Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garity, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada
MPAA Rating: (for violent content and language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 7/20/07 (limited); 7/27/07 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The writing/directing duo of Alex Garland and Danny Boyle is an ambitious team, and that's clear with only two collaborative efforts under their belt (unless you count Boyle's unfortunate adaptation of Garland's novel The Beach, but let's not). Their first official effort together was the authentically disturbing, thought-provoking 28 Days Later, which started off a zombie movie and turned into a commentary on humanity's darker side. With Sunshine, the pair delves into science-fiction, taking a straightforward genre plot and slowly illuminating the thematic implications behind it. Garland has a knack for offering ideas without bludgeoning the audience over the head with them; they are part of the story and reveal themselves within the narrative structure. Boyle's a smart director, too, and finds the right balance on his end, presenting an intriguing world in which the film exists and tossing in enough experimental flares of inspiration to keep us slightly off-balance. Sunshine takes a good chunk of time advancing the usual formula for a sci-fi thriller before it gets to its meatier material in the final act, but when the film gets there, the story takes on a stimulating philosophical edge.
The sun is dying, and the future isn't looking so bright (Sorry, couldn't resist). Seven years ago, a space station called the Icarus was lost on its way to the sun. Its mission: to send a "stellar bomb" into the star to attempt to reignite it. Now a crew of eight is on board the Icarus II to try to succeed where the first team failed. The crew is comprised of physicist Capra (Cillian Murphy), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), medical officer Searle (Cliff Curtis), engineer Mace (Chris Evans), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), communications man Harvey (Troy Garity), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong), and the ship's captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada). Capra is preparing a message for his family before they reach the communications dead zone near the sun, while Searle and Kaneda begin to develop an obsession with the star's potentially blinding or even fatal light. As they approach their target, they pick up a distress signal from the first Icarus. In spite of Mace's objections, Capra, as the man in charge of the bomb, decides the crew should attempt to find the other ship and pick up its payload. When the entire success of the bomb is theoretical, two chances are better than one, he argues.
Little happens in the beginning. Garland does not spend much time on character development beyond the mere acknowledgment that Capra has a family and Searle and Kaneda's fixation on the sun, the latter having more relevance to thematic development and mood than their actual characters. Instead, the visuals take over: long shots of the station floating in space, the juxtaposition of the dark underside of the ship with the reflection of the sun on its shield, and the stark interiors interrupted by a surreal glow of color. The ship's great look, the decent (though very dark, which fits the situation but means a lack of detail to appreciate) special effects, and Garland's threadbare moral quandary within the story's impending apocalyptic setting keep things slightly intriguing until the story proper kicks in. Once it does, it becomes decidedly formulaic, with characters trying to repair the damaged shield, exploring the interior of the first Icarus as flashes of pictures of the crew haunt the search, and characters dying off in ways befitting their surroundings. There's formula, but Boyle also fills the scenes with tension and a sense looming dread until the doozy of a third act starts up.
Here, once again, there's a simple formula: There's a mysterious, murderous stowaway onboard the Icarus II. Who that stowaway is and why he's onboard are far more important than the fact that he stalks around, looking to kill off the few crew members who have yet avoided a dreadful fate (the deaths, while not particularly gruesome, are still inherently disturbing). Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler might make this section look like a claustrophobic horror film, but that simplicity of execution only heightens Garland's growing thematic undertones: the sun as both robber and provider of life, humanity's interference with the will of nature, etc. Indeed, when the antagonist proudly announces himself as a messenger of God, there's obviously something more to the character than a mere plot device. It builds, as it must, to a standoff and a final attempt to accomplish the mission, but Boyle begins to throw us off balance—the camera shakes, time seems to stand still at any given moment, and the edits become more rapid. Ultimately, in spite of not having an attachment to the characters, the film achieves an emotional impact in these final moments, the apparent central theme summed up with the image of a character reaching out to accept his death.
The whole of Sunshine does not live up to the enthralling, provocative final act, but it is science-fiction that cares about ideas over special effects. The film might take a while for these ideas to come near the forefront, but when they do, it results in strong, gutsy, inspiring filmmaking.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.