Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Queue It Up: Sunshine

[In the aftermath of the Oscar romp by Slumdog Millionaire, The Cooler offers the following review of Danny Boyle’s previous film, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine puts the science back in science fiction. That’s not to say that this movie about a team of astronauts on a mission to jump-start the sun is realistic. It’s just to note that the movie has a kinda-sorta plausibility about it, which is to say that it doesn’t include aliens, droids, or robots that transform into cars. Thank goodness. Space in its pure form is still a playground of dramatic possibility. It needs no embellishment. By looking up to the heavens and taking what our solar system has to provide, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have created a wonderfully engrossing adventure that thrives on the credibility and tangibility of its not-quite-out-of-this-world setting.

For so many sci-fi movies, “space” is just another way of saying “magic land.” Setting a story in some far off galaxy, in some distant age, gives filmmakers a blank check to create their own rules. Han Solo famously told Luke Skywalker that “traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops,” but in the movies space adventuring is usually much easier than that – about as difficult as mowing the lawn. Yet in Sunshine, set only 50 years in our future, some present-day laws of physics still apply. Rather than blasting from planet to planet at light-speed, this story’s sun-bound voyage is one in which length is defined by years and in which navigating space requires consideration of the gravitational pull of other planets. In this respect, Sunshine is remarkably more like Apollo 13 than Star Wars.

Make no mistake, Sunshine has some Jetsons qualities, too. Traveling in a mushroom-shaped spacecraft called Icarus 2 – a curious name that suggests either a future ignorance of Greek mythology or a stunning lack of faith in the mission – our crew of eight is mothered by an all-knowing voice that is the female equivalent of HAL 9000. More than just the ninth crewmember, the computer brain of Icarus 2 can measure how much oxygen the crew is using, provide the location of each astronaut onboard and take outright control of the ship if the humans do anything that might threaten the mission. All of which is enough to make you wonder why Icarus 2 needs a crew in the first place.

To fuck things up, of course! That’s what humans do best. This crew better than most. Charged with delivering to the sun a Manhattan-sized bomb that might reignite the fading star, Icarus 2’s astronauts hold in their hands mankind’s fate, but not necessarily its confidence. Palpable in Sunshine is the sense that this operation is considered impossible, futile and fatal. (There was an Icarus 1, after all, and it disappeared without a trace.) So instead of sending the best and the brightest, Earth appears to have sent a ragtag group more befitting a suicide mission. Oh, the Icarus 2 crew is capable. Rose Byrne is the pilot, Cassie. Michelle Yeoh is the horticulturalist, Corazon, tending to lush garden (one of the film’s many triumphs in art direction) that provides food and oxygen. Cliff Curtis is the shrink, Searle, whose fascination with the sun suggests the he’ll be the first one in need of therapy. Etcetera. And somehow Cillian Murphy’s Capa is the only one who knows how to deliver the “payload,” the explosive package upon which the entire mission is based. Cross-training, it seems, was never considered.

Or maybe someone figured Capa needed company on the trip. Regardless, with that many rather useless souls gathered together, it’s only a matter of time before Icarus 2 finds trouble, even if trouble wasn’t out to find it. And, sure enough, that’s what happens. With one faulty human decision that demonstrates a stunning lack of priority, Icarus 2 wanders from its course and the carefully scripted mission turns into a deadly improv. Predictable? Yeah. Professionally indefensible? Of course. Unrealistic? Certainly. Entertaining? You bet your ass!

That’s the thing about Sunshine. You can poke holes into it all day. But many of the film’s less probable moments stand out only because some much of the action rings true. It starts with the ship: basic metal corridors on the interior, a giant power-conducting sunshield on the outside made up of numerous plates that can be adjusted to provide maximum protection (when three of these panels are damaged, evoking memories of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, we know it means trouble). Icarus 2 is at once basic enough to seem functional in the here-and-now and fantastic enough to convince us that it could accomplish this unparalleled mission. Meanwhile, what the crew lacks in universal knowledge it makes up for with conviction. This octet might not be the one you’d choose to save the world, yet you’ll never doubt the enormity of their assignment. The Icarus 2 must complete its mission … or else!

Over the last hour of this 108-minute film, that “or else” – that feeling of consequence – reigns supreme. What begins as a rather cerebral science-fiction film, in the mold of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris, morphs into one of the most mesmerizing, pulse-pounding movies of the year. The tonal shift is so gradual that it initially goes unnoticed, though the mounting intensity of the outstanding score gives us a clue. By the end, Sunshine reaches into full-throttle, going so far as to adopt some horror techniques with a shocking twist that thrills with its arrival but does little to impress after that. If I had a vote, Boyle and Garland would have wrapped their story differently, but I can’t complain too much. For me, Sunshine was literally a gripping experience: I spent the latter half of the film clenching a fistful of my T-shirt without even realizing it.

Danger is magnified in space. In many respects, Sunshine reminds of James Cameron’s equally claustrophobic underwater adventure The Abyss, which also features a determined and resourceful crew operating in an environment in which the smallest mistake could lead to death. Few films are so effortlessly bound by such ominous peril. Blockbusters like this year’s Transformers spend millions on thrills alone but aren’t half this affecting. Sunshine has rich visuals and impressively realistic CGI, but it’s the plot that dazzles. Crammed with suspense and action, Boyle’s film delivers the most out-of-this-world adventure of the summer because it sticks to the world we know. A world that by itself has the capacity to fill us with awe.

[“Queue It Up” is a series of sporadic recommendations of often overlooked movies for your Netflix queue.]


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure about the world you know, but mine isn't quite as rife with incompetence and stupidity. The teens I worked with selling popcorn at a movie theatre in the eighties would have made a more convincing group of world saviors than the idiots Boyle and Alex Garland serve up. I can't shut off enough of my brain to enjoy the unrelenting "dumb" of "Sunshine." The highly overlooked "2010," from which Garland stole ninety percent of his plot (he stole the remaining ten percent, of course, from "Alien" and "Event Horizon"), is every bit as entertaining, you can actually follow the action sequences because Danny "The Spaz" Boyle isn't on-hand shaking the camera, and the plotting and characters don't insult the viewer's intelligence.

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: If you can't suspend disbelief with this film, fair enough. I think what I wrote above makes clear that aspects of this film's plot are entirely "indefensible" and "unrealistic" in terms of scientific decisions. In fact, I used those very words.

I must say, however, that this line of your rebuttal struck me as comedy: "(my world) isn't quite as rife with incompetence and stupidity." I presume this means you live in the world that hasn't lived through eight years of George W Bush, that isn't currently in the midst of a financial crisis, etc. Of late, it seems that "rife with incompetence and stupidity" is at least our country's motto.

To be clear, what I find engaging about Sunshine is that it puts wildly implausible dramatic acts within a plausible world -- something many sci-fi films never attempt.

Thanks for weighing in.

Daniel said...

Great review! I'm always excited to see reviews of movies that I felt a little something for even though I didn't love them, because it provides a chance to perhaps think differently about it.

Almost works here. All of what you say in the first half here is dead on - this movie almost revived the sci-fi genre for me altogether. But still, I have to admit that I still take the popular opinion on this one in that the third act wasn't what I had hoped for. Conceptually I found it interesting, but the thrills were absent and the execution (and executions) disappointed me for some reason.

On a somewhat related note, I just ran across this article, which reminded me of the film primarily because of the graphic.

Richard Bellamy said...

In my opinion, 2010 is dull in comparison with Sunshine. The former may be more plausible, but it doesn't have the visual dazzle or the thrills and surprises of the latter. Sunshine is a smart, stylish, thrilling film. I would definitely put it on a top ten list of the best science fiction films.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Thanks for the comment. I agree that the movie runs off the rails in the final act. Disappointing. But I've gotten over it. Mostly.

Fletch said...

Put me in the corner with Daniel and the rest of the masses. A beautiful action sci-fi film, with excellent acting (out of Chris Evans, no less!), but the ash-man was too much. Still, I enjoyed it (and even was lucky enough to see it on the big screen, where it should be seen) and own it, though I have yet to re-visit it.