Hard Boyle(d)

Three films by director Danny, watched over the course of a slow weekend.

Sunshine (2007)

2057 and the sun is dying, so a team of astronauts are sent to reignite it with a massive bomb. At the point we meet them, The Icarus II is several months out and tensions among the crew are mounting, a factor that gets upped when they lose contact with Earth. Then they hear a beacon indicating that the previous mission, thought lost, is within range. The choice is whether to carry on with their mission, on which the future of the planet and billions of lives depend, or to divert and find out what happened to their predecessors. It’s the first of many hard choices that confront the crew.

To my mind this all played out like an art house rendition of Armageddon – less action, but plenty of soul searching and stunning visuals. Some of it was rather obvious, such as the saccharine sweet end note foreshadowed in Capa’s transmission back to his family and the way in which the pacifist in the crew is forced to kill, while they couldn’t resist throwing a sociopath into the mix. There are lots of echoes of similar films, such as Solaris and, inevitably, 2001, but enough that’s new to maintain interest instead of dismissing the whole thing as simply derivative. The cast play their roles well, with the suggestion of madness bubbling away beneath the surface, and I liked the way in which they were forced to make hard choices, the ways in which that turned out. The picture of life aboard a spaceship was convincing, though they could have done a bit more to show how the crew spent their time, and the visuals were breath taking (well, lung searing might be a better term), using a palette of light and dark to telling effect. I liked it a lot.

28 Days Later (2002)

A zombie movie in all but name. Animal rights activists invade a top secret research facility to release the apes being used for experiments, but in doing so they also release the virus Rage, which is spread by blood and turns everyone infected into a lunatic intent on mayhem and murder. Jim (Cillian Murphy) wakes from a coma to find London deserted – something similar happened to Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil a few months earlier. He links up with heavily armed survivor Selena, and then with an older man and his daughter, from which point on they put all their efforts into reaching a place of safety, only to discover that the army who offer protection are every bit as much of a menace as the Rage victims.

I have vague memories of really liking this when I saw it at the cinema, but watching it again I found it rather slow and slightly tedious. Yeah, there are some tense moments with the Rage victims, but not that many, and one of those turns out to be just a dream. A lot of the time the plot seems awash in sentimentality or just wandering aimlessly, with a subtext about how easily human civilisation crumbles and how healthy the world looks without us. The military guys were a little too over the top for me to believe in them, and the way in which Jim outsmarts and overcomes trained soldiers didn’t really ring true either. It was a film that, to me anyway, felt a little too bogged down in sending a message, or several – about the nasty scientists and politicians and their experiments, about the nasty soldiers who turn into potential rapists at the drop of a hat, etc. At bottom it was all about how pragmatism can become an excuse for barbarity, and I guess I agree with that message, but the delivery mechanism felt a little too obvious.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Two brothers, Jamal and Salim, growing up parentless in the slums of Mumbai, doing whatever it takes to survive, even when it takes them outside the law. Salim ends up in a criminal gang. Jamal becomes tea boy at a call centre, then wangling a spot on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but only in the hope of once again contacting his true love Latika. An uneducated tea wallah’s skill at answering the questions correctly earns him the attention of the police, who want to know how he is cheating, but Jamal illustrates how he acquired his knowledge via incidents from his past. But will he find Latika, and what will be the reaction of Jamal, who now works as hired muscle for the gangster keeping her as a mistress?

I also saw this at the cinema when it came out, and I’m happy to report that I enjoyed it every bit as much on the small screen, albeit I really, really could have done with larger subtitles. It’s a film that reeks of sentimentality, but it works because it knows exactly what strings to pull, what cultural memes to plug into. Basically it’s a cross between Romeo and Juliet and the story of Cinderella, with a quizmaster who is both fairy godmother and wicked stepmother, all picked up and transplanted to the foreign culture of the Indian subcontinent, bolting on a subtext that shows how that foreign culture is being ‘westernised’. The use of a quiz show as a framing device is a brilliant conceit, while the visuals bring to life both the beauty and squalor of the Indian setting. It succeeds so well because it touches on universal themes of love and desire, sibling rivalry and loyalty, divisions of class and religion offset by the ties that bind us all, counterpointing the serious things it has to tell us with a mood of exhilaration and joy. Or perhaps it’s simply that we all like to see the nice guy get the pot of  gold and ride off into the sunset with the girl he loves. Jai ho!!!

So, what Danny Boyle films do the rest of you recommend, if any?


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