“Sunshine” Review: Man Against Space

Sunshine is a 2007 science fiction film starring Cillian Murphy, directed by Danny Boyle, with Dr. Brian Cox — the physicist host of some of my favorite science documentaries, including Wonders of the Solar System — as the film’s generous scientific consultant. I can’t decide who of the three I like more, which explains why I had to watch this film.

The movie is set in 2057. The sun is dying. A crew of “eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb” is headed towards the sun to reignite it.

The story begins slowly, with the crew mostly pondering and discussing the mission as well as the pragmatism of a rescue mission on the planet Mercury. The crew is divided in opinion, and scientific analysis abounds. It all sounds serious and cerebral… but when you really start analyzing the science, the accuracy of the plot begins to unravel.

When I say Cox is generous as science advisor, I mean that the film is full of inaccuracies — and I have no problem with that. This is a work of science fiction, and some of the complaints pertain to common problems such as how gravity is generated on the ship — something that, to be fair, has only been accurately depicted a few times (2001: A Space Odyssey, Mass Effect’s Citadel). Other issues are why the sun is dying so soon (instead of in 5 billion years), why it’s fading instead of turning into a red giant, how the stellar bomb would really be powerful enough to reignite the sun, and even a silly mistake regarding the temperature.

The film has no jokes… but the space suit helmets are based on Kenny’s hood in South Park.

These are serious problems for a physicist, perhaps, but not for a sci-fi fan enjoying a well-made Boyle movie. Really, I appreciate that the film had a scientific advisor to begin with, and I like that Cox had enough generosity and imagination to give the filmmakers space for artistic liberties.

So here is my disclaimer: If bad science completely ruins a movie for you, don’t watch this film. But if you just plain love science fiction like I do, you’ll probably appreciate the serious scientific feel of the movie, as long as you don’t get too nerdy and over-analyze the calculations.

The film is at its best when it focuses on the crew and delves into their psychological makeup. Decisions must be made regarding a possible rescue mission, who to get rid of to preserve oxygen, and how to handle mistakes. I won’t give away too many details, but this film is not your typical action-packed sci-fi blockbuster — and that’s its strength. Instead, it is a poignant and thoughtful exploration of human nature with an absolutely epic conclusion.

When it’s not man against man, it’s man against space that is the main clash in this film, and it’s pulse-racing stuff. The first half of the film is especially gripping. I was in awe of the idea of a crew attempting a suicide mission like this. Outer space has always fascinated me in part because it terrifies me. We are just not supposed to be out there. And that makes scenes like the EVA, solar winds burning through the station, and astronauts being blasted into the atmosphere without space suits so frightening and compelling. I’ve heard that the film didn’t have a huge budget, which only makes the amazing CGI effects more impressive to me.

Sunshine’s performances give the film emotional and psychological depth.

The second half of the film seems to fall apart as it switches gears from psychological space thriller to slasher movie. Though my disbelief had no trouble suspending itself for the not-quite-right science, it definitely had trouble with the horror film attempt.

But on the other hand, I’ve read reviews that this part of the film was about religion and madness and possibly the sun’s effects on mental health — much more than slasher fan fodder. Those reviews made me rethink the last half. Though it’s still not my favorite part of the movie, I highly recommend you keep an open mind and dig through this part to lay bare the psychology of the villain. (And if you like slasher movies, so much the better!) I do find myself curious about what drove the villain mad.

My favorite thing about the film is that it’s wide open to analysis and personal interpretation. It’s the type of film that deserves careful attention — that means no getting up for snack breaks — and several viewings to really understand it from all angles. As a Rotten Tomatoes article stated, everyone who worked on the film — from the writer Alex Garland to Cillian Murphy to Cox — had different ideas about what the mission meant to the people involved. To me, that alone is incentive to spend some time spinning the film’s ideas around in my head.

— Ashley

Skipping Combat in Video Games?

I thought the idea of skipping combat was something only casual gamers dreamed about, but I may be wrong. It seems that many gamers appreciate being able to skip combat that is too difficult, tedious or just plain not-my-style.

To me, this seems like cheating and I can’t abide it. And I’m the type of gamer who sets difficulty to casual for first playthroughs and wants to get on with the story. Boss fights become way too tedious when that enemy health bar barely seems to be moving down — while my health bar takes a smack every 5 seconds, of course. I’d prefer to focus on fighting rather than scrambling for health potions. And though dying once or twice can add to the sense of triumph I feel when I finally beat a level, dying more than that stalls the game and makes my roommate dryly ask, “Having fun?” as I dream about rage quitting. Frustration is not fun, and video games are supposed to be fun.

Some people derive pleasure from strategizing their way through a level and take pride in beating a boss after dying many times over. The challenge is an enticement to them — but it’s not to me. It beats me down. I don’t pay for video games to feel like I suck at them. And really, I don’t care so much whether I’m good at a video game; I just want my character to look like a badass. That’s why I play on casual when I can, increasing difficult when it feels too easy but never before.

But as I said, skipping combat feels like cheating. A game without interactivity isn’t a game, and an RPG without combat is more like an interactive movie, in my opinion. I would never be able to skip combat in real life, and I want to suspend my disbelief when I play a video game.

So I propose some possible solutions to the problem of bosses who are too monstrous to beat and combat that feels like homework:

1. Difficulty Levels That Change the Combat Style

Dragon Age is a game series that does this perfectly.

Final Fantasy quickenings let characters build on each other’s skills to defeat a boss.

When you play a game like DA:O on casual, you breeze through the game playing only as your character, in real time. But when you increase the difficulty, you start to pause combat to set up tactics. You switch to play as one of your teammates, setting up combo attacks (such as playing the mage to freeze an enemy, then switching perspectives to play the warrior and shatter the frozen enemy with a powerful, two-handed swing). On nightmare mode, most combat is paused as you jump from skin to skin. In other words, as difficulty increases, the game becomes one of strategy — a totally different style than the quick-hit delivery you employ when playing on casual.

But maybe this doesn’t really solve our problem. What it does accomplish is this: It makes the combat varied enough to give the player choices, based on their preferred combat style as well as whether they enjoy a particular level or not. Some players will always want to strategize, while others may prefer to reduce difficulty to casual during boring levels in order to breeze through them. This seems like a sensible alternative to skipping that content, as it ensures that you experience the entire game — no cheating necessary.

2. Skills That Act as Alternatives to Combat

Charm and Intimidate options give ME players a way out of some conflicts.

When I play Skyrim, I play as a stealthy archer who tries to sneak past enemies to avoid fights. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, I’m thrilled. I have skipped combat without cheating! When I play Mass Effect, I renegade my way through sticky situations, threatening characters to get them to comply when necessary — and avoiding bloodshed in the process. (Admiral Hackett is so proud.) Again, I have skipped combat without cheating!

Alternatives to fighting should remain hidden in the game’s content. I don’t believe in a button to skip combat just for the sake of speeding up the game or avoiding a level or boss… but I do love sneak abilities and intimidate options. It’s all about making the choices relevant and in-character — very important in RPGs.

3. It’s All About Choices

Witcher 2 lets players follow Iorveth or Roche — two different paths with different quests…

I much prefer linear games to sandbox-style games, but a hybrid seems like the best option. What sandbox-style games offer players is a chance to choose their quests, avoiding missions that don’t appeal to them and getting straight to the good stuff. Game developers may strive to make all combat interesting, relevant and easy to beat, but this won’t please all players because everyone has different taste — and not every gamer wants to be patronized with easy combat all the time. That’s what makes the sandbox solution so smart.

But how can a linear RPG achieve this? Really, a truly linear RPG never can. Some RPGs (Uncharted 3) set you up as an actor playing a pre-defined role. Even RPGs that give you some room to develop a unique character and pursue quests in any order you want — BioWare does this a lot — still force you to complete every main mission before beating the game.

… but not necessarily different combat options or styles.

Witcher 2 at least gives you a choice between following Iorveth or Roche, but you still don’t know what sorts of quests each path will give you. On the other hand, if a game gives you a choice between being a convict on the run or a soldier, you might have an inkling of different combat styles and situations, with one favoring stealth and backstabs while the other is much more sword-and-shield. But now we’re getting into sandbox territory.

That’s why a hybrid game would work well to solve the dilemma of unlikable combat. I can imagine an RPG with a set story and goal but lots of space to achieve that goal any way you want. For example, if the story is to escape from a space station before it destructs, you can choose mainly to fight your way out, to rally support and get some of the authorities on your side, to sneak around the authorities or to hack systems that will make sneaking easier and possibly delay the destruction of the station. A hacker character may choose the tech and stealth quests over the combat quests to find a way off the station.

4. If I Don’t Have the Skills, Let My Squad Handle It

This is also where squads come in handy. RPGs that let you take teams or followers into combat already give you room to create a character who specializes in one type of combat rather than another, because your squad can handle the rest. (This is how it would work in real life, wouldn’t it?)

I would take this further. I would recruit a balanced team and let them handle most of the combat so that I don’t have to. If I’m playing a hacker-type character but need to fight my way through an enemy ship, I will bring my toughest squad members with me and let them battle while I remain in the back overriding systems to make the fight easier. I don’t need to jump into the combat at all if I don’t feel like it.

And perhaps some quests could even be completely optional for me if I send my squad in without me. Of course, I’ll expect them to report back with their success later — and the success would have to depend on me in some way, but that’s a whole new thought…

— Ashley

Sword and Laser Book Club

Don’t ask me how I can consider myself a sci-fi and fantasy geek when I have only just stumbled upon the Sword and Laser book club! As a fan of Felicia Day’s hilarious web series The Guild about a group of online gamers, I started browsing the Geek and Sundry website today and found this online book club devoted to science fiction and fantasy books.

Every week, Sword and Laser hosts Tom and Veronica post a video (on Youtube and the Geek and Sundry website) discussing some of the latest sci-fi and fantasy books, plus related news. They also interview authors, such as Year Zero author Rob Reid (the latest interview) and A Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin.

If you’re like me and can’t wait to get reading, you can join the book club on Goodreads here. This month’s book is the space opera Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey.

— Ashley

Safety Not Guaranteed: A Film With “Weird Mojo” That Totally Works

One of the few indie films that never crosses the line into forced quirkiness.

Sometimes nothing feels better than sinking into a rickety old theater seat to watch an indie film that’s not big enough for the cushy-seat cinemas.

This was my experience with Safety Not Guaranteed, an offbeat movie that perfectly blends up time travel with a dash of rom-com. Or maybe it’s the other way around. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what this movie is, but that works in its favor.

The movie was inspired by a real ad placed in Backwoods Home magazine in 1997:

“Wanted: Someone to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED.”

In the movie, magazine writer Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) — also a 30-something playboy — takes two interns to investigate Kenneth (Mark Duplass), the man who placed the ad. While Jeff spends his time pursuing an old flame and getting the virginal college student (Karan Soni) laid, the other intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) answers the ad to learn more about the mysterious Kenneth.

Darius is anti-social and unable to find a real job. Even her father calls her a virgin and says she needs to get out more. That makes her the perfect person to investigate a man like Kenneth, who really seems to believe he can time travel. He steals equipment — including lasers — from research labs. He trains with guns and teaches Darius to shoot. He’s even set up a ridiculous obstacle course to train for the time travel experience, which could apparently involve martial arts. And he’s paranoid, convinced he’s being followed.

Any other intern would probably write off Kenneth as crazy from the start, but that’s not Darius. As Jeff puts it to Darius, “Your weird mojo clicked with his weird mojo” — and that makes the romance between Darius and Kenneth totally believable. It’s also wonderfully underplayed. The performances of Plaza and Duplass make the characters sweet and irresistible, even as you learn that Kenneth may not be right in the head.

I’ve always loved films about characters who are a little off — Ryan Gosling’s performance as Lars in Lars and the Real Girl springs to mind — but this is the first film I’ve seen that gets that sort of character completely right. Duplass’s performance makes Kenneth feel very real. He pursues every “mission” he dreams up in earnest, giving away small (and possibly troubling) details of his past as he trusts Darius more and more. It’s easy to want to feel sorry for Kenneth, but Darius’s positive view of him makes you root for him. Even in scenes like Kenneth’s hilariously failed attempt to remain unseen by security cameras during a heist, you laugh at him but never to the point of making fun of him.

The film builds to a sweet romance as you wonder whether Kenneth really is a genius who can build a time machine or just a lovable mental case. Though I thought the film’s ending was great, the movie isn’t really about time travel as much as why Darius, Kenneth and even characters like Jeff wish they could go back in time.

It’s a character movie. It’s a movie that’s slightly sci-fi but mostly honest about people. It’s a little movie — there were fewer than 10 of us in the theater — but it’s full of pluck, and I highly recommend it to anyone who craves something offbeat and wonderful.

— Ashley

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, and VIDEO GAMES!