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Eco-spaceship redux

Posted by Joshua Glenn  August 2, 2007 09:28 AM

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In his July 30 review of "Sunshine," Danny Boyle's new science-fiction movie about a group of astronauts on a mission to jump-start our dying sun, the New Yorker's Anthony Lane has only one positive thing to say. The "oxygen garden" tended by Michelle Yeoh at the heart of the spaceship is, Lane raves,

a lovely invention on the part of Boyle, the screenwriter, Alex Garland, and the production designer, Mark Tildesley. Having last ganged together on "28 Days Later," a brisk resuscitation of the zombie genre, they are obviously hoping to give the solar system the same kind of makeover. "Star Wars" showed us clean and rustless spacecraft, "Alien" muscled in with dank and dripping ones, and now "Sunshine" catches the mood with verdancy....

Now, I realize that it's New Yorker house style for a writer to pretend to know everything about whatever subject he or she has been assigned. And I'm not quarreling with the snarky review -- I haven't seen the movie, and it's probably just as bad as Lane says. But the New Yorker has slipped up badly this time. They should be embarrassed!

The oxygen garden in "Sunshine"

For one thing, Boyle and Garland, neither of whom has ever had an original idea (not that this is a bad thing; it's OK to update and improve upon somebody else's original ideas), obviously lifted the garden-in-space from the the 1972 SF thriller "Silent Running," in which Bruce Dern works on a spaceship harboring Earth's last nature reserves. When he's ordered to jettison his beloved forests and return home, Dern mutinies and murders his fellow crew members. Come to think of it, the "Sunshine" garden is probably a Tarantino-esque homage to "Silent Running."*

A still from "Silent Running"

For another thing, who could possibly equate "Star Wars" with clean and rustless spacecraft? The design of science fiction movies was almost entirely sleek and streamlined until 1977, when the "used universe" of George Lucas's "Star Wars" gave us patched and recycled technologies and spaceships. Now everybody does it. I'm not claiming that Lucas was an original thinker, either. (He's proudly owned up to cobbling together the plot of "Star Wars" from the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, the "Flash Gordon" serials, and Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," not to mention Laurel and Hardy movies, Howard Hawks's "Red River," Tod Browning's "Freaks," you name it. And I've also heard that the lived-in, broken-down look of "Star Wars" was ripped off from "Valerian," the popular Franco-Belgian science-fiction comic first published in 1967.) But come on, Lane, do your homework!

* UPDATE: OK, it turns out I'm absolutely right, about Boyle's (self-confessed) lack of originality and also the "oxygen garden." I've just Googled "Danny Boyle" and "Silent Running" and came across the following exchange, from a July 16 interview in Sci Fi Weekly:

SFW: In a film like this you sort of almost necessarily find yourself repeating things that have been done before. There's always a mysterious signal, an emergency spacewalk, an explosive decompression. How do you make a movie like this without falling into a cliche?
BOYLE: I would say... you're right. There are a limited amount of things that you can do in these stories, and they do tend to resemble each other a bit.... We have this journey to the sun, which was the original thing which hasn't been done. Astonishingly, to our amazement we couldn't find [a film]. It hasn't really been done. And it seems like the most extraordinary journey you could ever make as a human being, you know, to travel to the source of life, really. And so you hope that that will give you enough to actually maintain the freshness of it, even if some of the ingredients that you come across during it inevitably are familiar. Like what you said, an emergency decompression of the ship.... There are similarities to other films, for sure.
SFW: Was the 1972 Bruce Dern space movie 'Silent Running' one of your influences?
BOYLE: That's another one, yeah. That's obviously a big one, the oxygen garden and everything. That kind of stuff.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks, Boing Boing and Edward Champion, for linking to this post! And thanks, Boing Boing and Edward Champion readers, for alerting me about anything else Lane screwed up in his review, or about other examples of movie gardens-on-spaceships, or other "used universe" precursors.


More SF- and comics-related stories: "We are Iron Man!" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Kiddie Movies" (Brainiac) | "The Slacktivism of Richard Linklater" (Slate) | "Black Iron Prison" (n+1) | "Back to Utopia" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "In a Perfect World" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Philip K. Dick: Hermenaut of the Month" (Hermenaut) | "Journeys to the Center " (New York Times Book Review/IHT) | "Climate of Fear" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Pulp Affection" (Boston Globe Ideas) | "Eco-Spaceship Redux" (Brainiac) | "Post-Apocalyptic Juvie Lit" (Brainiac) | "The New Skrullicism" (Brainiac) | "Prez" (Brainiac) | "Life Imitates Comic Book" (Brainiac) "Vintage Ads of Fictional Futures" (Brainiac) | "The Partisans" (Brainiac) | "The New Gods" (Brainiac) | "Rarebit Fiend!" (Brainiac audio slideshow) | "Dr. Strange vs. Dr. Craven" (Brainiac)

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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