A Minor Masterpiece

'Eternal Sunshine' proves that suddenly, science fiction has a chance

I imagine that when they finally re-make Logan's Run, it's going to be even worse than the original. Not that I didn't love it in its day--and I still think it's a far better movie than the post-Star Wars pseudo-science fiction that's been excreted into cinemas since the '80s--but I just can't imagine that a modern director would do anything with the story except turn it over to the CGI department and then head home in his Hummer for some cocaine and intercourse with minors.

But then I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I thought, maybe, real science fiction has a chance.

See, it used to be the case that science fiction was the genre that explored ideas. Movies like Logan's Run and Soylent Green and Silent Running and even the original Planet of the Apes, though fully dumbed-down for popular consumption, were at least not about the prettiness of exploding stuff. Rather, they were means of exploring issues of social consequence through exaggeration, embodying concepts in characters, settings and technology.

With Star Wars, that pretty much ended, and science fiction vanished, only to be replaced by Westerns with spaceships and lasers instead of horses and the exploitation of the noble Native American.

But so far in 2004 (which, technically, is the future), we've had two science-fiction-as-films-of-ideas movies, the incredibly underrated Butterfly Effect and the latest Charlie Kaufman piece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both films are more psychological than social, but still, they're idea-oriented, and ESotSM is even something of a minor masterpiece.

The story involves a man (Jim Carrey, who, it turns out, is fully capable of playing a man) and a woman (Kate Winslet, who's actually made something of a career out of playing women) who fall in love, fall out of love, and then, in acts of spite and impulsiveness, decide to have each other erased from memory.

It's best not to give away too much of the story, but I will note that the film is structured so that the beginning seems to contradict the middle, but then it all makes sense at the end. So bear with it.

What really sets Sunshine apart, though, is not the story but the attention to detail. Wait, also the story. So the story and the attention to detail, as well as the acting, and the really well-handled, hand-held camera work, set Sunshine apart. That plus it's good, whereas most movies suck.

Kate Winslet, who's pretty much always excellent, continues that tradition here by playing a character who actually seems human. The average movie character, for purposes of clarity and conciseness, tends to have one mood and to react to everything in the same way. Thus, we have the wise-cracking cop, the grim vigilante and the emotive maiden, who spend all their time wise-cracking, being grim and emoting. You just never see the grim vigilante wise-crack while emoting.

But Winslet's character can be whimsical, bitchy, tired, excited and, most unusually, rational. It's like she's a real person who has a complex and inconsistent inner life, rather than a two-line description of a character that's being pitched as a cereal box spokescartoon.

Of course, Jim Carrey, the other lead, has made a lot of money playing cereal-box spokesrabbit-type characters. Shockingly, when directed to act like a person, he actually has a mode other than "zany." He can also do sad. Real sad, like a suicidal puppy that's been left out in an acid rain storm while reading Little Women.

Of course, actors have to have something to work with, and here, they have the standard, grade-A Charlie Kaufman script. Kaufman is probably best known for Being John Malkovich and for the script he wrote with his deceased, non-existent twin brother, Adaptation. As much as I like those two movies, neither is half as good as Sunshine. Here, he's taken his gimmicky ways and gone way beyond gimmicky.

He's also employed the aid of ace video director Michel Gondry. It's hard to imagine that movies really need to borrow anything else from videos, since they've now largely become view-tracks for the soundtrack, but Gondry's videos have always been stand-out, and here, he employs his odd creative sense with intense precision and attention to detail.

One of the best and most telling examples of this is a scene in a bookstore in which all the books are shelved backwards, with the pages out and the spines in. There's no comment on this, and it's not unduly emphasized; it's just one of many gorgeous background touches that work with the film's odd setting--inside Jim Carrey's mind as his memory is being erased.

Of course, you can only go so far inside someone's head, so the story also bounces up to the conscious world, where the proprietors and employees of Lacuna Incorporated have their own problems. This is not a tacked-on plot point, though, but an integral element of the entire story. Plus, it's played out by a supporting cast that includes Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo, two of the best actors currently working outside of the reality-show format, and Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst, who are pretty.

Also pretty is the camerawork by Ellen Kuras, the incredible changing woman of cinematography. Her work on Swoon, Mod Squad and Summer of Sam made those films seem better than they were. Now, she finally has a great script to work with, and she does an amazing job, doing some of the best hand-held work I've even seen.

So please, please, go see this movie, and let the obese heads of the major studios know that we want more than just cinema as super-size French fries with laser cheese--we'd also like a little something to think about after we throw the popcorn container away.

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