Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Danny Boyle, whether he intended it or not, succeeded where John Carpenter failed: a Hawksian jack of all trades who can hop vast genre chasms seemingly without effort. As with Carpenter, Boyle scored big early in his career, but he managed to break out of the shadow of Trainspotting (whereas Carpenter found himself shoehorned into horror). In a career spanning only 15 years, he's produced excellent entries in dark comedy (Trainspotting), children's film (Millions), horror (28 Days Later) and Dickensian fairy tales (Slumdog Millionaire). In 2007, he also took a stab at science fiction, and he came so very, very close to making the finest sci-fi picture since Dark City, if not Blade Runner.
The plot reads as though Boyle and writer Alex Garland spent some time with the twin 1997 space thrillers Armageddon and Event Horizon: in the near future, our sun is dying, and Earth collects all of its fissile material (anything that can sustain a chain reaction of nuclear fission) into a single mega-nuclear bomb to be flown into the star's core and detonated, hopefully re-igniting it. This of course also calls to mind The Core, but I'm happy to say that Sunshine aims higher than the level occupied by that disaster, or the directorial incompetence of Michael Bay or Paul W.S. Anderson. (OK, so maybe Event Horizon is actually pretty good; even a stopped clock is right twice a day.)
No, Garland clearly looks to the greatest of all science fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey, for guidance, as well as that film's humanist response, Solaris. The death of the sun opens up global warming parallels (purportedly what Boyle was striving for), but more importantly, how technology affects humanity (the main thrust of 2001) and how our own brilliance blinds us to our arrogance. Where 2001 and Solaris hinted at their themes through direction and action, Boyle and Garland address them through the interactions of the ensemble crew of Icarus II: is it right for mankind to so egregiously tamper with nature, even if we're doing so to ensure our survival? Is it right that these people are sent on a suicide mission to save a planet full of people they don't know?
I do not mean to say that the direction lacks panache, Always visually inventive, Boyle pulls out all the stops for his venture into space. Wide-angles, over-saturation, haunting silence and meditative close-ups and medium shots capture the majesty of space as well as the claustrophobic feel of the spacecraft. Boyle had miniatures and models crafted for the film, giving it a beautiful, believable look that would warrant a recommendation even if everything around it was crap. The coldness of space is brightly lit by the looming sun, harsh yellows and reds that contrast the detailed blacks of space and the hull of Icarus II. Boyle films the interiors with vivid greens and blues and dull grays; the only yellows and reds that appear inside the ship are either computer projections of the sun or the odd burst of actual sunlight, let in in minuscule increments to alleviate the cabin fever.
Boyle's style has never been more overwhelming or enticing. Two shots in particular stand as some of the most hauntingly beautiful you'll ever see. One concerns one of the crew space-hopping between the wreckage of Icarus I, the first ship sent on an unsuccessful mission to re-ignite the sun, and Icarus II after the airlock between the two breaks apart. He misses, freezes to death in space, then disintegrates in an instant when he floats beyond the protective heat shield of the spacecraft. Another isn't one shot but several; in a number of scenes, crew members expose themselves to the sun whilst wearing protective goggles, or they spacewalk in special suits that limit vision to a tiny strip. Watching the endless yellow flood over these people through their visors is awesome in the literal sense of the word, in that it left me breathless time and again.
But let's not forget the other side to Boyle's direction: his ability to coax terrific performances from his actors. He didn't display this talent so much with his recent Slumdog Millionaire (though I still love it as a pure cinematic joyride), but he assembles a terrific ensemble cast with this feature. Cillian Murphy is the obvious lead as the physicist Capa, as the mission cannot succeed without his expertise. Murphy remains a center of deadly calm as the people around him slowly come undone from the stress of the mission and all that goes wrong, and he carries several scenes with his eyes alone. He and Michelle Yeoh are the closest you'll come to readily recognizable stars, but the biggest surprise of the film has to be a fantastic performance from Fantastic Four alumnus (perhaps survivor is a better term) Chris Evans. The eight-person crew function as real people, trapped in a mission they can't abandon (at least until insanity sets in); when the first captain dies, the communications officer assumes command, and when he must make that fateful jump across space, he loses himself in panic as he attempts to order Capa to give him his spacesuit (though Capa is actually vital to the mission). He isn't bravely committed to success as so many filmic clichés. Whether they're conversing naturally at the start of the film or falling apart later, I bought all of the actors' performances, and I couldn't help but think of the natural "space workers" of Alien. Neither films particularly flesh out their characters beyond establishing traits and mannerisms, but they are relatable, believable people in extraordinary settings.
The Alien parallels kick into high gear when Sunshine moves into its controversial end-run. What had been a plot-driven but meditative and tense reflection on themes suddenly turns into an Alien-esque claustrophobic horror film: after the survivors make their way back to Icarus II after docking with the derelict ship, Capa discovers that the captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong) survived the seven-year interim and has gone insane. He believes himself to be the last man in the universe, and he shall let the sun die so he can bring mankind to heaven. When I first sat down with Sunshine, this sudden shift lost me completely, but now I can see that the film was building toward this from the start. Besides, there's something intriguing about a combination of 2001 and Alien. It falls down, however, in the kinetic, blurry direction of these chase scenes. I understand Boyle's desire to disorient, and to mask the hideous, burned flesh of Pinbacker (what brief glimpses we get prove that the director retained some of the tricks he learned on 28 Days Later), but his earlier, more composed shots of the ships interiors ratcheted up tension just as much as these disorienting moments, occasionally more so.
Happily, Boyle shifts the film back on the rails for the last few minutes, though the ending may strike many (including me) as Hollywood pat. I wanted something vaguer, in the style of 2001 or Solaris. Seeing it again, though, I must admit that this film needed a definitive end. 2001 was about astronauts investigating a mysterious device, but Sunshine had a literally life-or-death mission; it couldn't just jump on a tangent and end on a purely philosophical note. Still, I wish it had raised more questions at the end instead of tying up so many of its threads.
I would suspect that Boyle had to head in a straightforward direction at least some of the time because we no longer enjoy a film industry that will bank something as ambitious as 2001 on a large scale. Studios actually noticed the similarities of the film to Solaris, which only made them uneasy after Steven Soderbergh's well-received remake utterly tanked at the box office. Despite the limitations placed upon it by the system, Sunshine nevertheless displays an ingenuity and craftsmanship rarely seen in contemporary cinema. It might not fit into the traditional "hard sci-fi" criteria, because too many of its futuristic elements go unexplained. But this is a film you sit back and let overwhelm you; its plot holes are no match for its overall impact. The final 20 minutes prevent it from joining the ranks of sci-fi masterpieces, but Sunshine is still one of the most engrossing, meditative, enthralling, visually resplendent hard sci-fi films ever made.