Sunshine (2007)Rated R for violent content and language.
Starring Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Fox Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.
There Goes the Sun
Sunshine had the potential to be very different, but it doesn't go all the way. At the start it jostles our expectations with an original premise that doesn't follow the usual science fiction norm of transplanting the action to some galaxy far far away; rather, it takes a cue from 2001: A Space Odyssey, keeping the adventure within our solar system and making the story very much about us. And by being about the near future, it restricts itself even further, exaggerating the science only just beyond the border of fact-based believability. In this way, the movie strives for credibility while it endeavors also to create a sense of outer-world wonder, a trick not easy to pull off.
For a long time, though, Sunshine accomplishes its goal. Eight astronauts are placed in a complex spacecraft called the Icarus II to journey to the sun, which is dying prematurely. They hope to fire a bomb into the star to jumpstart a new reaction. The trip takes years, and the craft is well-prepared with a voice-responsive computer, reflective shielding, gardens for generating oxygen, and specialties assigned to each of the crew. We get to know them -- a multicultural group, as it turns out (including roles played by Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, and Michelle Yeoh), possibly reflecting a collective world effort -- and everything goes according to plan, until they find a reason to consider making a detour.
The movie's atmosphere is not only convincing, it's also influenced by the style of classic sci-fi movies that have come before, such as 2001 and Solaris. Such stylistic reference gives the effect of luring us into taking the proceedings more seriously, utilizing tried-and-true techniques such as slow-pacing, lots of quiet moments, and plenty of cinematography emphasizing the awesomeness of space and space travel. One early sequence illustrates the balance of homage and crafting its own unique memorability, when two of the crew spacewalk to enact repairs outside the ship. The scene is suspenseful and awe-inspiring, supported by the visual contrast of the sun and the ship's shadowed areas.
The awe is not delivered without purpose, as Sunshine seeks to make the crew's journey akin to a spiritual one. To face the sun is, effectively, to face the creator; as such, different members of the crew have different takes on their task; some are more contemplative than others. When the first signs of conflict arise, the human drama that unfolds is mostly natural; although some of it from certain characters feels more forced than others.
Unfortunately, that forced feeling starts to push harder in the last act, coming mostly from some late contrived events. At this point, the movie introduces an element outside the sphere of believability that it had thus far so carefully constructed. The element also lays out in more plain sight the issues of spirituality, science, and our place in the universe that were more skillfully communicated in the breathtaking sequences that had come before, when it had more deftly employed its characters.
Thus does Sunshine, sadly, go from something new, exciting and interesting, to something more conventional (and, in certain ways, even a little confusing -- by the final section, the cinematography's hold over conveying the sense of space starts to unravel). Even with a few nicely composed shots at the end, it's tough not to feel a bit let down -- to feel that director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland tried a bit too much instead of trusting the original imagery and characters to guide us to our own feelings of fascination, contemplation, and spiritual introspection. Luckily, the movie does at least that much for the first two acts, and so in hindsight it retains a power it rightfully earned, not faltering enough to fully squander it.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jul. 12, 2007