks like a gold velour jogging outfit.

Anyway, Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott) and Paul (Ty Henderson) set out in a Seeker to help, but Loki  (Eric Greene) and Jake the ape have stowed away in the ship's rear compartment.

In attempting to repair the array, Chris must climb the scaffolding of a tower to reach a malfunctioning circuit board. But then he falls, and can't complete his mission.

So guess who has to fix the machinery? Yep, it's Jake the monkey, who just happens to be there on that mission. Exactly when he's needed. A perfectly convenient time to test human/chimp communication, right?

With the help of Adrian's experiment and Laura's psychic abilities, Jake proves successful.

Afterwards, Loki gets grounded for two weeks.

Well, what can I say? You can't have a "Countdown," a "Survivors of Zalon" or even a "Rocks of Janus" every time out the gate, right? 

 The problem with "Monkey Business" is that it doesn't really add anything new to our understanding of the cadets or their mission.  Another problem is that the story is obvious.

As much as I love Ark II (1976) -- another Filmation series -- I always hated that a talking chimpanzee, Adam, was part of the bargain.  Where did he come from? How could he talk?  The series never bothered to tell us, and so the character seemed like an attempt to pander to kids, and downplayed the series' overall (commendable) intelligence.  

Space Academy simply doesn't need a story featuring a monkey as a main character, especially a story that doesn't go in some exciting or fresh direction. 

I love chimpanzees, of course, and feel they are welcome in any cult-TV series if their presence arises from a good reason and not just a gimmick.  

But "Monkey Business" feels gimmicky to me.

That said, this episode features a nice miniature work and some good sets in terms of its depiction of the space array.

Next week: "The Phantom Planet."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Happy Friday the 13th: Ranking the Friday the 13th Films

Ranking the Friday the 13th Movies: Worst to Best.

12. Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985): This movie totally bungles the second movement of the Tommy Jarvis trilogy (IV, V, VI), and gives us not a reappearance by Jason, but rather a Jason impostor.  That sounds like it could be a reasonable narrative if handled correctly, but it is never explained how the impostor manages his Jason-like survival rate. He gets hit by a bull-dozer, and then stands back-up to continue fighting.  How this possible for a mere mortal man?  A sub-standard, really terribly movie in the canon.

11. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989): So, Toronto substitutes for Manhattan here, and Jason only reaches it in the last act…for a few minutes. Adding an insult to that injury, the movie seems to `believe that New York City utility companies flush toxic waste through the sewers every night.  At the film’s conclusion, Jason gets caught in the toxic flood and is reverted to the form of a child.  WTF? The death scenes are ludicrous, including one set in a disco aboard a cruise ship, where a female victim dies, literally, because she has no attention span. If she just kept her eyes on Jason, she might have survived. Instead, she can’t manage that feat, and he just appears in front of her and kills her.

10. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993): The fun of a Friday the 13th movie is seeing a big, hulking slasher in a hockey mask hack people up with a machete.  So what does this movie do? It eliminates Jason’s body and turns the slasher into a body-hopping ghoul.  What is this, The Hidden 2?  And then there’s some serious and lame retconning of the overall story. For example: the Voorhees house.  Jason and his mom had a house that everybody knew about?  That still exists?  That is well-furnished? That has a mail box? Then why was Jason living in a shack in the woods in Friday the 13th Part II?

9. Freddy vs. Jason (2003). Jason is Freddy’s patsy for the first part of this film, and then reveals, oddly, that his mortal fear (and Kryptonite, essentially…) is water.  This revelation occurs even though we have seen in Jason in functioning ably in water attacking people -- without fear -- in virtually every Friday the 13th movie since 1980. Whatever.

8. Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982): Folks my age have a lot of nostalgia for this particular movie, but it doesn’t hold up well outside that context. The stoner characters (who look like Cheech and Chong) are cringe-inducing, and the 3-D effects (with everything flying at the screen) look low-rent and ridiculous.  All the characters are dumb clichés, so the third time’s not the charm for the series. Now Jason moves and acts more like Michael Myers than an original character.

7. Friday the 13th (2009): The reboot plays like a Friday the 13th “Greatest Hits” mix tape, taking good ideas from many of the individual entries and working them into one intriguing narrative. That’s not a bad approach -- hitting all the visceral hot spots of the saga -- but the film somehow comes across as shallow and lacking in any real sense of fun.

6. Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter (1984): Not a great entry in the saga, but a fun and generally quite popular one. The film demonstrates a love for the horror genre by making young Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman) a make-up artist.  He uses that skill to good effect to decapitate Jason in the last act (while pretending to be a young Jason).  An eminently watchable entry, although nothing fresh or exciting in terms of storyline or effects, really.

5. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988): This impossible-to-resist entry is basically Jason vs. Stephen King’s Carrie. Accordingly, Jason falls victim to a slew of telekinetic trickery, well-orchestrated.  The first two acts aren’t great, but the last act is a hell of a lot of fun as a monster of the physical realm, Jason, does pitched battle with a heroine of the psychic realm.  Much more entertaining than it has any right to be.  My favorite murder also occurs in this film: the sleeping bag death.

4. Jason X (2002). Are you surprised that this one made it so high on the list?  Well, can you think of another Friday the 13th movie that is so relentlessly inventive, and which plays so wittily on the tropes of the series? Sure the movie’s premise is ridiculous, but it knows it is ridiculous.  The scene with Jason encountering nubile hologram characters who just “love” premarital sex is absolutely priceless and alone worth the price of admission.

3. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986): This entry turns Jason the slasher into a full-blooded supernatural monster (revived from the dead by lightning) to good and often funny impact. The James Bond-style opener, Jason’s encounter with survivalists, and a cameo appearance by Sartre’s No Exit are just few of the moments worth treasuring. 

2. Friday the 13th Part II (1981): This film pits a smart, resourceful child psychologist, Ginny (Amy Steel) against Jason’s developmentally-arrested “retard” (to quote the film; not my words). Lean and efficient, the film also introduces Jason’s mom fixation

1. Friday the 13th (1980): Still the best of the bunch, thanks to a smart screenplay, and some stand-out scares (including the final sting-in-the-tail/tale).  Here (as in all Jason films), it is suggested (through the presence of a storm) that the killer is a force of nature.  Similarly, there’s a Garden of Eden/Snake in the Garden metaphor at work at Crystal Lake.

Happy Friday the 13th: Jason X (2002)

How time flies! Another Friday the 13th is now upon us. 

Last month I gazed at Friday the 13th Part VII: A New Blood (1988), as well as the landmark 1980 original.

Today, I want to look at the only Friday the 13th film (other than Freddy vs. Jason [2004], I suppose), not to actually carry the Friday the 13th brand name: Jason X (2002).

Jason X is a huge departure for the slasher series because it is set in the distant future…and in outer space. The film is also one of the lowest-grossing entries in the sturdy franchise, which means, perhaps, that audiences didn’t take too well to its many departures from the norm.

But I’ll tell you right now, straight-up: I love Jason X.

It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that tosses Friday the 13th, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) and Aliens (1986) into a blender and comes up with one weird -- but also highly inventive -- horror film. The movie possesses a sense of joy about itself, and its own ridiculousness. The vibe is pure, anarchic glee.

While it’s true that the film is never overtly scary or suspenseful, Jason X is undeniably fun, gross, and ingenious. A few of the kills are downright inspired in conception and execution, especially the one involving a giant corkscrew, and another involving a doctor’s face dipped in liquid nitrogen.

Yet one particular moment in the film strides above all the rest, and deserves absolute, adoring respect.  

Late in the film, a cyborg version of Jason stumbles into a holodeck version of Camp Crystal Lake, and encounters two nubile young women (actually computer-generated distractions...) who proclaim -- loudly -- their love for premarital sex.  

Reverting to form, Jason stops to kill them, but the trick is that the avatars are designed just for that purpose, to appeal to his draconian (or perhaps Victorian...) sense of vice-precedes slice-or-dice morality.

I could watch this scene in Jason X a dozen times and not get tired of it. In part, this is so because the sleeping bag kill (my favorite in the series) is resurrected, and in part because the Friday the 13th franchise finally acknowledges on screen -- in true post-modern fashion -- its enduring subtext.  

You pay.  You fuck…you’re out of luck. 

Lest we forget, the original franchise came about as the Reagan Revolution unfolded in our nation, and a tide of conservatism swept the country.  These films -- though despised by conservatives -- are very much about that draconian, black-and-white world view. If you engage in premarital sex or smoke weed...Jason's going to kill you.  

So be good for goodness sake!

But back to Jason X. Any film that is willing to wink at the the entire saga's central conceit is seriously deserving of some love and respect.  

Accordingly, I bow down before Jason X. It may not be good in any tangible artistic sense, but it sure is knowing, nasty and entertaining as hell.

“I’ve seen worse.”

In 2010, at the Crystal Lake Research Facility, Jason Voorhees (Kane Hodder) escapes captivity. A resourceful scientist, Rowan (Lexa Doig) manages to freeze him in a cryogenic unit, but not before being wounded and succumbing to the cryo-gases as well.

Four hundred years later, in 2455, a class of students explores the now abandoned, environmentally-ravaged planet Earth.  There, students uncover Jason and Rowan at the ancient facility, and bring back the frozen life-forms to their ship.  

Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts), their teacher, sees an opportunity to make a profit.

When Rowan is awakened, she expresses concern about Jason, but Dr. Lowe assures her he is very dead. 

But Jason has never stayed dead for long, and this time is no exception...

“He just wants his machete back!”

Despite their charms, the Friday the 13th movies are repetitive in the extreme. Most of the films involve a lumbering killer (either Jason or his Mom) knocking off camp counselors under cover of approaching storm at scenic Camp Crystal Lake.  You get the scene involving pre-marital sex...and death.  Of smoking weed...and death.  Of skinny-dipping..and death. 

And then you get the tour of the dead, in which Jason has propped up all the bodies, so the Final Girl can run through them all like a fun house carnival. Then you get the coup de grace in which Jason apparently dies, and some twist-in-the-tail/tale that promises yet another sequel.  

Later movies throw in variations of the format, like adding a Carrie knock-off, or visiting Manhattan, but Jason X, perhaps, is the first of the franchise to turn its eyes towards wholesale assimilation of science fiction tropes.

Not surprisingly, Star Trek is a major inspiration, particularly The Next Generation. A major character, for instance, is a sentient android named Key-Em 14 (Lisa Ryder), who adapts to different environments, likes to role-play and is, apparently, fully-functional just like our old friend Mr. Data (Brent Spiner).  

Also appropriated from the Next Generation is the conceit of the holodeck, a kind of virtual reality chamber where reality can be re-molded to different settings based on user input.  As is the case on the Enterprise D, the space crew we meet in Jason X uses the holodeck for training and recreational purposes.

The Alien film series is also a major influence here. In particular, Rowan (Lexa Doig), plays basically the same role in Jason X as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) does in Aliens (1986). Consider the specifics: She is awakened from a long cryo-sleep to contend with a threat that only she has direct, first-person information about. In Aliens, that threat is the xenomorph from LV-426. In Jason X, of course, it is Mr. Voorhees. 

Similarly, both Rowan and Ripley continually act as a brand of Cassandra figure. They warn all those around them about what will happen once the threat is encountered, but they are ignored until it is too late.

Similarly, Rowan is surrounded by other figures you may recognize from Aliens.  That film also had an android, named Bishop (Lance Henriksen), of course.  But there’s Sgt. Brodski (Peter Mensah) in Jason X, a dedicated fighter and protector who makes a good stand-in for Michael Biehn’s Hicks.  And then there’s the Carter Burke surrogate, an avaricious teacher more interested in profit than safety: greedy Professor Lowe (Jonathan Potts).

These qualities and characters might be decried as cheap or obvious shots at more popular film/TV franchises, and yet I can’t really quibble with how Jason X utilizes them. It’s not a movie’s subject matter that counts, remember, but the ways in which a movie explores that subject matter. In this case, the futuristic trappings provide two great moments in Friday the 13th history.

The first such moment involves sick bay Nanites or nano-bots (another idea familiar to us from the Trek-verse) that re-build Jason as a half-flesh/half-metal juggernaut. I loved the idea of Jason getting a dramatic visual and technological upgrade so late in his cinematic life. There’s a great moment of Frankenstein-like portentousness here as the Nanites swarm down on Jason’s corpse and bring it back to life in this new, flesh-and-steel form.

Secondly, there’s that holodeck moment I mentioned in my introduction above. The survivors of the spaceship realize that Jason can’t resist temptation. He sees gorgeous, nubile camp counselors…and…must…kill them.  The urge is too strong for him to overcome. Frankly, this is a perfect movie moment, an inspiration that could emerge, finally, only from synthesizing so many disparate creative sources, and from accurate recognition of Friday the 13th's symbolic legacy and "meaning."

I also appreciate the film’s ending, which finds Jason careening to Earth Two like a falling star, and landing in the proximity of a body of water.  This is New Crystal Lake, a perfect place for him to take up old (murderous) habits, and so one can view the whole movie as a kind of origin story that gets Jason Voorhees -- urban legend -- from Point A to Point B.

I realize fully that outer space tends not to be a fertile terrain for established horror franchises. Hellraiser and Leprechaun have both gone to the stars, only to experience severe orbital decay. I would argue that Jason X doesn’t suffer the same inglorious fate. Instead, the film gets better, moment to moment, one cribbed inspiration to the next, until it reaches that moment of bliss with the holographic camp counselors.

Was it a mistake sending Jason to space? The Friday the 13th  saga has made worse mistakes, frankly. Going to 3-D in 1982 didn’t make for great entertainment in my book. Tossing out a Jason impostor in A New Beginning (1985) is also a low-point. And of course, Jason in Manhattan (taking the city alongside the Muppets, presumably), is an historic misstep. Especially since the Big Apple looks more like Toronto in that eighth Friday film. 

None of those films, I would suggest, showcase the audacity to go big, to go weird with such apparent confidence. You might laugh a lot during Jason X, but you're laughing with the film, not at it.

Jason X captures well the idea that I expressed here a few weeks ago, and which I often attempt to explain to my son. That idea is simply that horror movies don’t always need to be serious and grim if they can have fun with their ideas, and move the ball a few yards down the field.  

Jason X features some cool special effects, a well-developed sense of humor, and a worthy upgrade for a durable movie monster. Throw in a fun cameo by genre great David Cronenberg and an utterly ridiculous scene involving Jason just wanting “his machete back,” and you have all the ingredients for a good time at the movies.

Soon after Jason X, the 2009 re-boot came along, and started the whole damn cycle over again, eliminating humor and silliness from Jason's DNA, and taking the scatter shot world of Friday the 13th very seriously. 

Over-seriously, if you ask me. 

To this day, I prefer the crazy ingenuity of Jason X.

Movie Trailer: Jason X (2002)

Happy Friday the 13th: Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

It was great fun for establishment movie critics of the day -- in the early eighties -- to dismiss the first several Friday the 13th films as artless, anti-social “dead teenager” movies.

Yet today, one can gaze at the first two films in the durable franchise (from 1980 and 1981, respectively) and quibble with these disses   

The first two movies in the Friday the 13th cycle actually hold up remarkably well. Though they are not particularly deep in terms of theme, they are nonetheless effective and well-made.  In both productions, for example, the slasher format is at its most naturalistic, eschewing theatricality, artificiality and the supernatural in favor of blunt, in-your-face violence, grounded characterizations and psychological, human motivations.

In later entries, of course -- and perhaps to compete with the likes of Freddy -- Jason becomes more an overt supernatural personality, back-from-the-dead and ready to party, as it were. 

But the first two films make the most out of the stream-lined narratives and situations. These are stories, simply, of a mad killer who attacks young people in an isolated, natural setting. The first film makes a fascinating Garden of Eden case, even, comparing a snake in a cabin, to the evil Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer). Both get decapitated.

Friday the 13th Part II (1981) has long been one of my favorite films in the saga, for a few key reasons.  The first is that the movie attempts to ascribe intriguing and meaningful psychology to Jason’s character; establishing his “Momma’s Boy” complex, which has remained -- through sequels and even the reboot -- a key facet of this Bogeyman’s persona. 

Jason’s psychology is explored in the film by the sympathy shown by his would-be-victim (and great final girl): Ginny (Amy Steel). We learn in the film that she is a child psychologist in-training, and she applies that knowledge to Jason.

Today, we would never someone with Jason’s obvious deficiencies a “frightened retard,” as Ginny does at one point, but the terminology is not as important as Ginny’s thoughts.  Specifically (and while at a bar no less…) she goes to the trouble to “imagine” what Jason’s life must be like, having been traumatized by the murder of his mother.  She puts herself in his shoes, and this ability to empathize (and grounding in psychology) are the things that differentiate her from the rest of the youngsters.

Ginny’s attempt to imagine or see Jason and his psychology are intriguing, because twice in the film, Ginny actually nearly catches sight of him.  She seems to sense Jason’s presence in two early shots, once during a hike in the woods when she lags behind the group, and later when she stands on a cabin porch.  It’s as if she is more sensitive to him, and that is the factor that helps her survive.  The pay-off occurs in the finale, when she dresses as Jason’s mother in an attempt to confuse him (and save her own life in the process).  She has been “in tune” with his presence, and even his pain, in some way throughout the film. 

In many slasher films, a connection of sorts exists between the insightful, sensitive Final Girl, and the Masked Killer, and that is abundantly the case here.  I rather like that Ginny’s ability to put herself in the shoes (or sweater?) of the “monster” is also the thing that saves her life in the end.

Secondly, Friday the 13th Part II -- far from being the anti-social menace that critics feared would destroy civilization -- is actually pro-social and forward-gazing in some significant sense.

Consider that the character Mark (Tom McBride) --- a young man confined to a wheelchair -- is depicted as both physically attractive and sexually desirable. Indeed the film treats Mark as “equal” fodder for the vicious killer, Jason. Sure, he’s in a wheelchair, but when he breaks the vice-precedes-slice-and-dice commandment like the other teens, Mark’s still toast. Although there is a conversation in the film regarding how Mark ended up in a wheelchair (via a car accident), he is more than just that chair to the filmmakers and other characters.

Instead, he is seen as a fun-loving person who -- like the others – just wants to have fun.  He wants to smoke weed and have sex, just like everyone else, and therefore is neither an object of pity or ridicule (like Franklin in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).  In other words, Marc’s “handicap” doesn’t mark him for special treatment in the film, either within the drama, or outside, it by the filmmakers. That’s admirable.

Mark also gets a great death scene, and one I have never forgotten since I first saw the film at my girlfriend’s house at a party when I was in sixth grade.

I also regard this film highly because Part II -- in many ways – offers the perfect distillation of the slasher paradigm. 

The first fifteen minutes of the film re-introduce virtually every component of that tried-and-true formula from the tour of the dead and the coup de grace (Mrs. Voorhees decapitation, in flashback), to the sting-in-the-tail/tale (Jason in the lake) and the introduction of useless authority (Crazy Ralph’s final appearance).  If someone wishes to understand or teach the pieces of the paradigm, Friday the 13th Part II is a great place to start learning. You can find every formulaic element in a short duration

There are some odd moments in the film to be sure, like the comical shot of Jason’s hands taking a tea kettle off the stove after the water boils at the end of the pre-title sequence.  Why would he even bother? 

But that funny caper arrives after a sequence that gives audiences a heart-pounding “cat scare” jolt, and a gory demise for the only survivor of the first film, Adrienne King’s Alice.

Also on the down-side: I can’t watch Max’s (Cliff Cudney) and Vicki’s (Laurie Marie Taylor) scenes in the film without doing a double-take.  These actors must have been cast because they look like dead ringers for John Travolta and Amy Irving.

But otherwise, Friday the 13th Part II provides a good psychological insight into Jason-- who here wears a potato sack instead of his familiar hockey mask -- pits him against a great, sensitive nemesis in Ginny, and, under the surface, suggests, even, that he is an equal opportunity slasher.

Along the way, the slasher format gets played out in every last detail, from the car that won’t start (Ginny’s), to the cat jump (in Alice’s home), to the “you-play-you-pay,” vice-precedes slice-and-dice dynamic. In the latter case, Max and Vicky get speared together while making the beast with two backs.

Steve Miner also directed the lean, efficient H20 (1998), and his no-nonsense approach pays off here.  The film is like a freight train barreling down at the tracks towards us, focusing on scares and just enough pop psychology so we don’t feel debauched by the gruesome violence.

That’s a recipe for success that the Friday the 13th franchise couldn’t always replicate. 

Movie Trailer Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Help Bring Back Mystery Science Theater 3000!

Here's your chance to bring back a cult-tv classic.  I just kicked in this morning, and I hope you will too!

Cult-Movie Review: Sunshine (2007)

Way back in 1981, the Sean Connery/"High Noon in Space" sci-fi movie Outland was advertised with the memorable tag-line: "Even in Space, the Ultimate Enemy is Man." A deliberate homage to classic outer space films from Solaris (1972) and Dark Star (1975) to Alien (1979) and Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) could have re-purposed the same slogan.

Because if you remove all the technical bells and whistles, the harrowing Sunshine concerns not the final frontier, but the yin-and-yang of the human psyche; the best and worst angels of our nature.

Just how far would you be willing to go to save the human race? To the surface of Sun? 

And where would that journey take you, spiritually-speaking? Would it lead you to an epiphany about yourself, or contrarily,  and like a character in the film named Pinbacker, to the very heart of darkness itself?To put it another way, would you curse the blackness and loneliness of space, or share in the glowing illumination and belonging of a radiant star...even if you knew such belonging was short-lived?

Set in the year 2057, Sunshine is the tale of Icarus 2, a massive spaceship bound for our Sun, and carrying eight fragile human beings aboard her. The international crew has been tasked with dropping a vast stellar bomb into the Sun in hopes of re-igniting the dying star before it fades out and leaves Earth a frozen, destroyed world. The entire human race hangs in the balance.

En route to the sun, however, as the ship enters a communications "dead zone," the crew of Icarus 2 intercepts a mysterious signal. The signal originates near Mercury, from Icarus 1, the first ship that attempted this mission some seven years earlier...but disappeared without a trace. It too carries a massive stellar bomb, and thus offers the crew of Icarus 2 twice the possibility of success on their critical mission. Though some crew members disagree with the decision, the captain of Icarus 2, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) orders a course adjustment on the recommendation of ship's physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy). Their mission: to secure a second payload.

What follows this fateful decision is a surprising and terrifying glimpse of human psychology, of man both at his remarkable best and at his absolute worst. Catastrophic human errors jeopardize the mission and yet egregious instances of human heroism - and selflessness -- bring the mission back from the precipice over and over. 

In one torturous, edge-of-your seat sequence, three crew members traverse a gap in space (between airlocks) with only one space suit between them. In another tense scene, one committed astronaut, Mace (Chris Evans) dives headlong into freezing liquid to re-start a computer mainframe. When he can't do the job at first, he goes back into the coolant again. And when he still doesn't finish, he goes back in a third time...

On the opposite side of the equation is a man called Pinbacker who believes that if humanity dies, he will be "alone" with God. He believes, I guess, that there will be some sense of intimacy there, in that twisted relationship. That's the mission he's assumed, and it involves murder, sabotage, and chaos. Pinbacker is consumed with self, while the survivors on Icarus 2 are consumed with saving the planet...and the species. These are two diametrically opposed viewpoints, and yet both are human.

The battle between these opposing aspects of the human psyche leads right to the surface of the Sun itself...and beyond, into a beautiful, even transcendent metaphysical climax. And Boyle doesn't spare viewers any comforts on the trip. Characters you grow to love make agonizing sacrifices, face grotesque and gory deaths, and broach a suicide mission with the dignity we all hope we would evidence if, by chance (or bad luck...), we found ourselves in their shoes.

In Sunshine, Danny Boyle has crafted an intimate, haunting, and utterly believable space movie, one that is never cheesy, trite, or less than totally involving (not to mention anxiety-provoking). And while you're watching be certain not to take your eyes off the screen even for a second, especially during one unsettling scene that creepily employs nearly subliminal (and highly-disturbing...) flash cuts.

Boyle revived and re-energized the zombie genre with 28 Days Later (2002), and Sunshine is strong enough that it should have also re-ignited the cerebral outer space film. An aficionado of the genre will recognize and appreciate many of Boyle's tributes to genre greats of yesteryear too. 

The film's villain, Pinbacker, is named after Dark Star's Sgt. Pinback (Dan O'Bannon), and even the Icarus's mission -- deploying a destructive device: a bomb -- reflects that nihilist John Carpenter classic. Boyle's slow, majestic pans across empty and isolating high-tech ship corridors deliberaately evoke memories of the Nostromo and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). And the talking computer Icarus may be the Nostromo's "Mother" or 2001's HAL.  Even the steadfast focus on human psychology reminds one of Solaris (original or remake, take your choice).

Boyle utilizes these references and homages not as gimmicks or nudges to appreciative fans, but in the very manner Quentin Tarantino might: re-directing them for his own unique story, and making certain that they carry significance for viewers beyond their original context. 

For instance, any time a talking Computer appears in a science fiction film, we expect certain...things to happen. HAL, Proteus (Demon Seed) and Mother all turned out to be treacherous "beings," after all. Boyle plays with that anticipation in a unique way, particularly in a scene that involves the captain of the ship and Capa embarking on a dangerous space walk. As for the Ridley-Scott-esque pans, these carefully-orchestrated shots serve to remind viewers of a few important things. First, of the technological nature of the shelter that houses this group of human beings; and secondly that -- in this case -- the haunted house in space is not one invaded by a nightmarish "outside force," a malevolent extra-terrestrial, but rather a monster direct from the human id; a flawed "man" not a "perfect" alien.

Sunshine is also highly reminiscent of the literary works of Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), which are considered, to varying degrees, inspiration for films as diverse as Alien and Apocalypse Now (1979). As is the case in Conrad's works, Sunshine offers a tangible sense of place (the Icarus 2 could be the Nostromo or the Narcissus of Conrad's travels), and characters' fates are played out in a remote location (stellar orbit...) far from the lights of modern civilization. 

Another Conrad-ian theme, the Evil "Outside" creating an Evil "Inside" also finds purposeful life in the Boyle film. Pinbacker goes insane because of the "loneliness" of black space, and also, perhaps, because of his religious upbringing. Those evils "outside" Pinbacker grow an evil seed within him; one that germinates on the long voyage to the Sun.

Long story short: Sunshine is a remarkable outer space movie because is about us, not clones, robots or monsters. When Man finally reaches the stars, he may have to reckon with the clones, the robots and the monsters of space opera too, but one thing is for certain: he will certainly have to reckon with his own psychology first.  

This idea is perhaps my favorite of all "outer space" conceits, and evident in Space:1999 (1975), and Prometheus (2012) to name just two other productions. In exploring this facet of the human experience, Boyle's film is about the darkness and the sunshine to be found there too.

Movie Trailer: Sunshine (2007)