July 27, 2007

Movie Review: Sunshine

Posted in Movies at 11:27 pm by Calico Jack

There hasn’t been a more ambitious film released this year than Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic billing itself as this generation’s Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. While not quite as masterful as either of those two classics, Sunshine is a thoroughly engrossing journey that flirts with greatness before jarring the audience with an ill-advised tonal change late into the final act. Yet even its missteps exhilarate rather than disenchant, and its thoughtful storytelling makes hash out of most other summer fare.

It is the year 2057, and the sun is dying — cooling off a few billion years sooner than expected, and plunging Earth into a solar winter that will eventually mark the extinction of the human race. Seven years ago, a crew set out from Earth on a spaceship loaded with nuclear material, hoping to jettison its cargo into the heart of the sun and reignite the star. They failed, and all were presumed lost. Now the Icarus II (a poorly named successor considering the mythology behind its origin), carrying an international crew of eight astronauts and scientists, is attempting to make the journey once more. It’s a thinly disguised suicide mission, as an incalculable number of variables must fit just so in order for the astronauts to return home safely. It’s also Earth’s last chance; the planet has been strip-mined to produce the Manhattan-sized bomb sitting in the Icarus‘s cargo bay. On their way to the surface of the sun, however, Icarus II picks up a signal from the derelict Icarus I. Now the crew are faced with a difficult decision: is it wise to risk the mission by making a detour when all of mankind depends on that bomb exploding inside the sun? And little do they know that far worse dangers are yet to come…

With Sunshine, Boyle has created a film that dazzles the eye while sparking the imagination, giving a sharp contrast between the sterile, blueish environment inside Icarus II and the deeply golden-hued brilliance outside the ship’s walls. The interior of the ship has all of the standard space-station fixtures: glossy white corridors, metal struts enwrapping the ship like a giant honeycomb, airlocks and bulkheads and even a hydroponic greenhouse, lovingly cared for by the ship’s biologist (Michelle Yeoh). But outside of Icarus II is where Sunshine’s visual spectacle lies: the sun, shown in all of its blazing, terrifying glory, is a character itself, pulsing with deadly energy even as it goes through its death throes. The audience is left to marvel at the radiance of our solar system’s lifegiver; but for Icarus‘s astronauts, one false move — a single step outside of the safe zone — will spell instant annihilation. This combination of beauty and lethality is almost a transcendental experience for the ship’s psych officer (Cliff Curtis), who spends his free time looking through a filtered pane at the sun’s surface ahead, wondering what an uninhibited view of the sun would do to a man’s soul.

None of the characters in Sunshine are movie superheroes. They exhibit all of the quirks and ragged emotions of humans under great stress, and sometimes fail accordingly. Physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), quiet and thoughtful, often clashes with pilot Mace (Chris Evans), a ruthlessly practical man intent on completing the mission regardless of the costs involved. Capa and Mace are meant to serve as counterpoints to Sunshine‘s most difficult problems, such as whether an innocent person should be sacrificed to save a few; but sometimes there are no good answers. And weighing down on all of the astronauts is the dawning realization that the chances for survival are constantly shrinking. As Cassie (Rose Byrne) says, “The only dream I ever have is the surface of the sun. Every time I shut my eyes…it’s always the same.”

Although it’s not quite as trippy as last year’s The Fountain, Sunshine also attempts to grapple with some metaphysical questions regarding man’s place in the universe. This is done somewhat less successfully than one might hope, since it’s largely a third-act device occurring only after Sunshine‘s sudden peripeteia. One can’t help but think that if Danny Boyle had pushed his film (and its characters) to their natural, terrifying breaking point, we would have been viewing a classic piece of science fiction. Instead, Sunshine is merely really good. Where lesser movies might fill the first half of a sci-fi film with unnecessary exposition, Sunshine grimly lays out the peril facing Icarus II‘s crew before getting out of its own way as mishaps occur, tensions rise, and a dreadful sense of foreboding casts a pall over the last few flickers of hope remaining for the crew. Its last fifteen or twenty minutes are of a much different mood than the rest of the film, but it still holds the audience on the edge of its collective seat. And several closing scenes are breathtaking in their cinematic ambition; if this film isn’t nominated for a cinematography Oscar I’ll be shocked. Sunshine is an intelligent, relentlessly gripping movie that dares to reach higher than most films would dream about. Even if it doesn’t quite attain those lofty goals, it’s still a remarkable piece of cinema.


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