Film Reviews: Through the lens of a scientist

by Wong Kah Keng

SUNSHINE (2007)

Director: Danny Boyle; Written by: Alex Garland; Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong.

The Sun is dying in 2057. A group of professionals consisting of astronaut, physicist, biologist, medics and engineer from diverse backgrounds are onboard of a spaceship (deliciously-named as Icarus II) in a mission to re-ignite the Sun with a nuclear bomb constructed from all of Earth’s fissile materials. On their journey to the Sun, they receive a distress signal from an external source in the outer space. This forces them to make a coin-flip decision whether to make a detour heading to the distress signal or to continue with their journey whose success of re-igniting the Sun is entirely theoretical. A series of pulsating and nail-biting events follow with a rising crescendo of death-defying situations brought into the finale.

The director (Danny Boyle) has crafted believable shots of Icarus II’s interior that evokes an air-tight and somewhat claustrophobic world, with the vast outer space cloaked with danger. The fast, relentless plot could submerge the audience into the universe of the characters who get to extreme lengths with the hopes of a successful mission- the viewers would feel just as isolated from the rest of the human race as these characters do.

To stay faithful to scientific accuracies, the celebrated physicist Dr Brian Cox (affiliated to CERN) is the scientific consultant for this film. The Sun is predicted to die within five billion years by becoming a red giant that swallows the Earth, and the possibility of the Sun dying in 2057 is deemed highly unlikely. Dr Cox proposed that a theoretical particle termed as ‘Q-balls’ could drift into the heart of a star and start consuming the Sun from the inside out, a theory used by Sunshine. Some of the sciences are twisted to allow more interesting plots but these are highly specific details that might only be spotted by physicists or scientific pedants. These inaccuracies pale into comparison with other less thought-provoking, one-hero-saves-the-world disaster films that possibly violate scientific accuracies in majority of the presented frames.

The international cast is another brave creativity of this film. To name a few, Cillian Murphy (from Ireland) played the physicist that operates the detonation device, Chris Evans (from USA) as the indefatigable engineer, Hiroyuki Sanada (from Japan) as the ship’s captain, and our very own Michelle Yeoh played the biologist who tends to the ship’s ‘oxygen garden’ as the source of oxygen for all the crew members. Tense and solid acting were delivered by the cast, with special mention of the biologist character as being down-to-earth played skillfully by Yeoh. This adds another spark to Yeoh’s impressive CV, from high drama (The Soong Sisters) to a Bond girl (Tomorrow Never Dies) or a warrior defying the rules of gravity (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and even seeping into the sci-fi realm by portraying a scientist in this film (inset picture), keeping the Malaysian flag flying high.

Sunshine is not a sci-fi with plenty of visually conceited future gadgets or floating hover cars. As the film unfolds into a psychological thriller, it leaves one to ponder whether space could really drive people into insanity, or the slightly alarming thought that certain beliefs aim for the end of human race. These fresh components are thrown into the film, resulting in an original sci-fi flick that incorporates elements of scientific fidelities as well as philosophical beliefs that could not be readily explained by the logic of science. Sunshine is a brave sci-fi film that dares to experiment with new elements as much as a scientist dares to venture into the unknown depths of the nature’s secrets.

2046 (2004)

Director: Wong Kar-Wai; Written by: Wong Kar-Wai; Starring: Tony Leung ChIU-WAI, Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Faye Wong, Carina Lau, Takuya Kimura, Chang Chen, Dong Jie, Maggie Cheung.

If one has heard of this film but yet to watch it, one would wonder why it is included in this review section. Molding elements from futuristic sci-fi with intriguing characters plagued by the past, and the relationship choices they made in their present, 2046 is a very rare attempt on sci-fi cum romance that really works.

2046 is the final chapter of a trilogy that spans for close to 15 years in the making. Viewing of the highly-acclaimed second lot of the trilogy (In the Mood for Love) is essential to understand the plots thrown in 2046, while understanding the first of the trilogy (Days of Being Wild) is optional but recommended.

2046 elaborates on the aftermath of the writer Chow Mo-Wan (played by Tony Leung) following an unfulfilled relationship with Su Li-Zhen (played by Maggie Cheung). Chow penned a story set in the year 2046 whereby a mysterious train with cyborgs leaves every once in a while to ‘2046’, a place where ‘nothing ever changes’. Every passenger has the same objective travelling to ‘2046’: to recapture lost memories. However, no one knows if it is true because nobody has ever returned from the trip, except the protagonist of the story. The film unfolds from this premise, and is told in non-chronological order in several different arcs appearing in both real life and the sci-fi-themed ‘story’ that Chow narrated.

The character Lulu (played by Carina Lau) from Days of Being Wild returned in this installment, only to amplify the intensity, baroque style of storytelling and the solid cast, particularly Gong Li playing an enigmatic character with an unknown past. The track Adagio (by Secret Garden) is effectively used as a leitmotiv in the film, and the directing is vintage Wong: heavily thematic and stylishly directed, particularly the shots of characters against vast abstract background, or the characters embedded within (see inset picture).
The lead character Chow constantly derived inspirations from his real-life experiences and translated them into his futuristic story that was set entirely on the train to, or return from, ‘2046’.

Carina Lau and Faye Wong, whose characters also appeared in Chow’s own present, played the cyborgs that functioned as train attendants. The plot on the futuristic train renders a reverie-like experience and as the film progresses, the viewer’s patience would be reciprocated by the real intention of the sci-fi story that Chow chronicled. The film challenges the audiences to fathom what ‘2046’ really is by associating with the viewers’ personal experience; not many sci-fi films could provoke the viewers to compare the story of the film with their own histories.

Try not to expect bombs, explosions or end-of-the-world threats; 2046 is at the other end of the science fiction spectrum that weaves together complex human emotions into a subtle masterpiece. 2046 is arguably Wong’s most ambitious work that brings a grand conclusion to an epic trilogy of unconsummated relationships.

 

About the author:

Dr Wong Kah Keng is the Managing Editor of the Scientific Malaysian Magazine and a Senior Lecturer at the School of Medical Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at kkwong[at]scientificmalaysian.com