“Sunshine”: Real Science Fiction Burns Back into the Multiplex

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“Sunshine”, the new science fiction film (though it does some genre hopping) from Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) has made a film that wants to be talked about. And talk about it people did, as they were leaving the theatre. It’s almost impossible not to. Niche film lovers it seems go to midnight showings (the young gentleman beside me seemed to be having an emotional and physical orgasm) and so people were casually tossing around titles like 2001, drawing the simplest comparisons, and while there are many references to Kubrick’s science fiction opus, visual and otherwise (and other handy sci-fi flicks), Boyle’s film is more the antithesis of what Kubrick seemed to have on his mind when making 2001, in that humanity is destroyed by science and technology, but then reborn by a power far greater than we can understand…an omniscient being perhaps or something beyond our grasp. Boyle’s answer to that is sometimes profound and thoughtful, sometimes harshly literal and other times seems to be placed in a film that isn’t quite brilliant enough to encapsulate everything exactly the way he wants to say it.

crew of sunshineWe begin on board a spaceship called “Icarus 2” (inferring that there was a first) which resembles a giant reflector shield and we quickly get to know the crew who are on a mission to re-energize our dying sun by exploding the “Payload” on the sun’s surface. To create a star within a star, the scientist, Cillian Murphy here, who created Icarus 2 describes. Everything is set, nothing is wrong, there’s a slim chance this will work and the computer keeps giving statistics that are slowly decreasing in percentages. So when they come across the first Icarus they decide to double their final chance by checking it out and hopefully salvaging it. Of course this leads to problems, among the crew and against the sun. Everything is looking up until one of the crew members makes an egregious mistake, one of those mistakes that could have been laughable in it’s structuring within the story (something bad has to happen) if it hadn’t been so darned easy to relate to. An oversight that if dealing with the kids and sack lunches might have been okay, they have the sun to contend with. And at this point it really finally starts to sink in, the frailty and importance of their mission and the humanity of the crew on board. That anyone can make such a mistake puts us directly in the shoes of these people. They aren’t the drillers of Armageddon, heroes with so much machismo that the asteroid might have just fled with the flexing of a few arms. This is the end of everything as we perceive it, our whole universe melting away into oblivion. The people on board are real which makes the expedition that much more enthralling. They are scientists, instead of voting, they weigh their decisions logically to find the best answer. They have faith that science and technology will be enough to save them in the end. cillian murphyBut in order to do so they have to come about as close to the sun as the crew in Airplane 2. We are treated to Mercury, so near in it’s revolution that it appears as big as our moon, but against the sun, it’s a black spec, and this is the beginning of something special.

Up until this point the film has been a whirlwind of film references, which, however unintentional, are almost impossible to avoid when people are stuck on board a space ship, oh there’s the already mentioned 2001, then there’s Alien, Bladerunner, Solaris (the Tarkovsky version and one of my favorites) and even a bit of Event Horizon (though that comes into play a little later too.) Boyle and the screenwriter Alex Garland remember all of the good things about these films. Finally though, Boyle takes all of those things we recognize and starts to twist them as he did so wonderfully in 28 Days Later. Truly there are spectacles in this movie that I have never seen put to film and they are quite over powering when they occur. His use of space and size is extraordinary to behold. One such sequence finds us outside the ship as two of the crew members go to fix some of the panels on the shield side, yes the side facing the sun. How is it that they accomplish this? Carefully; manual recalibrations continue (the thing that got them in trouble in the first place.) This sequence could have felt like any other “time to go fix something enjoying some sunoutside the spaceship” sequence, but by this point the scope of what they’re dealing with has been so ingrained in your mind, and the scope of space is so great, that there is a true sense of fear that arises, a sense of awe. And the visuals that ensue are jaw dropping. And they don’t stop until the very end.

What keeps this crew going, as one thing after another happens to them? Their desperate need to save humanity, and there absolute faith in science, no matter how low the percentages have gotten. It’s faith of another nature. But wasn’t it Kubrick who warned that technology will be our ruination in 2001, and that the only thing that can give us life is a power beyond our understanding? Not so in Boyle’s world. Now mankind has the power to create, in this world to create even a star! Ludicrous you ask? Well, ask an atheist about his feelings on the whole God created the universe subject. This is a parable. A parable of humanity’s journey away from God and into the loving hands of science, logic and technology, one that’s closer to Contact in nature than anything else. One of the character’s even chastises another for inferring that they are losing their humanity on this mission, and how could they possibly be when what they are trying to do is save it? How could we disagree with that? Everyone on the ship seems to agree. But what of the people on Icarus I? Our crew does make it there and what they find is the blackest and bleakest charred heart of religion and belief in God put forth in the guise of a frightening menace. To say more would ruin the mystery and terror that is found waiting in the last half ofrose byrne Sunshine. I can only say that as literal as the film’s metaphor becomes in moments nearing the end it never loses it’s ability to put us in reverence of cinema and to show us the power that an image can hold.

And it’s unfortunate though understandable why it becomes as literal as it does, falling deeper into genre territory that some might argue is not fitting for the kind of film it had been up until that point. But it has to be fun and scary. If you think it’s all heady sci-fi you’re wrong. While Boyle has greater things in mind, he also understands the need to let the general public enjoy what he’s created. And he shoots these moments in a way that reminds us that nothing in this environment is normal. There are some believable performances from Chris Evans (The Human Torch), Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard), Michelle Yeoh (doing something other than kicking), Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Cillian Murphy and just about everyone else. The music here also captures the electronic imaginings of Vangelis and is more than appropriate.

dying sun

Sunshine is the best kind of science fiction. The kind that makes us question what we believe in by showing the complexities of human nature stretched to the brink by a situation that is far beyond our current abilities to reach. It tweaks our imagination and our intellects. It makes us uneasy and frightened like the best of horror films and thrillers. And while not perfect, it’s something that I think most people can enjoy, just as they enjoyed Alien, Event Horizon and 28 Days Later, and still come out feeling like they’ve read a great book.

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4 Responses to ““Sunshine”: Real Science Fiction Burns Back into the Multiplex”

  1. Paul Martin Says:

    Here, Noel Tanti, who liked the film a whole lot more than me, discusses a point I have raised.

    Every film has a target market. What works for one doesn’t work for another. With most films, there will be flaws of one kind or another. I think how we respond to those flaws determines whether we can continue to suspend disbelief or not. For me, I wanted to like this film, and there was much to like. Certain devices used just put me off and I stopped being able to suspend disbelief.

    The visuals were excellent, but I didn’t like the human interactions and the frenetic cutting/editing. There was more I didn’t like, but those were the critical ones that for me made the film a failure. I do appreciate and am glad that others could enjoy it in ways that I couldn’t.

  2. Peet Says:

    Very nice article, Phil! I forgot to use the word “strictly” when I claimed at The House that Sunshine isn’t a “chin-strokey affair.” It is, but it establishes its themes in such a visceral way that it doesn’t feel like one. Some people are complaining about Sunshine’s lack of depth, while the key is in the images and how they make you feel.

    Peet, thank you. In your own nicely written article I understood what you meant, but just speaking up so others wouldn’t think it was not completely one thing. I agree, the visuals were the meaning, were the emotion. I felt very much the same way about “La Vie en Rose” – brilliant performance, sure, but the editing, the cinematography, the direction…it’s hard for me to understand why people fault a movie based on the fact that it doesn’t follow the strictures of storytelling.

  3. Josh Says:

    While I love certain genre books and movies, I’m not willing to endure too many cliches for the love of spaceships or dragons or courtrooms, etc., and I feel like that’s the only thing would have let me suspend my disbelief adequately here.

    The visuals were excellent and awe-inspiring, and I found the premise interesting and original. But none of that could make up for the fact that an hour later I couldn’t remember the name of any character in the movie.

    From the beginning, I tried to overlook the stock, unnecessarily underlit hallways of a ship that ran on solar power, the forced and convenient “I’ve got space madness to show how volatile things are” drama, and the fact that fate of the world, again, relied on a rag-tag band of emotionally immature and over-reactive young people (with some nice exceptions.)

    I found myself struggling to care, until the navigator made the mistake. That segment was excellent, as was the decision scene, and I didn’t even mind the standard ‘ship is broken’ problem, because it ended well and with unexpected nobility.

    But soon everyone was yelling, and the blah blah was affecting the blah blah which meant [insert stock sci-fi peril here] and it started to sound like a teenage horror film. At that point the only thing more boring to me would have been to throw a mysterious and unstoppable monster to kill them off one by one while they run around and yell at each other some more. And then it actually happened.

    That’s probably when I switched off my commitment to the film completely. These things always go the same way. The indestructible monster kills everyone on board except for the last guy, who, fighting him off at the last moment, blah blah blah. I thought it really crippled what was until then an interesting and potentially salvageable story.

    So I kind of endured the rest of the movie, trying to enjoy to the awesome sights while thinking things like, “So Capo is the only one on board with the knowledge to deliver the payload, which apparently consists of pushing two buttons and a stick–and that’s using the manual override!–something that could be done easily while wearing a huge, clunky spacesuit that severely limits your visibility? Could it have possibly been any easier automatic mode? Really, no one else could do this task?”

    I don’t know, I usually agree with you about movies, and you’ve pointed me to some of the best I’ve ever seen, but I think I’d have to be a bigger sci-fi fan to like this movie based on its references alone. There were two others that jumped out at me–the calling home scene was a big deal in Starblazers too, and the Jason X captain wasn’t unlike a Reaver.

  4. Phillip Says:

    You saw “Jason X – Jason goes to outer space”? Awesome.

    You point out and bring up a lot of the things that made the film not perfect in my eyes, but beyond the opening minutes of the film that follow the pattern of most sci-fi films, and the sudden jump from sci-fi to horror, those moments withstanding, the rest of the movie I felt was original enough in its overpowering visual storytelling and thought provoking enough in it’s ideas to rise above the problems we both agree the film had. I too moaned when the monster started stabbing people in the back, thankfully he only got one person, then went back to being to his shaky cam symbolism. That moment though when Murphy discovers there’s an extra person on board, that’s a moment, though I guessed that someone was going to come back on board with them, it was still a moment.

    An interesting thing here is, and I didn’t discover this until after seeing the film, while Alex Garner the writer saw his film under a similar light as I did, the death of God, the director saw the film as a bunch of scientists going to meet there maker, in which case the sun symbolized God? Or did the beast symbolize God? To me the first response makes more sense, or maybe they both do. There’s a lot to talk about and maybe that’s because the two creators had dissenting point of views.

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