July 30th, 2007


Solar Alloy's Imperfections

Sunshine [R]

Do go see the new science fiction movie Sunshine -- it is visually stunning and deserves to be seen on a big screen. But don't believe the hype that this is the best science fiction movie in years. Even if you think it is, that may be in part due to the dearth of real science fiction movies. I've seen several early reviews talking about how smart Sunshine is, how good the science is. No, it isn't very smart or at least not very smart to any great depth. What really pisses me off is that they are within a few scenes of pulling off a real coup and making a really smart and scientific science fiction film. Instead, I feel like they either had a meeting and decided to jazz it up in order to make it more exciting, more a thriller. Or they listened to the scientists who advised them and said "That's really cool" and then went off to do what they wanted for no good reason.


There Is A Plot

You think global warming is a bitch? Imagine if the Sun -- our Sun -- was dying. The basic flight plan is to send a giant hydrogen bomb to reignite the core of our nearest and dearest star. The bad news? This is the second try. The first mission disappeared without a trace seven years before and this effort pretty much taps out humanity's resources. After passing Mercury and entering the zone where communication is no longer possible, you know -- the one you've never heard of before, the crew of the Icarus II discover the emergency beacon of the Icarus I.

Wait a second, I know this one.

A few years ago we had not one, but two Mars movies: Red Planet and Mission to Mars. Apparently going to Mars isn't exciting enough. We had to include finding an alien artifact in one and dealing with a out-of-control military robot in the other. Now I have nothing against alien artifact stories -- indeed, I am exceedingly fond of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And after seeing Sunshine on Saturday night, on late night TV they were running Contact, a very smart movie that actually includes some scientists... doing science!

But let's ponder this for a minute. Taking a mega-ginormous bomb and dropping it into the Sun in order to restart its fusion core isn't, by definition, a picnic run. So there's already a great deal of potential for things to go wrong, problems to solve, errors to make and crew members to go bonkers. So why go all mystical on us? Why make it look like the killer isn't/no longer human? Because even if I were to be generous and blame it all on artsy-fartsy film cutting and flashes of odd imagery, rather than intent, it adds to the confusion.

Dr. Phil Has Issues

Despite the visual beauty of the Icarus II, I am very frustrated by three things: (1) Who in their right mind goes on a long trip of this magnitude and doesn't cross-train the crew in multiple jobs to back people up? (2) Where the hell does the artificial gravity come from? (3) Do not hire engineers to design and build "Earth's last, best hope" if their number one engineering principle seems to be "put all your eggs in one basket".

Dismiss the first as just typical invented claptrap. "Everyone" knows that in a movie crew everyone has one and only one purpose. The second point is much more serious. We aren't given any indication that this human culture is so far advanced that they can make artificial gravity. Worse, the Icarus II has rotating structures, except that they don't seem to be ones which even need to be rotating. The antennas spinning round and around? Why?

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Finally we get to the sorry-assed engineering. I don't want to give away anything, but the engineers who built the Icarus I/II never saw the movie 2001, because everything is controlled by the computer. Hell, there aren't even any battery powered emergency lights stuck on the walls. And ONE airlock? Let's store all our important stuff in one place. You can't have a fire in space after all, right?

Stupid, stupid and stupid.

Final Call

So many reviews want to cite all the great homages in play from 2001 to Alien. Meanwhile, the film that comes to mind for me is Event Horizon -- another visually stunning film with a killer cast, stupid engineering and a violent Plot Twist Literally From Hell which ruins the whole damned thing.

And yet... somehow Sunshine transcends this sillyness and I am still left discussing it twenty-four hours later. Go see this film.

Dr. Phil
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Sound... sound... Camera... rolling... Action!

I'm Ready For My Close Up

That was pretty much an e-mail from Mrs. Dr. Phil on Friday, forwarding an e-mail call for extras to help out with with summer's GVSU Summer Film Project. This year they are doing a full-length movie for the first time, To Live and Die in Dixie, and they needed 500 extras in the Grand Valley State University fieldhouse to portray fans at a women's basketball game. They suggested it would take about six hours and start at noon on Sunday. We'd known about the filming in July, of course, but neither of figured to mill around as extras. But... at the fieldhouse we'd at least have a seat, so what the heck?

Further instructions said that the school's colors -- that would be Dixie State University -- were maroon and gold and the time period was the early 1980s. Okay. In the late 70s and early 80s I did yearbook photography at Northwestern University. So for the first time in years, I hauled out the 35mm Nikon camera gear.

Ah, Old Friends

I didn't need the whole battle gear, but I pulled out a black Nikon F with an F2 non-metering pentaprism. 35mm f2. This camera has a nice heft, plus its maroon and gold neckstrap has an extra wide neck pad. Comfy. Then my second Nikon F3 and an 85mm f2. I debated, and went with the big blue camera bag -- it's all vintage -- because I could stick all my 2007 technology gear in the unused lens slots.

Then there was the issue of film. The Nikon F is a totally manual camera, but the F3 is electronic and I had to put two A76 batteries in it anyway, so it seemed a waste to just dry fire the cameras. So what's in the freezer? Hmm... two rolls of Ektar 1000 12 exposure, expiration date 1992? Whoa. It's vintage film! Well, what the hell? Either it can't be processed anymore -- there was no notation on the box as to whether it's a C-41 process and since I haven't bought any film in several years, I can't tell you whether Kodak still makes it -- or we take a chance to see what we can get. Besides, ISO 1000 is a nice film speed for indoors action. Used those in the Nikon F at 1/250th and f2. I also had a 24 exposure roll of ISO 200 Kodak Gold color print film expired in 2004, which went into the F3. Lock and load -- put on my good straw fedora and maroon T-shirt -- and rock and roll.

Pretty Much Fun

Beautiful day outside, not bad inside the fieldhouse. We took seats in the first row of the bleachers, right behind the scorer's table. It turned out to be a good vantage point for shooting and for gossiping with a couple of the cast members -- the three guys at the scorer's table and the two men playing the DSU women's basketball team coaches, plus two graduates of the GVSU film program.

An old gentleman sitting next to us had been in the GVSU summer short Freezer Jesus a few years back. He'd heard the call for extras and wanted to come back. Of the Grand Valley people and the Hollywood people brought in to work with the GVSU program, many stopped by to say hello. Many fond memories.

He told us that shooting a film was like being in the army -- a lot of stand around waiting for them to set up, then a few minutes of stark terror. And then, I said, you do it all over again. He laughed.

Scenes 11 and 14

They were shooting two games -- one where DSU loses and one where DSU wins. At the end of the losing game, our killer passes right in front of me as I'm bending over and putting away the Nikon F3. I managed to time it pretty much the same way over a handful of takes, thank you very much, so you should see the top of a fat guy with a straw fedora bending forward at the very least. (grin)

In honor of our jaunt, we grabbed take-out BBQ from Bono's, a southern BBQ joint which opened up in the last year. Yum.

Dr. Phil
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