Sunshine (2007) Review
Warning: This review contains some plot spoilers. I don't think they ruin the film but you may prefer to see it before reading this.
It's rarely a good sign when a movie's trailer doesn't give you any idea what sort of movie it's advertising. You have to wonder if there's a good reason they're not telling you - perhaps because if you knew, you wouldn't want to see it. I know, I know: the other week I was complaining that Premonition's trailer gave the whole plot away. There's just no pleasing me, is there?
The adverts for Danny Boyle's Sunshine look and sound great, courtesy of the film's memorable opening shot (the sun reflected off the solar panels of a vast spaceship) and the use of Clint Mansell's music from Requiem For A Dream. But what does they tell you about the film? You learn the basic premise - that our sun is dying and a mission has been launched to re-ignite it - and you can deduce that something goes wrong on this mission from all the quick cuts of actors screaming. But what goes wrong? What kind of movie is this? Is it a sci-fi disaster movie, like The Core? A more serious science fiction drama like Solaris? Is it a horror film? Are there aliens involved?
The answer is, surprisingly given the people who made it, that this is a sci-fi disaster movie like The Core - very like The Core in fact, at least in its plotting. That 2003 flop is about a group of astronauts and scientists who pilot a sophisticated rocket ship towards the Earth's core to set off some big bombs inside it, thus restarting its rotation and saving the Earth. En route, they encounter a series of disasters, malfunctions and other crises and most of the characters are killed or nobly sacrifice themselves to save the others.
In Sunshine, a group of astronauts and scientists (the stars include Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans and Michelle Yeoh) pilot a sophisticated rocket ship towards the sun to set off one gigantic bomb inside it, thus causing a new star to form out of the dying one and saving the earth. En route, they encounter a series of disasters, malfunctions and other crises and most of the characters are killed or nobly sacrifice themselves to save the others.
To be fair, Sunshine's plot doesn't only borrow from The Core. From Event Horizon come the derelict spaceship encountered by the crew and the homicidal religious zealot covered in burns. Also, the spaced-out hero (Cillian Murphy) calls to mind Red Planet, in which Val Kilmer plays a character who acts like he's permanently stoned.
I don't mind silly sci-fi movies. I usually enjoy them. The Core becomes more and more entertaining with every viewing and there's plenty of fun to be had from Red Planet and Event Horizon and even Supernova. The problem with Sunshine is that it isn't fun. Writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle, who previously collaborated on The Beach and 28 Days Later... seem completely oblivious to how daft their story is and they treat this Saturday matinee fluff as seriously as if they were making 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris.
That anyone could take Sunshine seriously is amazing. This is a film in which a character runs along a rocketship's solar panels in a spacesuit, trying to outrun deadly rays of sunlight; in which the religious zealot covered in burns stalks the crew, slashing and impaling his victims; in which people are "fired" from the airlock of one ship into another, some of them without spacesuits; in which a character stands inches away from what appears to be the surface of the sun and looks only slightly charred. The only way I can imagine this material working is if its makers acknowledged its daftness and played it for fun and cheap thrills, as Jon Amiel did with The Core.
Danny Boyle does exactly the opposite. His highly stylised, arty direction is irritating and bewildering (what's with all those quick, Exorcist-style "subliminal" frames?) and it drains most of the potential entertainment value out of the movie. It's all you can do to follow what's happening in the big action scenes, let alone get excited by them.
A lot of the time, Boyle's direction seems to be overcompensating for the script's lack of substance, amongst other deficiencies. Why is it that every shot of the maniac with the burns is blurred or distorted so you can't see him properly? Is there some artistic point to this, or is Boyle embarassed that the plot of his serious science fiction film boils down to a psycho killer trying to sabotage a space mission? Or is he simply trying to hide some dubious make-up effects, as George P Cosmatos did with his ultra-brief shots of the fish-monster in Leviathan?
Alex Garland contributes to the air of pretentiousness with his script's leaden lack of humour, its minimalist characterisation, its hip fatalism and its bizarre philosophical observations. When Garland does come up with an intriguing concept, like whether it would be justifiable to murder someone to save the ship and the mission, he cops out.
Out of the small cast, only Chris Evans gives an effective, sympathetic performance. That's ironic since he's supposed to be playing the coldest character but he's the only actor who makes you believe he's an astronaut on a vital mission. The others are either so drippy or so poorly developed that you never feel anything for them.
Sunshine has picked up a lot of positive reviews - yes, I know I'm in the minority on this one. Usually I can at least see what people are getting out of a movie but I have to admit to being baffled in this case. Is it down to viewers being impressed by Boyle's direction, which is as technically slick as it is annoying? Is it the script's Matrix-style fatalism and stoner philosophy? You tell me.
My take on Sunshine is that it's a collision of style and content - a loopy outer-space disaster flick treated with the self-conscious gravity of a student art film. If Boyle and Garland wanted to make a sci-fi action movie, they ought to have let their hair down first (their zombie film, 28 Days Later... was great fun); if they wanted to make an art film, didn't it occur to them that an adventure story about solar bombs, maniacs in space and exploding rocket ships seemed like a pretty odd starting point?