Danny Boyle is one of the more interesting film directors out there today. He seems to dabble in every genre. He’s done paranoid thriller (Shallow Grave), substance abuse drama (Trainspotting), zombies (28 Days Later), and a genuine family film (Millions). Boyle has a bountiful imagination. Now he and his 28 Days Later partner, writer Alex Garland, are going where many have gone before in the film world – outer space. Just don’t confuse the film with the 1999’s Sunshine where Ralph Fiennes plays three generations of a Jewish family with rotten luck. Come to think of it, both Sunshine movies fall apart in the final act. Note to filmmakers: just stay away from this title. It will doom your ending.
Fifty years into the future, the sun is dying. Earth is under a solar winter as it undergoes less and less light. The crew of the Icarus II has a very important mission: restart the sun. Attached to their spacecraft is a giant bomb intended to create a new star inside an old one. They have a giant reflective shield to protect them from the direct heat of the sun. The ship has eight crew members, including the physicist responsible for the bomb (Cillian Murphy), a botanist (Michelle Yeoh) with a garden to provide recyclable oxygen reserves, and a hotheaded handyman (Chris Evans) that believes nothing could be more important than their mission. As they drift closer to the sun they pick up a distress call that belongs to the previous Icarus I spacecraft which vanished under mysterious circumstances seven years ago. The crew decides that two bombs are better than one and changes course to intercept the Icarus I. anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows you don’t go poking into the spooky place when you don’t have to.
Boyle sure knows how to make things look pretty, or interesting, or pretty interesting, and this helps because Sunshine is rather shopworn with familiar sci-fi staples. The premise itself almost seems identical to a 1990 film called Solar Crisis, a movie I only remember marginally because of the female nudity my young eyes caught glimpse of (in those days we didn’t have any of yer fancy Internets). Besides this, the film borrows liberally from 2001, Solaris, Star Trek, Alien, Event Horizon, The Core, and the super crappy Supernova. Most every aspect of Sunshine can be traced back to a different science fiction film, but sci-fi is one of the few genres that don’t necessarily suffer from being derivative. A cookie-cutter sci-fi movie is forgivable as long as the filmmakers treat the audience with respect and attempt to be smart with their story. I don’t care that Sunshine reworks plot elements that have been worked since giant alien carrot people frightened necking teenagers in the 1950s, and that’s because the genre is built for being borrowed.
Sunshine is often beautiful to watch with awe-inspiring images of that great ball of fire, our sun, but even better is the fact that the film is pretty much the opposite of Armageddon – it’s smart. The movie discusses the realities of space travel, communication, oxygen levels, trajectories, sub-zero temperatures, sacrifice, and how to live so close to the sun where the human eye can only safely look at 3.1 percent of its light emissions for 10 seconds. It’s a bit slow but rather fascinating just to witness how day-to-day life functions for the crew and how the time, or lack of discernible time, plays with their psychology. This respectful intelligence helps when the crew debates altering their mission to inspect the mysterious space vessel. The audience knows that only bad things will happen but the crew argues with reasonably sound logic about the potential benefits.
Sunshine is a thinking man’s sci-fi treat for its first two acts and then it completely devolves with a disappointing turn of events; it becomes a slasher film in space. There’s genuine awe and intrigue, along with some brainy scientific discussions and some considerable religious/philosophical pondering… and it all just stops dead for a madman chasing people with pointy things. Sigh. It’s an artistic free-fall that Sunshine never quite fully recovers from. Boyle makes the strange decision to keep his space slasher out of focus so the audience never gets a clear look; even stranger are camera shots where the killer will walk into frame and then transform his area to an unfocused blur like a blurry infection. It’s an artistic choice that doesn’t quite work (“The blurry man’s coming to get you, Barbara!”). The film then morphs into your standard race-against-time and then balloons with trippy computer effects and snazzy light filters. Sunshine was exceedingly more entertaining prior to picking up the unwanted visitor.
The cast does a fine job mulling their life-or-death options, but the two standouts are Murphy and Evans. Murphy and his piercing baby blues make for a strong lead. He provides soulful glimpses into his stock scientist role. Evans is the surprise of the film. Best known as the Human Torch in the dreadful Fantastic Four films, he exhibits a wider range of emotions from macho hardass to duty-bound soldier. This is a film heavy with noble sacrifices, and Evans is the reminder of all that is at stake.
Sunshine is visually pleasing and intellectually stimulating, especially for a sci-fi film built from the discarded pieces of other films. It’s a tense and exciting time, that is, until the movie just throws up its hands and transforms into a laughable slasher film. This movie did not have to go this tiresome route; there could have been an on-board mutiny when they discussed the idea of killing one of their own so they had enough oxygen to complete their mission, there could have been further psychological torments from within the crew, or even easier, the spaceship could just have undergone more malfunctions. Sunshine is a thoughtful, slightly meditative sci-fi thriller, but then it loses all of its better senses.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Posted on July 22, 2007, in 2007 Movies and tagged alex garland, chris evans, cillian murphy, danny boyle, drama, horror, michelle yeoh, rose byrne, sci-fi, thriller. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.