Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Review - Sunshine

It gives us life, it is a constant presence in our day-to-day lives, and our world literally revolves around it - but for all of cinema’s various sci-fi escapades over the years, the sun has been conspicuous by its absence. While filmmakers have frequently taken us to the moon, Mars and myriad imagined planets, few have dared to tackle the biggest star in the galaxy. Perhaps it is the unfathomably intense heat of the sun which has precluded its involvement in any pictures to date - how do you tell a story about a star which is impossible to get close to? - but Danny Boyle’s Sunshine has found a way to work the sun into a fairly straightforward narrative, and the result is one of the most invigorating and impressively mounted films in the genre’s recent history.

Set in some unspecified time in the future,
Sunshine is the story of a small group of astronauts involved in one last-ditch attempt to save humankind. The sun is slowly dying, and earth is freezing over as the heat and light required by our planet grows gradually fainter. Some years earlier, an attempt to salvage the situation was launched with a ship called Icarus (tempting fate perhaps?) which aimed to fire an enormous nuclear bomb into the sun, effectively kick-starting it back to life. But this ship disappeared without a trace before achieving its goal, and now Icarus II is following the same treacherous path.

We only get one glimpse of the situation at home during the course of
Sunshine - a late shot of the Sydney Opera House covered in snow - and instead Boyle chooses to focus his attention entirely on the men and women on board Icarus II. The crew of eight comprises of Capa (Cillian Murphy) a quiet, introspective physicist who engages in plenty of alpha-male squabbling with engineer Mace (Chis Evans), much to the exasperation of the ship’s two females Cassie (Rose Byrne) and Corazon (Michelle Yeoh). The other four members on board are the ship’s captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), his second in command Harvey (Troy Garity), Navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and Dr. Searle (Cliff Curtis). It’s giving nothing away to state that few of these characters will survive the journey intact, but Sunshine is a film which frequently manages to surprise even while adhering to genre conventions.

In fact this remarkable picture manages to succeed even as it derivatively cribs from every sci-fi film you care to mention. Viewers will be reminded of
2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Event Horizon, Armageddon and Alien (to name just a few) as Sunshine’s story unfolds, but Boyle finds ways to make everything here feel fresh and exciting, even surviving some seriously shoddy storytelling late in the day.

Boyle’s best films -
Shallow Grave and Trainspotting - are essentially concerned with group dynamics, exploring the way people react to each other in pressurised situations, and the director brings that same sense of focus to Sunshine’s first half. With much of the action occurring within the cramped confines of Icarus II, Boyle develops a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere - etching the various tensions and relationships between the characters with simple strokes. In this instance, each character is aware that their own lives count for nothing when set against the amount of people who could be saved by the completion of their task, but the mishaps they meet along the way lead to some tough decisions as to who among them is expendable. They simply must reach their target at whatever cost, and the understated but evocative performances offered by the imaginatively chosen cast completely draw us into the conflicts this scenario generates.

But beyond the cast list, there’s only one real star of this movie, and this is the reason why
Sunshine must be seen on the biggest screen available. As the ship gradually draws closer to the sun, Sunshine brilliantly finds ways to make us feel the awesome power of this enormous furnace they are heading towards. This is a gorgeous, occasionally hallucinogenic piece of filmmaking which frequently left me slack-jawed as it brought the vast expanses of the solar system to life with a stunning use of visual effects and some breathtaking cinematography. There’s an observation deck on Icarus II from which the crew members can stare at the sun through a heavily-filtered screen, and at times Boyle invites us to gaze upon this burning star in a similarly awed manner, pulling off some wonderful visual coups such as the sun being reflected off the giant shield which sits at the front of the ship. Likewise, the sight of a lone figure floating to his death away from the ship expresses the gaping emptiness of the universe with a startling potency, and Boyle’s eye for these details makes Sunshine a constant feast for the senses.

Sunshine’s narrative is never quite as stimulating as its aesthetic grandeur, but it grips the viewers nonetheless. Boyle’s regular co-writer Alex Garland finds some inventive ways to dispatch his characters, and the director maintains a firm hand, rarely allowing the tension to drop. But the pair can’t quite keep the ship steady for the film’s entire 107 minute running time. The major plot twist which occurs in the second half necessitates a huge leap of faith on the part of the viewer, but I was happy to go along with it as Boyle handled the fallout from this revelation with some assurance, creating a powerful sense of tension and seemingly building to an affecting climax. However, the film didn’t stop at what had appeared to be its natural conclusion, and the next ten minutes of Sunshine almost blew the film apart. This overextended and baffling ending simply opens up a number of unnecessary plot holes, and the spatial cartwheels Boyle indulges in made the whole thing even more confusing. You can feel the emotional weight draining away with every passing second, and as I watched these sequences unfold with increasingly bemused eyes I wished I could have turned back the clock to finish the film minutes earlier.

Sunshine doesn’t end well, but for the ninety-odd minutes before it hits this bumpy stretch the film dazzles more often than not. This is Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting - it’s the first time since that seminal picture that he has found a subject matter to match his visual imagination - and on a relatively slim budget of $40 million the director has created a thrilling, beautifully designed picture which genuinely tries to cast a fresh light on an often stale genre. Forget about the film’s mishandled climax or its occasional patch of scrappy writing; Sunshine's searing imagery will burn itself into your memory, and it will stay with you long after other movies have faded into darkness.