Grade: Sunshine A-
Grade: Paprika C-
"Sunshine," the new film from director Danny Boyle, and "Paprika," the new anime from Satoshi Kan, represent two distinct conclusions that science fiction films can reach.
One of the things I'm fond of saying about film is that when a movie utilizes some kind of unusual device such as a special effect or stylistic gimmick it's vital that the device is in service of the story instead of vice versa. The primary reason for the film should be to tell a story, not to show off some cool effect. Possessing unusual cinematic ideas, striking cinematography, or innovative special effects and then fashioning a story to feature them almost always results in mediocrity at best and failure at worst.
George Lucas nailed this when he said "A special effect is a tool, a means of telling a story. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing."
"Sunshine" and "Paprika" are similar in that they are both science fiction films with astonishing visuals. The similarities pretty much end there.
"Sunshine" takes place in the year 2057. The crew of the Icarus II has the most important mission in all of human history: to deliver into the sun a bomb that will restart the dying star. The film leans a bit more on the fiction than the science in that it wisely sidesteps serious explanations about the bomb's construction and how exactly a Manhattan-sized bomb could affect a star 333,000 times the size of earth. It also avoids the failed approach of other big disaster films like "Armageddon" by starting the story with the Icarus II's crew close to the sun, just days away from delivering their payload. Totally avoided is any back-story about how the sun came to die, how it was discovered, how the team was pulled together, the construction of the bomb, etc.
Like two of Boyle's earlier films - "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" - the emphasis is on a small group of closely knit characters trying to survive. Every member of the crew of the Icarus II has a specific role with some being more vital to the completion of the mission than others. (This fact makes for some pretty intense drama later in the film when decisions have to be made regarding who should survive.) Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy) is arguably the most important person on the trip. He's the physicist who possesses the knowledge for launching the payload into the sun. Searle (Cliff Curtis) is the ship's doctor and psychologist, in charge of keeping everyone alive and sane in the claustrophobic confines of the ship and the uber-stress of their mission. Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the ship's pilot.
Harvey (Troy Garity) is the second in command, the communications officer.
Chris Evans, best known as the Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" films plays Mace, the tough engineer. Hiroyuki Sanada is Kaneda, the ship's captain. Probably my favorite character in the film is Corazon (Michelle Yeoh,) the biologist who tends the beautiful garden that is responsible for producing the ship's oxygen. Trey (Benedict Wong) is the navigation officer whose error early on in the film leads to the troubles the crew will face. And oh do they ever experience some troubles. Murphy's law is in full effect.
The film is just such a fantastic experience, fully on par with "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later." Those two films are drastically different from "Sunshine" but all three feature similar strengths. You've got strong visuals and memorable images. The music is also particularly striking. Thematically "Sunshine" has some pretty deep ideas floating about in the darkness of space. The sheer magnitude of the mission prompts the greatest of sacrifices and the hardest of questions. Boyle is a master at taking flawed yet sympathetic characters and putting them in hellish situations.
My only real fault with "Sunshine" is one of the decisions it makes in its third act. While most of the film is in suspense/thriller mode in the end it seems to adopt slasher film conventions when it introduces an insane character. This element seemed very unnecessary. Still, it's not prevalent enough to do substantial damage to the film's overall quality.
"Paprika" lacks pretty much everything - images aside - that makes "Sunshine" great.
The story concerns a device called the DC Mini which allows therapists and psychologists to view and interact with their patients dreams. Paprika is the alter-ego of Dr. Atsuko Chiba, the persona she assumes while in someone's dream. The conflict in the film arises when several of the DC Mini devices are stolen. The team that designed them soon discovers that DC Mini can be abused to invade and attack people's minds. The stolen devices begin to wreak havoc as dreams somehow slip into the real world.
This idea should be pretty familiar. Using technology to go into people's thoughts and dreams is pretty common in science fiction and fantasy. "Paprika" most resembles the 2000 horror/suspense science fiction film "The Cell" which also features a female psychologist entering people's dreams. The concept has also been done recently in movies like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
"Paprika" does not really contribute very much to this subgenre of science fiction. The characters and plot are entirely forgettable. I found myself bored throughout most of the film, only being entertained by the stunning visuals and animation of which I honestly expected to see more. Just watch the trailer online and you'll see all you need to see.
Were I a betting man I'd lay down some money that the motivation behind the making of "Paprika" was to have a setup that created the opportunity to make some really cool animation. Unfortunately man cannot live by cool animation alone.
Definitely make the effort to catch "Sunshine," especially on the big screen. "Paprika" is recommended only for the most devoted on anime fans.