I maintained moderate interest in this movie, but when the trailers started coming out and then it got brilliant reviews I started to be somewhat possessed to get to the theater as soon as possible, despite the fact that every person I knew who had seen it did not like it AT ALL.
We open with a little exposition telling us that the sun is dying out and so they’re on a mission to drop a bomb “the size of Manhattan island” into it to restart it. There was another mission, seven years prior, who mysteriously just vanished. You know, isn’t there ALWAYS another mission, seven years prior, that just vanishes?
While we are learning all this we are seeing what appears to be the sun, but is actually their ship the Icarus [I don’t have to explain that one, do I?], which leads with this big reflective dish that acts as a heat shield for the ship, that hides in its shadow. It’s cool. It also looks very much like the iris of an eye, and this is the first of the multitudinous eye imagery we’ll be experiencing.
Anyway, the hot Indian played by Cliff Curtis is really getting off on looking at the sun close up at high intensity, which seems to sort of get him high, and appears not to be very good for his skin. Then we see a physical fight between Chris Evans [flaming dude from Fantastic Four] as Mace and Cillian Murphy [flaming dude from Breakfast on Pluto] as Capa, which serves to set up their tension. Also on hand is Rose Byrne from Wicker Park and Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, who is always welcome on my screen, except here, to my disappointment, she doesn’t kick anyone’s ass.
Now just a few minutesin it’s impossible not to notice that this film is borrowing liberally from virtually every sci-fi movie of the past 30 years, which is totally fine, and also that it is packed with some really beautiful, strange and involving visuals. But also as you go along you realize that there really is no major plot thread, just a lot of little issues that they have to resolve and which often result in the death of one or more crew members.
First we learn that the ship will be losing radio contact, and we watch Capa send a message home. Then someone makes a small mistake which results in four solar panels being damaged, necessitating a visually-spectacular spacewalk in which our heroes don these awesome space suits that are brilliant gold with giant helmets with flat faces and tiny slits to see through. I’m going to guess that they were inspired by Breugel’s strangely surreal etching of the Beekeepers [actually, I read that Boyle says they were inspired by South Park's Kenny]. Then they receive a distress signal, and realize it’s from the remnants of the earlier mission. Then they decide that they’d have a better chance of re-starting the sun with two bombs instead of one, so they want to board the earlier craft. And it goes on like this.
So, why is it so loose, with no straightforward plot? I think because this movie’s content is primarily in its visuals, letting the surreality and monumental geometry of the images of the ships, the spaces, the spacesuits add up to a diffuse statement that is affecting and impressive, although inexpressible in words. I think the visuals, for the most part, ARE the content.
There are two other themes, one about eyes and one about contact. The eye, as mentioned previously, in a repeated visual motif present in several views of the ship, the sun, and eyes themselves. It relates a little bit to the whole thing about contact in that there's this whole thing about looking at the sun and various shades that make it safe to see through and how close to full intensity you can look at it…. The contact theme keeps coming back in discussion about touching the surface of the sun, or how close can you get to it, contact between two spaceships, the lost contact with Earth, a discussion of how long it takes a transmission to get back to Earth, etc. And let's not forget the name of the ship, Icarus, which is all about getting close to the sun but not too close. So what is all this about? It may be a stretch, but one could speculate that it carries through the environmental theme, as the Earth itself is at the perfect distance from the sun to support our life; closer and we would burn, farther and we would freeze. Close, but not too close.
This movie reminded me most closely of Red Planet, which also had a very meandering plot and not very much focus—at the time I was making jokes about it being "things that might happen to you on a journey to Mars,"—and now that I've watched it again, Mission To Mars was quite meandering as well, but at least it did have an overarching plot. Interestingly, Red Planet, like this film, ends with one man making a spacewalk through space from one ship to another. Now I'm getting a juiced to watch Red Planet again. I kind of liked it.
So that's the deal; in place of a cohesive story with a linear plot, we have a thematic plot, wherein no one plot strand is satisfying, but they all add up to an interesting thematic whole. Which can be a disappointment to those looking for an exciting plot to get into, or those looking, you know, for the things one normally looks for in a movie. But those who are happy to sit back and get into the visuals and just let the whole thing wash over them will find themselves rewarded.
I would, but don't expect a linear plot.