“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.
We 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. But 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 outside 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 of 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.
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.