Dec 7, 2011
Sunshine (Dir. Danny Boyle. 2007)
Britain does 3 things well. 1. Bad weather. 2. Movie bad guys. 3. Science Fiction film. I’ll be focusing on the 3rd while watching the 1st through my window.
Danny Boyle has never been afraid to reference his influences and pay homage to his peers and they’re starkly obvious this time around. Sunshine is the illegitimate child of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968) and Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979). It’s not unfair to say that Sunshine wouldn’t exist in its current state without those two films. It gels Scott’s sense of entrapment, his cold, hard spaceship design, his internal camera movements and sense of displacement with Kubrick’s low angle corridor shots, his sense of exterior grandeur, the majesty of space and the desperate need for adaption when faced with the loss of control. It shouldn’t work, it should be called a blatant act of egotistical plagiarism but somehow it not only works, it excels.
I’ll not elaborate much but need to also say that it also owes a debt to Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974) but since that was the skeletal basis for and was written by the author of Alien it’s another easy comparison.
The plot of Sunshine is simple. Our Sun is dying and a permanent solar winter threatens the future of mankind. A vessel, the Icarus II (this naming is perhaps the only intentional humour in the whole film) is launched with a ‘Stellar Bomb’ onboard. The bomb has a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island, and when fired into the Sun could theoretically cause a chain reaction that sets everything right again. I’m not giving spoilers - this is where the film begins.
The Icarus II has an eight man crew, all of whom are the protagonists. The physicist Robert Cappa (played by Cillian Murphy) is the closest thing we get to a traditional main character type. Cappa is the compassionate and logical one; he acknowledges his emotions but isn’t ruled by them. He’s the kind of person we want to be at heart so we readily sympathise and connect with him on a subconscious level. We want Cappa to succeed, we want a hero. It’s a tough choice as the characters care about little beyond their fields of expertise. When the tears come it’s not for the individual, it’s for the failure to perform and the feeling of being cast in the shadow of someone else, and of being judged. They need to be basking in the shining light of their own self-image or they get depressed. I've heard people that say the human element is missing from Sunshine but I would argue that they simply weren’t paying attention, or perhaps they refuse to accept their own selfish desires and failings and recognise what it is that makes us human.
Cappa has his detractors onboard the Icarus, most notably Mace (Chris Evans) who is the closest thing to an antagonist crew member the film has for the most part; those two have a dynamic that again reminds of Scott’s Alien setup: the small crew that respect each other but are equally as happy to get some peace away from each other.
The remainder of the crew are equally well cast. They react to threats and stimuli differently and effortlessly keep their character in check.
We spend our time on the ship experiencing the same sense of seclusion as the rest of the crew; we’re the ninth crew member. There are no happy cuts back to earth to give us room to breathe, no gathering of NASA brains in a room full of computers, ties pulled to the side, name tags tilted, waiting for that camaraderie moment when they can cheer and throw Styrofoam cups in air, thankfully.
The sense of space inside the Icarus II is best described as claustrophobic, an overused device in sci-fi but one that we accept, chalking it up to realism.
Elsewhere the set design, set dressings and props are functional and lifeless; inside the ship there is little colour.
In contrast, outside the ship is a blinding brilliant golden hue. Being so close to the Sun means the light can kill, it can burn you to a frazzled crisp. It’s unusual to see light as something threatening, as a menacing force, usually darkness or more correctly the unknown things that lurk in darkness are what filmmakers use to scare and unnerve us. When sunlight can kill you it takes on a more ominous aspect. It’s the opposite of what we expect.
The universe is full of unknowns; the mission is based on theory which can be perceived as another word for unknown so the fear of not knowing coupled with the horror of the light is very real for the crew. When the ship you’re on is slowly inching toward both those things, the tension is sure to cause rifts and perhaps even conflict between thought and action; Mace and Cappa personify this.
Returning to the visuals for a moment, the first glimpse we get of the stylistic space suits is like something from a bad music video. Once the scene changes the suits begin to make sense within the context of the film aesthetic but it’s hard to shake that initial feeling of fail each time they reappear. They do manage to highlight the crippling claustrophobic nature of something that is both designed to keep you from dying and causes you to fear your own personal space, so they aren't all bad.
There was some significant post production colour fixing on the imagery but it actually works to the films advantage. The visual splendour is reliant on the backdrop of space; ordinary studio lighting could never have achieved the same outcome no matter how much money was spent.
The final third of the film will leave a lot of people wondering what happened during the writing process which is something I’ve thought more than once of Alex Garland’s work; he is able to set up a situation with tension and an insistence on strong characters making strong decisions beautifully but when it comes time to providing a satisfactory conclusion he’s like a trout out of water.
It’s not confusing, if you pay attention to the story in the run up to the final act it makes perfect sense, the people that claim otherwise are talking when they should be listening, the problem is the sharp left turn the film takes before it takes us there. There is a “we’ll add this because we need it” attitude that sits uncomfortably alongside the earlier insistence of pretentious science. If you make your audience work to appreciate your clever science and then throw in a genie in a lamp it tends to stick out like glow in the dark stitching.
The score by John Murphy (with occasional help from Underworld) is for me his finest moment; it sits in the shadows until needed and when the rousing build hits its peak my heart is in my throat every time. It’s undoubtedly Boyle’s film but there are three or four special moments during the 107 minutes running time where Murphy steals it from him. I’m not saying the visuals take second place, they work in tandem with each other beautifully, I’m saying that Murphy makes those moments unique, emotionally draining and achingly memorable.
Sunshine is nothing more than a variation on a theme, it’s 80% homage and only 20% unique but when it’s done with such favourable results and openly acknowledges the constituent parts then I’m happy to go along with it. Accounting for its flaws and despite Garland’s hokum script towards the end Sunshine succeeds where almost every other English language sci-fi film of the past 20 years has failed. I will never tire of it's staid charms.
Kubrick gets a final nod in the final scene; you’ll see what I mean. It made me happy clap.
***** out of *****