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Last Sunrise
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by Jay Seaver

"A pleasantly smaller Chinese end-of-the-world picture."
4 stars

SCREENED AT BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL 44: Do they know something in China about how the Sun is about to screw humanity over in some incredibly catastrophic way, or is it just a coincidence that two films which take that as a starting point have come from that part of the world in relatively rapid succession? It's probably nothing, but you wonder. "Last Sunrise" is a far less bombastic take on the idea than "The Wandering Earth", the small indie version that has more to say about two people at the end of the world than the event itself.

The first to get wind that something is up is Sun Yang (Zhang Jue), a freelance astronomer who has noticed small fluctuations in our local star's luminosity that remind him of another star that somehow disappeared, although his emails to Wang Yun (Wang Dahong) - the solar-power entrepreneur whose open-source astronomical data shows the anomalies - get shut out. When the sun starts to flicker before outright vanishing, though, Wang sends Sun an address at which to meet - but to get there, he'll have to split a ride with neighbor Chen Ma (Zhang "Ran" Yue), who has a car but has never actually been close to the reclusive Sun Yang.

The nuts-and-bolts science fiction of the story isn't necessarily important in that writer/director Ren Wen isn't going to have Sun Yang and Chen Ma spend the movie chasing details down, but there's something reassuring about how how Ren doesn't take it for granted or completely brush it away. The cataclysm itself is striking without being a big visual-effects demo, and the explanation that Wang Yun offers is satisfying in that it doesn't minimize this huge event despite putting any chance of doing anything about it well out of reach (like Liu Cixin's Three Body Problem, it reminds me a bit of Asimov's The Gods Themselves, which is not a bad influence to have). There's enough future tech sprinkled around the first act to establish the film's world as a bit ahead of our own but not so much that Ren can't make it familiar.

On occasion, it's a little too familiar, as Sun Yang and Chen Ma find themselves making their way through some standard post-apocalyptic scenarios - the decadent wealthy finishing their expensive wine, the oasis that's more dangerous than it looks, arriving at a goal only to find that it wasn't as strong as the people seeing it as a beacon. That material is fine; it keeps Sun Yang and Chen Ma moving and gives them reason to clash and connect as needed. Still, it's a rather orderly apocalypse, with the roads clear and no bodies on the ground, and there eventually comes a point where the audience gets fidgety, starting to wonder if we're past the point when oxygen would be falling to the ground like snow or if it's a little too easy to see by starlight. By the time Sun Yang and Chen Ma are escaping from a coal mine, it's clear that this sort of thing is not exactly Ren's forte.

He and his cast are pretty good at capturing the chemistry between the young travelers, though, especially since Sun Yang is abrasive enough that the audience is not necessarily rooting for him and Chen Ma to get closer. It's nevertheless an interestingly sympathetic portrayal by Zhang Jue, capturing a certain sort of disdainful introversion that can develop in those who spend all their time on-line, the closest thing they have to a friend being the AI in their "old-fashioned" phone. There's irony in how he's determined to survive despite not really knowing how to live, but also something fitting - his bounded life may insulate him somewhat against certain types of despair. Zhang Ran gets to be warmer and brighter from the start, but recognizes that it gives her Chen Ma more eventual room for despair.

Eventually, the road will end, and the journey will be as much about Sun Yang and Chen Ma seeing each other's value as much as reaching some magically safe place, and it's not always the smoothest journey, but it's generally a road trip movie that makes the pairing interesting and slips some decent science fiction in at times. China had demonstrated that they can do the sci-fi blockbuster, so it's nice to see that there are folks there making this more grounded variety as well.

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originally posted: 02/27/19 05:50:18
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User Comments

2/28/19 Li Xiang Better than Wandering Earth 5 stars
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Directed by
  Wen Ren

Written by
  Wen Ren
  Yiqing Elly Li
  Yankang Mei
  Min Yu

  Jue Zhang
  Ran Zhang

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