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Non-Review Review: Sunshine

Sunshine is a science-fiction movie. Well, duh, you proclaim, looking at the screenshots or having read the plot synopsis, it’s about a bunch of people in space flying to the sun. Of course it’s science-fiction! It’s hardly a comedy or musical! However, I’m talking about something more essential than its setting or its superficial elements. Although the story of a bunch of astronauts planning to reignite the dying star at the centre of our solar system may distract you, Sunshine works so well because it grabs the sorts of philosophical ideas at the heart of the best science-fiction: it’s an exploration of the conflict between the rational and the irrational, the logical and the emotional and the place of man and his understanding of the world around him. It’s movie that is far smarter than it pretends to be.

Going for gold...

Prompted to rewatch it after catching the earlier collaboration between Cillian Murphy and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later), it strikes me of the film’s unusual place within Boyle’s highly respected filmography. The indie-minded film fans out there can claim Trainspotting as a fantastic debut, while The Beach is easily defended as “under-rated” by its proponents. 28 Days Later redefined (and helped relaunch) an entire genre. Slumdog Millionaire won an Oscar. In the middle of all that, Sunshine tends to fall between the cracks, which it really shouldn’t.

Much as Boyle was able to figure out the engine which drove the best zombie films for 28 Days Later, here he has clearly been studying the best that science-fiction has to offer. He’s stripped the standard science-fiction storytelling devices of all their unnecessary elements, much as he whittled down the classic zombie movie. There are no aliens at play here, or monsters – just us humans, and we can be both. There isn’t any faster-than-light travel. Sure, Boyle does allow for artificial gravity, but we can allow him that. Though he offers us a plot where the stakes are incredibly high – the fate of mankind, in fact – he still crafts an intensely intimate story.

Boyle “gets” that the true strength of science-fiction is its capacity to work with “big ideas”. Science is about an attempt to understand the universe (and our place in it) through purely rational means, and so Boyle immediately places it in opposition to the standard facets of human nature. Though we want to believe the universe is rational, we are not. Most obviously, he explores the conflict between science and irrational fundamentalism – it’s hard not to see conscious parallels with religious extremist in ou own world. The sun is perhaps as close as a rational man can come to comprehending the divine – we are, as one character observes, ultimately “only stardust”.

In the song Rocky Takes a Lover, by Bell X1, there’s a line, “the sun gives life, and it takes it away” – what could be more divine than that? The ship itself is named, somewhat counterintuitively, Icarus II. What happened to Icarus I I’ll leave you to find out, but the name itself brings to mind the image of humanity’s hubris – an attempt to reach up and touch the very source of all light and life. It is also the story of a man defying his gods. Indeed, an early discussion on the sun seems to compare being in its presence to a religious experience:

It’s invigorating. It’s like… taking a shower in light. You lose yourself in it.

Like a floatation tank?

Actually, no. More like… In psych tests on deep space, I ran a number of sensory deprivation trials, tested in total darkness, on floatation tanks – and the point about darkness is, you float in it. You and the darkness are distinct from each other because darkness is an absence of something, it’s a vacuum. But total light envelopes you. It becomes you. It’s very strange… I recommend it.

– Searle and Corazon

An assignment not to be taken lightly...

Boyle always explores the impact that a long period of isolation from mankind could have upon a group of people. There’s no sensationalism here – it isn’t anything as trite as a member of the crew going insane – but it’s smart and powerful stuff. We’re reminded frequently and matter-of-factly just how cold and unforgiving space can be (even when you are so close to the sun that it would burn the skin right off your body), and yet strangely beautiful (thanks to the film’s distinctive visual design).

In fact, every aspect of the production, down to the design of the ship (with self-sustaining oxygen garden), serves to remind the viewer just how much care and research has gone into the preparation of the film. It’s refreshing to find an effort to save mankind that isn’t completely run by a bunch of Americans, and instead organised in a manner which offers a more honest reflection of the world’s population.

It’s a mark of Boyle’s skill that h’s put together such a fantastic bunch of actors – Michelle Yeoh, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne and Hiroyuki Sanada (and even a small role for Mark Strong). None of them are really “name names” (though Cillian Murphy is well-known and Chris Evans will likely go supernova after Captain America next year), but they are damn fine performers. Despite working with a large ensemble cast, Boyle is able to introduce us to each member and ensure that none of them blend together – there’s a wonderful amount of character work at play here, which is often overlooked in these sorts of films.

It’s also worth taking a moment to mention John Murphy’s superb score. Like Cillain Murphy, John Murphy also worked with Boyle on 28 Days Later (crafting the movie’s distinctive score), but here he really outdoes himself. I honestly believe that The Surface of the Sun might be one of the most fantastic pieces of movie music produced within the last decade, perfectly capturing the epic nature of what Icarus II is attempting, while never losing sight of the intimacy of Boyle’s vision. Much like the imagery that the title evokes in the film (the nightmares of the crew, plunging into the heart of the star), the movie feels like falling into light. It’s no surprise that Murphy “borrowed” his own sound (in the same way that John Williams’ has been doing for decades) for Kick-Ass. And it’s no less effective, either.

Sunshine is a movie which dares to offer itself as a successor the school of science-fiction which produced 2001: A Space Odyssey, and carries itself with the perfect amount of grace and skill. Indeed, one can particularly feel the weight of Kubrick’s opus upon Boyle’s shoulder as the movie pushes towards its climax. Truth be told, even I’m not sure what happens at the climax, but I have my own ideas – and isn’t that what this is all about?

Sunshine is exactly what it claims to be – something to brighten up any film fan’s day.

4 Responses

  1. Man, no one saw this when it came out, but it was far and away one of the best movies of that year. One of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen in a theater, been meaning to revisit this for a long time now. Good review, man. Not sure what happens during that climax either, but whatever, still awesome.

    • Yep, but being confused at the climax is just a sign that Boyle is making a great sci-fi film. Or has seen too much Kubrick. Your call.

      I was amazed to learn how massive a financial failure it was. Where the hell was the nerd dollar – I mean even films like Kick-Ass or Watchmen did better, and Boyle was a fairly big name at that stage of his career (not as big as now, but still…). Boyle is damned lucky he’s not back working at ITV after this.

  2. No, Millions tends to fall through the cracks. This is just under-reported.

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