The serious space movie is one of the most limited genres around, with virtually the entire ground having been covered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey”. The rest being taken up by Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. You get pretty much what you expect each time out:
1. The loneliness of space travel.
2. A pleasant but suddenly disobedient talking computer
3. A technical malfunction that threatens the lives of the spacemen followed by a tense spacewalk to repair the damaged ship
4. The tragic death of one of the protagonists who sacrifices his or herself for the greater good of their colleagues and/or humanity itself.
5. Cabin fever tension between the shipmates courtesy of Jean-Paul Sartre
6. A touch of the spiritual in probing that which “man-was-not-meant-to-know”
Sunshine fulfills all 6 of these expectations but within a more intensified context. Alex Garland’s screenplay sets the story 50 years from now as, yet again, mankind faces extinction; not from a meteoric Armageddon, or the inconvenient truth about the environment, but from the death of the sun itself. A second ice age threatens to end life as we know it and so mankind looks to its last hope for survival, a spacecraft christened the “Icarus II”, which carries a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to be fired into the center of the dying star to relight the burner.
Since the “Icarus I” clearly failed in its maiden attempt, only a single nuclear device remains. If the crew of the “Icarus II” fails as well, there will be no more chances. Understandably, the weight of this responsibility hangs heavily on the multi-racial multi-national crew. These seven men and women know that they are nothing but expendable. It causes them to question every decision in a philosophical light. Anything or anyone who stands in the way of the success of their mission must be avoided or stopped. But must Mankind prevail? If there is a greater plan, what exactly is man’s place within it?
Garland and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) are nothing if not ambitious. They want us to consider the Big Questions about the importance or inconsequence of mankind as well as the argument of science versus fundamentalism. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. But what about space? If you were to look into the center of the sun, would you see the face of God?
The first two thirds of Sunshine play on these issues in an intelligent and actually quite subtle fashion. There are no deep monologues about the vastness of the universe or the crutch of spiritual belief, thank God. Everything is conveyed through action and reaction and the very powerful images that Boyle and his team conjure up to create the power of the sun’s light - something they are clearly trying to suggest is more than a literal “illumination”. Yet, this is actually the film’s singular flaw. Boyle and Garland do not seem to be on the same page philosophically and the film cannot contain their oddly opposing views comfortably. Garland is trying to tell a story about man’s inability to comprehend the universe without making himself the center of it, while Boyle is photographing a movie about man’s spiritual connection to the divine. Boyle does not see the divine as being within man himself but rather something outward, to be literally reached for and just barely out of grasp.
In fact, Boyle is quite literal altogether. He layers images onto the subtle script which are both obvious and yet perplexing in the extreme. Images of sex and reproduction are everywhere and yet there is no actual sex on-screen. The “Icarus II” is designed to look like a sperm cell as it approaches the center of an egg-like sun which it needs to penetrate in order to preserve life itself. In one scene, several crew members must be shot out of the wrecked “Icarus I” back to their own ship like a journey through the birth canal. These are presented but have little to do with the film’s more central themes and are certainly abandoned by the last third where the whole film falls apart completely.
In 28 Days Later Boyle and Garland switched from their “rage plague” story to a post-apocalyptic study of the more mundane evil that lies in the hearts of common men. The infected were less threatening by the end of that film than Christopher Eccleston and his droog-like gang of soldiers bent on power struggles and deviant desires in a world without laws. They attempt something similar here but it’s a complete mistake: the eighth inning arrival of a slasher film boogeyman, with the burned flesh of Freddy Kruger and the physical strength of patient V in V for Vendetta turns the film into nothing more than Friday the 13th in space. A tense, thoughtful and minimalist film turns into a stalk-and-slash thriller without even a strong philosophical angle from the talkative villain. The death of mankind being “God’s Will” is a fundamentalist notion but it has no power when voiced by a knife wielding maniac. If there is a real lesson to be learned here it’s that sometimes a filmmaker’s reach can exceed his grasp.
Visually, Boyle crafts a jaw-droppingly beautiful film that seems to be bathed in a golden light. He makes a fantastic decision to avoid standard establishing shots of the spacecraft and to begin the film with the mission already in progress. This places us in the same situation as the ensemble cast, trapped within the claustrophobic space and forced to consider the film’s issues along with them.
The ensemble cast is terrific and Cillian Murphy in particular continues to impress with his quiet, introspective screen presence. None of the characters are particularly well defined and so it’s up to the actors to convey their feelings between the very terse lines of dialogue. This they do quite admirably. As mentioned before, the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful and flawed as it is, Boyle and his team conjure up something truly magical in the final minutes of the film as Murphy reaches out and is able to grasp what Boyle himself could not.
Sunshine comes to DVD packed with some very interesting features along with the standard theatrical trailer and deleted scenes. These features highlight both the cinematic aspects of the endeavor as well as some of the real science behind the story. As with his previous DVD releases, Boyle puts a great deal of effort into making this DVD a thorough document of the film and its production.
On the extras front, we get all 23 production diaries originally produced for the film’s website. These highlight the use of CGI and “previsualization”, the intricate production design, and a chronicle of the cast testing the effects of “Zero Gravity”. The effects and design are both very high tech and low tech at the same time. While much time and effort was spent in making all of the computer screens and communication devices functional for the actors, the ship’s turbulence was the work of several muscular crew members shaking the walls. Several of the diaries introduce us to the film’s tech adviser, physicist Dr. Brian Cox, who tells us all about the end of the world as science currently knows it. Even star Cillian Murphy gets into the festive atmosphere by adding that, “This is not science-fiction. The sun will die.” Thanks Cillian. That’s very comforting.
The segment on costume design talks all about the trouble with spacesuits onscreen that, by their very nature, have to conceal the actors’ faces. Several concepts were considered utilizing artistic influences as diverse as traditional samurai dress and the hoodie worn by Kenny from South Park.
Seven deleted scenes are included with an optional director’s commentary. Each of these scenes is a good example of how screenplays are often overwritten in order to make sure character and story are being clearly conveyed. Boyle discusses how the skill of the actors allowed for many scenes to be cut out in the end since they were able to convey the same ideas without dialogue.
An alternate ending shot on mini-dv is also included. It was shot in Battery Park where Boyle says he can be found jogging every morning if you want to meet him. It was produced as a sample to show the studio what they had in mind instead of just relying on words or description.
There are two DVD commentaries, one by Boyle and the other a discussion from the scientific angle by the aforementioned Dr. Brian Cox. If you have any questions about the sun at all, Dr. Cox covers it here in very clear and layman’s language. He points out the changes that had to be made for poetic license and again lets us know very definitively that we’ll all be “toast” one day. In any case, how often do we get a chance to spend 2 hours listening to a physicist?
In his own DVD commentary, Boyle talks about how he and Garland seem to be very influenced byApocalypse Now in each of their collaborations, as they always seem to include a Kurtz type figure who sees truth through the veil of madness. This is probably something they should dump since Francis Ford Coppola himself failed to make much of Brando as Kurtz either. The brilliant madman character always seems to be droning on when seen in a movie. Perhaps on the page it reads well but played onscreen, it comes off as annoying and pompous. Boyle also talks about the challenges of shooting a film with so much effects work and jokes about how a director really only has two main responsibilities while making such films. One, getting the actors and crew to show up and two, making sure they are all looking in the right direction when watching an effect to be placed later.
The DVD is rounded out with a great idea that seems to have been Boyle’s own. Two short films are included, although neither is related at all to Sunshine in any way. Both Dad’s Dead and Mole Hills are included simply because Boyle liked them and thinks that one of the things DVD can do is provide an outlet for well made short films to find an audience. Dad’s Dead is a very inventive piece of animation mixed with live action to tell an odd, anecdotal story but Mole Hills is a headscratcher as it merely shows a series of dirt piles on a sidewalk for seven minutes as cars and people are seen going by in fragments. I thought hard about it, trying to see if I was missing some metaphor there, and then I tried not thinking about it and just watching the traffic. Skip it, there’s a lot of more interesting material on this DVD.