Sunshine (2007)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sunshine shouldn’t really work. It’s like someone has taken the elements of 2001, Alien, Event Horizon and Silent Running, stuck them in a jar, shaken them about and put it on film. But even though Sunshine is derivative, for the most part it works exceptionally well.

One of the reasons why the film works is the central concept. I love the idea of a crew having to journey to the sun. There’s something extraordinarily powerful about the idea. After all, in the absence of a god, the sun is the next best thing. It’s the source of life on our planet – it’s what sustains us. Without it we’re nothing. So therefore the journey to the sun becomes a spiritual quest. It’s both a journey within and a journey to the source of creation.

And the film works magnificently when it touches upon these themes. There are some beautiful moments, the best one being the scene where the crew get to see Mercury pass in front of the sun. It’s a reminder of how insignificant we are but how glorious life is. Simple things like this allow us to assess our place in the universe – it allows us to forget our petty concerns and gain some perspective. In the end we’re all circling this star and if its not there to shine its warmth upon us, we wont even be allowed to have our problems and our differences – our existence hangs on a thread.

I also like the scene where one of the characters visits the Earth room as a form of therapy. Here we see what all the characters are trying to preserve – the forests, the oceans; all the simple things that bring joy to our life. Yet this is what they may all be sacrificing for the greater good. They might not come home from this trip. They may never again feel the sun’s warmth from the safety of a few million miles. Therefore this may be the closest they get to be being back home. And there’s a nice little scene where Murphy’s character sends a message to his family. He tells them that if they wake up one day and it’s a particularly beautiful day, they’ll know they made it.

Another great scene is the one where the Captain perishes. The scene starts off as a kind of standard spacewalk sequence (characters fix things and speak lots of technical jargon) but as things go wrong and the Captain gets consumed by the sunlight it turns into something more than that. It becomes the most emotional part of the film. A lot of the credit for this has to go to the music, which is superb, but there’s also the way that the Captain looks into the sun. He knows he’s going to die and he knows he can’t look into the sunlight for more than a split second before going blind, but looking directly at the star, bare and unprotected, is the closest he’s going to get to looking into the eye of god. And so therefore it’s more than understandable that he does it. And the psychologist on board even asks him what he sees. Of course, even if he survived the Captain wouldn’t be able to answer, words wouldn’t be enough, but the moment is wonderfully filmed and played. Along with the Mercury scene, it’s one of the highlights of the film.

However, even though I love the first two thirds of the film, it goes downhill in the final act. All the interesting questions that the film raises are jettisoned in favour of a slash and stalk finale that is generic in the extreme.

But having said that, things start off promisingly enough. I like the use of subliminal shots of the dead Icarus 1 crew when the astronauts enter the ship. It helps build the tension and sense of unease. I even like the revelation of the burnt surviving member – he stands in the observation room, light streaming off of him like he’s a demon or something. But in the end he just becomes another religious madman with unbelievable cunning and resources of strength. And it’s even sillier in the face of the fact that he’s burnt to a crisp. Apparently getting charred gives you superhuman strength.

And it’s here that the film just basically becomes Event Horizon. In light of what comes before, it’s deeply unsatisfying. People get stabbed in the dark and the blood flows. Nothing new to see here. There’s even a wink to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece when one of the characters says that they might get picked off one by one by an alien. Yeah, I don’t really want a serious film to wink at me. And besides, if the last third of the film was as imaginative as the rest, there’d be no need for nods and winks as it wouldn’t be covering old ground. But even though it’s disappointing, Boyle is strong enough of a director to at least make the finale entertaining. However, you can’t help but feel that everyone involved didn’t have a clue how to end the film and that this is the result.

Another minor gripe is some of the acting. Chris Evans is pretty bland and square and Rose Byrne is even worse – she’s so incredibly wet. But such is the strength of the film’s visuals, its effects, its music, its production design and its ideas that the lacklustre ending and a couple of mediocre performances don’t impair it too seriously. It’s a very good film that could have been a great one.

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  1. I just watched this over the holiday, and am in hearty agreement w/ your review...v. pretty, v. promising, but....blurry evangelist picked-scab space ghost? reaaaally?

    a teacher once told me that some of us are incapable of feats of scifi/fantasy because reality is just too FN fascinating. maybe Boyle's strength is making microscopic, grossly realistic things beautiful and narrative (Slumdog, Trainspotting), and the infinite possibilities of scifi just made it too hard to rein it all in.

  2. Yep, there might be some truth to that. He kind of did the same thing in 28 Days Later - created this fascinating world and then didn't quite know how to end it. In both cases the set-up is a whole lot better than the pay-off. But it says a lot for both films that they somehow manage to overcome their generic endings and linger in the memory for the right reasons.

    But damn Boyle for not making them the masterpieces they could have been. [shakes fist in impotent rage]