I loved Shallow Grave, it was well written, produced, acted and directed. The team of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald, and writer John Hodge went on to less impressive work like A Life Less Ordinary, and the overblown and useless The Beach, before the writer John Hodge found himself replaced by the novelist Alex Garland for first 28 days Later and now Sunshine. The excellent ensemble writing and verve that had marked Hodge's scripts was replaced by the inexperienced Garland's screen-writing, and this showed in the films. 28 Days Later is a zombie film which aims for Romeroesque heights in allegory but falls apart in the final act, and Sunshine has elements of the same problem of cinematic pinching with a lack of clarity of its own ideas. It borrows from the greats of the science fiction genre in terms of the plot and concept, yet it does not quite excel in its own set-pieces and climax.
Sunshine deals with a time in the future where our Sun is dying and the Earth has become a wintry globe facing annihilation. Seven years earlier, a space craft, Icarus, was sent to drop a bomb into the Sun to re-ignite it, and now with no contact from Icarus, a second vessel has been sent out to do the same. There is no time to send another mission - Icarus 2 can not fail and its crew knows this. Receiving a message from the original Icarus, Icarus 2 diverts to dock with the craft in order to recover its payload and double the chances of the mission's success. Unfortunately, once on board the original craft they meet sabotage and the crew comes under threat. Will the sabotage stop the mission and will the Earth be saved?
With a strong and diverse ensemble cast, Sunshine possesses great elements to help it to succeed. It also has excellent visual design, sympathetic lighting and fine photography. The story borrows from classics like Alien, Solaris and 2001, as well as from the less celebrated Event Horizon, but when it has to grow out of these familiar beginnings it lacks the wit and intelligence of the originals. The film feels cut down and loses the important scene setting of the boredom of space as well as the nature of the camaraderie of the spaceship crew. To have such an interesting ensemble and then not spend time on them seems criminal, and each character is merely defined in terms of plot points rather than their place in the crew. In fact, generally the film lacks many elements of explanation which would make it easier to follow and the characters easier to sympathise with and understand. To make up for this dramatic skimping, Sunshine compensates by loading the screen with CGI which makes the action more visual but fails to acknowledge the human element. It is almost as if the best reason for saving the planet Earth is the beauty of a sunrise rather than the humanity of its occupants.
This criticism to one side, I must say that Sunshine is the best Western science fiction film in ages. Do you want to watch Hiroyuki Sanada being heroic, Michelle Yeoh being the fine actress she is, and the excellent character actor Mark Strong being a desperate loon? I know I do, and all of this in a fine setting which mixes the Nostromo of Alien and the space station of 2001. The budget is clearly not in the league of Michael Bay and his ilk but the judicious use of CGI and the relentless tempo work well. In fact the film could have done with a less speedy early exposition in order to be even better and more satisfying dramatically. Sunshine is superior fare despite Garland's writing and Boyle's decision to cut the film down. Worth your time and your money.
Sunshine comes to DVD in the UK via Fox, and don't you just know it as the disc loads and there are trailers for lots of Murdoch product before you even get to the menu. So if you don't want to buy the latest series of 24, Prison Break, Pathfinder or some Maltesers you have quite a wait until you get to the menu - about 12 minutes in fact. There is no on-screen prompt to go to the menu and the only way you can get there quicker is by pressing next on your control several times. This gets you to the menu which is a still preceded by a piece of footage from the film, the sub menus are similarly static. The main film itself is presented in anamorphic widescreen at the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The naturalistic lighting sources mean that the film is rather dark so it comes as a relief that the contrast here is excellent, and the colour balance is well judged. Overall this looks beautiful and very sharp with minimal grain or visual noise. The audio comes in 5.1 only and the mix allows the excellent score from Underworld to be atmospheric and strident without any distortion. Dialogue is mixed well and the surround effect help to keep the atmosphere of the various environments the characters find themselves in whilst ensuring voices are mixed appropriately to the position in the scene. In short, proper three dimensional sound which is punchy and clear.
The film comes with two commentaries. One is from Brian Cox who was the scientific consultant on the project and he explains that he will give insight into where the film follows fact and where it is invented for the sake of the entertainment. He largely explains what you are seeing and his approach to the commentary is down to earth, he occasionally adds titbits from NASA and Russian experience about space travel but the experience is not unlike having a warm techie talking to you throughout. Boyle's commentary is enthusiastic and entertaining with a real joy for his cast. Boyle can talk for hours and some of his comments are far more interesting than others and I get the feeling that the commentary here would have benefitted from someone to bounce off rather than the monologue he keeps up here. He is, though, good humoured and good company. His commentary extends to the deleted scenes sequence where he talks about scenes which were removed from the film because of tempo. He says that these scenes are best removed from the film but it was my view that they added some of the dramatic integrity that I felt the shortened version of Sunshine lacked. The scenes include longer introductions to the characters and the world of Icarus 2 and some extra information about the the character of Pinbacker which would have benefitted the film's finale. Some of the scenes are very rough and lacking the CGI that would have been added in post production.
The Web Production Diaries are 48 minutes of behind the scenes interviews with cast and crew. They cover the cast's view of Boyle, an inventive eccentric apparrently, preparation for the cast in terms of experiencing zero gravity, post production special effects and Boyle's own view of the project. The technical stuff takes up a good 30 minutes of the diaries and the more entertaining bits are where the actors talk about Boyle, especially the rampantly funny and sexy Michelle Yeoh.
Boyle also uses the extras to include a couple of short films from new directors. Dad's Dead is a six and a half minute tale directed by Chris Shephard about Johnno a meel on wheels sadist whose friendship brings the narrator betrayal and a prison sentence. It is inventive, wittily written and with a sad ring of authenticity about it. Less enthralling is Mole Hills by Dan Arnold which is 6 minutes of staring at six piles of dirt on a pavement whilst everyone goes about their daily business, it is almost entirely from the same camera position and a real test to watch. The extras are completed by a teaser and trailer for the main film and some more publicity for Fox's website.
You'll see from Kevin's review and the comments that follow it that this film has provoked mixed responses. Personally, I can see it is flawed and falls between the two stools of entertainment and something deeper but I think its worth celebrating and believe that even as just a rental this is worth the effort for most film fans. I applaud the use of the DVD to promote other film-makers and the inclusion of an audio description track for the visually impaired, all in all a good package for an enjoyable film.