Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

★★

Insidious Chapter 2 PosterDirector: James Wan

Release Date: September 13th, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Rose Bryne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins

The second instalment in James Wan’s scary adventure opens with a game of ‘Hot and Cold’, where Participant A uses temperature to gauge Participant B’s closeness to a particular destination. Only, it should be rechristened ‘Manufacturing Scares’ because that’s exactly what the game is implemented for. In fact, the moment is indicative of Insidious: Chapter 2 as a whole, a film that lacks invention and overly relies on horror commonalities. Before the final credits roll we watch as characters partake in a Ouija circle, find a ghostly videotape and visit an abandoned hospital. (Guess what? It’s haunted). Discounting the occasional splurge of genuinely creep imagery, Chapter 2 is much the same as the first chapter but without the benefit of a new-born shine.

After a brief venture down memory lane — the origin of Josh Lambert’s (Patrick Wilson) uncanny ability is relayed — we realign with the present where the Lambert household isn’t exactly settled. The grizzly death of paranormal investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) has caused a stir, and Renai’s (Rose Bryne) subsequent questioning by a police detective in regards to her husband Josh’s potential involvement in Elise’s demise is also inducing internal strain; he seems different, evidently cockier. Her beau’s strange demeanour ain’t even the worst of it: the evil spirits are back and once again preying on Renai’s family.

If retreading old ground was an Olympic sport, Insidious: Chapter 2 would be blaring out the US national anthem with a gold medal hanging not-so-proudly around its camera lens. The title sequence is a carbon copy of what came before; aided by a congregation of piercing strings, blood red letters boom on screen and form the once foreboding INSIDIOUS inscription. It is sort of scary but the impact is far lesser here than was felt at the beginning of the premier output. Said string instrumental is part of the same score as before and, again, might have been quite unsettling if not for its overuse.

The familiarities aren’t simply local though, they arrive from afar. Chapter 2 has a number of its hands in a number of stagnant terror traits — James Wan meshes together haunted houses, desolate hospitals, alarming photographs and more in a hodgepodge horror pie that more resembles eight undercooked slices than a well-done whole. We’ve seen it all before, just one film ago in fact, and Chapter 2 struggles to stand upright on its own as a result.

The various elements don’t converse fluently either. If the first half is often predictable, the second is occasionally undecipherable. It’s a mess, really. Leigh Whannell’s screenplay devolves into a plethora of timelines and various existences. The writer dusts off his acting chops when a singular focus might have served proceedings better. Older and younger selves meet, but they don’t really. (Or do they?) Jocelin Donahue joins in at this point but her previous genre achievements fail to rub off this time around. Indeed, as far as haunted house epidemics go, The House of the Devil is in another league. Some effort is made to tie up loose ends, it’s just a shame that these loose ends end up in a tangle. As far as the film’s predictability goes, we tend to know the plan before the characters do: “If only Elise were here to help us.” If only. Watch out for two tin cans and a string as well. Something spooky oughta happen there.

Given the film carries a tone that pangs with dishevelled nostalgia, it’s probably to nobody’s surprise that some of the acting is camp. Patrick Wilson plays Josh Lambert but with a noticeable sprinkle of added aplomb to his voice, so much so that you’d think something was wrong with the father/husband. Despite his attempt to be eerie and serious, Wilson’s allure edges ever closer to humorous as the film progresses. It’s not meant to be funny, but it is. Rose Byrne is always reliable and provides a solid anchor for the uninspired narrative. Ty Simpkins also has more to offer than first time around, though admittedly he did spent the previous instalment almost entirely in a coma. Leigh Whannell and Angus Simpson’s comedic duo is a completely jarring inclusion. Unlike Wilson’s turn as Josh, the pair are supposed to funny but spend their time on screen spouting cringe-worthy material.

Though infrequent, James Wan does unveil some of the well-furnished horror magic that he has deftly applied in the past. Much like in The Conjuring, Wan finds prosperity in some seriously disturbing imagery. Hairs raise as menacing-eyed, widely-grinning faces flash before us for only a split second, but it’s enough to leave a dent in our previously unscathed fright-barometer. Moments such as this one catch us off-guard, however unlike the inferior jump scares that consume the rest of Chapter 2, these images are themselves intrinsically ominous and therefore contextually justified. The film actually bares a well-oiled look and one of its better moments comes near the beginning: a slow pan from pitch black into a moody, dark room. Lugging a plot that can barely hold itself together without succumbing to old ways and characters that don’t really command our attention, Wan’s dexterity when it comes to imagery is at least one spooky success.

Insidious: Chapter 2 spends an hour playing with second-hand toys before it takes to doodling with permanent markers and resultant mess-making. Aside from teaching us not to have babies (they’re a real nuisance when ghouls attack) and treating us to one or two authentic frights by way of scary visuals, Wan’s outing is purposeless.

At one point Josh says, “All you have to do is ignore them and they’ll go away”. I’ve stopped listening.

Insidious Chapter 2 - Ty

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): FilmDistrict, Stage 6 Films

Sunshine (2007)

★★★★★

Sunshine PosterDirector: Danny Boyle

Release Date: April 5th, 2007 (UK); July 20th, 2007 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Science-fiction; Thriller

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Bryne, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh

Quite appropriately, Sunshine spends a significant amount of time focusing on the eyes of its pawns. Sometimes a pair will fill the entire screen, strained with sentiment either good or bad, though often the latter. On occasion, they will fight menacingly through an iffy transmission from another spacecraft and act as a warning. The Sun allures them with its fiery aesthetic and unwavering appeal. Without hesitation, characters ask, “What do you see?” in moments of impending demise as if nothing else matters in the universe. Look, even, at the poster. Yielding a blazing visual palette and dreamt up by the mind’s eye of screenwriter Alex Garland, the film is a sci-fi celebration, though you won’t see much celebrating. Riddled with mystery and psychological incoherence, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine floats very close to the sublime.

It is 2057 and an ominous solar winter has a stranglehold on Earth. Aboard Icarus II, a team of eight personnel are voyaging to the dying Sun with one aim: to reignite it. Carrying a nuclear payload, the crew only have one chance to hit their target and, given the operation’s purely theoretical prerogative, those odds aren’t as robust as the situation warrants. Upon discovering the location of Icarus I — a prior failed mission — physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) recommends taking a detour in order to attain another bomb, and another attempt.

Though his portfolio doesn’t suggest much science-fiction enthusiasm, Danny Boyle’s admiration for the genre fireballs from the screen here. There are elements of seminal space cinema splashed all over Sunshine. From the vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to the fraught psychology depicted in Solaris, to Event Horizon’s incessantly doomed outlook, Boyle’s take on sci-fi pays homage to a plethora of greats. But it does more than that. This isn’t simply a historical Pick ‘n’ Mix of stars and planets, rather it incorporates the genre’s best components with subtlety and proceeds to tell a new story. We do not witness Capa and company enter a separate desolate spacecraft and subsequently become overwhelmed by thoughts of Event Horizon because Boyle does not allow it. The Brit always has control and his film always has us transfixed, not by inter-genre nods, but by an ever-enveloping tension and disconcerting mystique — in truth, the film refrains from sparing us any time to consider references until long after the credits have rolled (I’m recounting citations right now).

The director employs traits familiar to him, such as gritty realism and terminal dejection, and combines them with far more expansive notions that pit science against religion. In between philosophical conversations (“A new star born out of a dying one, I think it will be beautiful — no, I’m not scared”) crew members discuss the practicalities of their predicament: oxygen supply levels, or the Sun’s angle. Astronauts aside, we cannot relate to the quandary in which those aboard Icarus II find themselves, but we can ascribe to the pragmatic mindset that they often reverberate. The characters are normal people. Yes, they are each excessively intelligent and well-versed in specialist areas. But despite floating many miles above in space, they remain grounded — we have to take each individual at face value as none of their past lives are explained. You can forget surnames too: Cassie, Harvey and Mace will do just fine. These are ordinary people in an extraordinary circumstance, decision-making dictated by scenario and each individual just as vulnerable as any of us would be.

The characters’ incomplete personal logs contribute to another of the film’s successful narrative strands: a growing sense of tension. This is not a horror film yet it bears a variety of horrifying aspects, one of which is personnel ambiguity. Since we only know that which is in front of our eyes and nothing more, it is plausible to us that any member of the team could snap at any given moment. Boyle explores isolation and the subsequent psychological trauma faced by those disconnected from civilisation, a concept captured magnanimously by one character’s reaction to the decimation of a homely, naturalistic oxygen garden. As Icarus II advances closer to its destination (“Entering the dead zone”) a haunting strain is emitted, one that is eerie and difficult to pinpoint. Searle, the vessel’s doctor, becomes increasingly transfixed by the Sun which appears to be hauling the spacecraft ever-nearer to imminent death.

A slight tonal shift occurs in tandem alongside the crew’s interactions with the ill-fated Icarus I. From a tantalising slow-burner, proceedings deviate towards disorientating terror. The final act is probably the film’s weakest, but it is by no means a weak offering. If anything, the conclusion ushers in greater mythological tendencies spearheaded by religious impetus (in Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the Sun). Perhaps it is only fitting that a narrative adjacent to the heavens should juggle Godly morals. Nevertheless Boyle, a man with religious associations himself, ensures that Sunshine does not become overburdened by spirituality and instead strikes a wholesome balance between the film’s various thematic veins.

A scorching visual gloss is as all-encompassing as it is magnificent. The dark and inherently inanimate interior of Icarus II seems to not only seep from the crew’s mellow demeanour, but also abets an air of warped uncertainty. Battling to infect the spacecraft’s overcast insides is the Sun; rays burning with unlimited effervescence, so much so that you will be rolling up those sleeves in a desperate plea for cool air. Accompanying the wonderful cinematography is John Murphy’s tender-yet-lofty score that shines brightest towards the Sunshine’s concluding chapter.

Cillian Murphy leads the way as Capa, whose contemplative nature suggests that only he is truly aware of the task’s magnitude. The skill here is in generating a sense of normality and the best plaudit that can be awarded to Murphy — a generally charming presence — is that he emphatically portrays a professional physicist. Capa may partake in a few scuffles with Chris Evans’ Mace, but other than that he is plainly a physicist driven by nuclear properties and measurements. The aforementioned Chris Evans does well in a slightly different role as the morally strict engineer whose sole focus is the success of the mission. The other noteworthy performance comes from Rose Byrne as vessel pilot Cassie. Bryne develops a solid equilibrium between strong-willed and sensitive, and also strikes up a believable dynamic with Murphy, one that would undoubtedly be romantic in another environment.

Capa’s opening monologue outlines one purpose: “To create a star within a star.” Boasting admirable scope, a tense and engaging atmosphere, and a variety of well-oiled thematic roots relevant to the genre, Sunshine is undoubtedly a star turn from Danny Boyle.

Sunshine - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Rotten Tomatoes

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight Pictures