A film review by Craig J. Koban
2007, R, 109 mins.
Corazon: Michelle Yeoh / Capa: Cillian Murphy / Mace:
Chris Evans / Harvey: Troy Garity / Cassie: Rose Byrne /
Searle: Cliff Curtis / Trey: Benedict Wong / Kaneda:
Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE is like ARMAGEDDON for viewers with actual brains in their heads. A cursory look at the two films will net some clear-cut similarities: A mission deep into space involving a nuclear payload; a rag-tag group of astronauts that don’t always see eye to eye on the mission; a terrible cosmic event that spells doom for all of mankind back on earth, and so forth.
Yet, what chiefly separates the two films is their tone and approach. SUNSHINE works as an effective homage to the types of intellectually stimulating sci-fi that are compelling less by the action and visual effects that it throws at us and more by its character dynamics, themes, and overall mood they generate. For a film about a futuristic mission that involves taking a nuke the size of Manhattan Island to the sun in hopes of re-igniting it to save the earth, SUNSHINE has very little action, per se, in it. Rather, its key assets are the way it creates an ever-escalating sense of claustrophobia and dread throughout its running time, not to mention commenting on the gigantic implications of the mission involved. From a premise perspective, SUNSHINE is intriguing and unique. Whereas other sci-fi thrillers about deep space usually involve planets and aliens, SUNSHINE is predominantly about “fixing” the sun, a sort of silent, omnipotent antagonist. Without it, the entire planet would face an eternity of Saskatchewan winters. That's really scary.
Watching the film, you keenly sense where Boyle is going with the material. Being one of the more fearless and ambitious directors working today (his resume demonstrates that he is not intimidated by approaching different genres, as 28 DAYS LATER, MILLIONS, and TRAINSPOTTING demonstrate), Boyle seems inspired by a combination of elements from other great sci-fi films. The metaphysical themes are right out of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, as are some of the film's hauntingly beautiful images (a scene involving a pod bay door and crew members attempting to re-board a ship without space suits is also familiar). There are also clear cut echoes to other ethereal films, like Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS, and the level of tightly confined, muggy, and claustrophobic space quarters seem inspired by Wolfgang Peterson’s DAS BOOT. The final act of the film borrows heavily from ALIEN in many respects and, ironically, from Boyles own 28 DAYS LATER.
The later influences are what works the least successfully in SUNSHINE. During the film’s last act, there is a sharp – well, razor sharp – change in pace and tone, almost too much if one considers everything that the film builds to. There is no denying that Boyle is gifted at crafting teeth-clenching levels of suspense and horror, and the final moments of SUNSHINE are superbly created and are genuinely frightening. Yet, they kind of betray what a great film that it was leading into the last 30 minutes. It has been said that Boyle and writer Alex Garland (who both collaborated with one another for 28 DAYS LATER and THE BEACH) went through 35 drafts before filming SUNSHINE. It’s too bad that they did not realize during those 35 chances that the story's plot twist and conclusion is odd and unsatisfying.
No matter. Boyle does such an assured job here of balancing the film’s spiritual and inter-planetary issues alongside generating good performances from his lead actors. That is not to say that he does not do an exemplary job with the film’s visuals. Boyle correctly captures the vastness of space and counterbalances that with the confined environment that his characters live in on the space ship. Many other similar films cut back and forth from the crew and their mission in space to needless sub-plots of worried loved ones back on earth. Boyle resists the temptation to ever show scenes on earth, with the exception of one final moment. Constantly making transitions from the bleakness of space and the sheer magnitude of the sun’s visage to scenes of normalcy on earth would have ruined the film’s aesthetic impact. Like Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, he keeps his attention on space and the crew, which only amplifies the tension and intrigue. By doing so, Boyle can also hone his focus on the relationships of the characters and how they, in turn, are at the complete mercy of their seemingly suicidal mission.
The film takes place in 2057 where we learn – with the aid of the ever-resourceful voice over - that the Sun is dying. Wait a tick! I was always lead to believe in all of my high school science classes that it would take a lot longer than 50 years for the Sun to perish. Like…try billions of years (trust me; I looked it up just to be sure). However, the film is not so much about the Sun dying as it is about it having a nasty infection that needs curing. Logging on to various websites confirms this. According to the film’s scientific advisory, the Sun in SUNSHINE’s future is infected with a “Q-ball”, or a “supersymmetric nucleus", presumably left over from the big bang, which has disrupted its normal matter. Now, in order to blast the Q-ball back to its constituent parts and returning the Sun back to normal, you would need a bomb…say…the mass of the moon. Since a ship with a payload the mass of the moon would be inane, the filmmakers have decided on one the size of Manhattan. Okay, so they took dramatic liberties...but it works for me.
The ship itself – wonderfully realized with state-of-the-art visual effects – is kind of like 2001’s Discovery ship stuck on a gigantic heat shield. Imagine a pin (the ship) placed head first on the center of a Frisbee (the heat shield) and you kind of get the idea as to size and scale. Of course, tension runs high for the ship’s (the Icarus II) crew, comprised of Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), his first officer is Harvey (Troy Garity), Capa (Cillian Murphy), Cassie (Rose Byrne), Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), Mace (Chris Evans), Searle (Cliff Curtis), and Trey (Benedict Wong). Arguably, it is Capa that seems like the one most needed member on board, as it is he that manages the ship's massive payload that will be used to detonate on the Sun to assist with its re-birth. Of course, this drives a few of the other members crazy. After all, who can truly be labeled as the most crucial on what is easily seen as a mission with a passable chance of never returning home.
That notion gnaws away at these space voyagers. They all know, deep down, that they are eight people collectively that could save the earth. Not only that, but there is also that nagging nightmare of the fate of the original Icarus (remember, they are on ship number II), which failed on their mission seven years earlier. To make their situation seem even direr, all of the fissile material on earth was mined for the second mission, which means that if they fail, then the world is screwed royal. Tensions particularly run high when, after 16 months in space, the ship passes a zone where no more communication with earth is possible. The crew leaves their final messages – and potential good-byes – to their loved ones back home. Capa’s message to his family is especially cryptic and poignant: “So, if you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it.”
While the ship passes around the dark side of Mercury, something startling happens: they hear an actual distress call from the original Icarus. This then places the crew of ship II into a real dilemma. Should they continue on with the mission and forget about the Icarus I crew to detonate the bomb on the Sun or should they go to the stranded vessel and look for survivors? Clear-headed pragmatism would dictate that checking for anyone alive on a ship that has not been heard of for seven years would be stupid, and most of the crew acknowledges it. Unfortunately for Capa, the ships Captain asks him to make to choice as to whether they rendezvous with the doomed vessel, seeing as that ship may have another usable payload. Upon engaging in a highly stressful bit of risk assessment, Capa begrudgingly decides that “two last hopes are better than one,” and realizes that salvaging another payload would be a good idea.
The crew then docks with the apparently lifeless Icarus I, and from the point of proceeding on board to the film’s final act, SUNSHINE goes in some decidedly peculiar and unproductive directions. I will try my best not to spoil anything that happens, but let’s just say that the Icarus II crew “discovers” something and that something proceeds to make it aboard their ship and starts to kill the crew members one at a time, not to mention that it apparently has a deep desire to sabotage the entire mission. Mixed in with this ALIEN-esque action third act is some very confusing pontificating about the nature of God and man, which never really seems to be deciphered clearly by the screenplay or by Boyle’s direction. Make no mistake about it, Boyle is an undisputed master at making SUNSHINE’S final moments creepy and authoritative, but they just seem completely out of left field here.
Although I loathed the film’s journey towards a conclusion, I found myself having great affection for everything that preceded it. There are many moments in the film that garner legitimate awe and wonder, as is the case with one near fatal space walk that is dangerously close to the sun. I also loved how Boyle makes space eerie and something to be simultaneously fearful and beautiful (one character seems addicted to looking at the sun through gigantic tinted view screens so much that he will surely need mass amounts of Aloe Vera gel to mend his flakey skin if he returns home). Some of the vistas that Boyle places the gargantuan space ship against have a supernatural and foreboding magnificence to them. The characters, along with the film’s aesthetic look, also lend to the film’s overall effectiveness. The performances are genuinely strong and reflect the crew’s growing apprehension with their mission and with each other. Ultimately, the film is deeply humanistic despite the sheer scope and brevity of the space mission. What’s great about the film is that it embodies more emotional life in a genre that typically is all about action and spectacle.
I guess that is what I will take most out of SUNSHINE: it’s a tense, taut, and compelling thinking-mans sci-fi thriller that focuses on characters and human interaction first and lets the visuals and special effects linger in the background. A film like this does not need space battles, dastardly villains, and alien life forms to intrigue audiences. Instead, it commands respect by the way it generates such an irrefutable sense of dread and suspense with its proceedings. SUNSHINE is an immersing sci-fi film of great power and grandeur; many of its images will remain with me and, on an emotional level, it stirs a natural sense of amazement and wonder. It’s a frequently mesmerizing work - playing off of horror and thriller beats - that shows Boyle’s command over a very challenging genre of thoughtful and introspective sci-fi. Now, if he only gave the script re-write number 36 and got rid of that needlessly head-shaking third act, then maybe SUNSHINE would have achieved a level of greatness. What we are left with is a work that is challenging, memorable, thrilling, and frustrating to sit through. I mean, you would at least think that the film would be smart enough to follow one cardinal rule that that past sci-fi films have established:
If you're on a deep space mission and receive a distress call that could impede your ability to save human civilization, then don’t investigate it...for the love of God!