Despite my first impression that Sunshine is yet another send a group of very special individuals in space on a go-for-broke mission movie, Danny Boyle's second and to date last foray into science fiction soon proved me wrong.
Review by SAndman
January 25, 2010
Director: Danny Boyle
Cillian Murphy as Capa
Michelle Yeoh as Corazon
Chris Evans as Mace
Hiroyuki Sanada as Kaneda
Mark Strong as Pinbacker
Capa: So if you wake up one morning and it's a particularly beautiful day, you'll know we made it.
The characters in Sunshine are surprisingly unassuming. So that takes care of my basic assumption about the movie. Danny Boyle wastes no time in long-drawn and convoluted expositions. You get the impression you have just walked in on a group of professionals hard at work on a task that requires all their attention. The group dynamics are already working and all the entanglements are set in place. You come in just in time for the last act.
The old Sun is dying, as the very brief back story tells us at the opening of Sunshine. The script writer Alex Garland says that he was influenced by the theory of the heat death of the universe. Now I am not a scientist and I confess that I have only a very vague idea about how the theory is supposed to work, but I understands that the process requires enormous amounts of time, non-human time.
So it may come across as counter-intuitive that Capa, the physicist in the movie, explains in a matter-of-fact tone that sometime in the 21st century the sun simply and for no apparent reason began dying and subsequently our planet began cooling, and life as we know it came under threat of extinction. This exposition may jar on the ears of some of the more hard-science slanted viewers but I had no problem taking Capa's explanation for granted. I guess that sometimes, but not very often, an evocative story can make up for shoddy science.
In an effort to rekindle the sun mankind has equipped one ship, Icarus (they probably couldn't have picked more ominous a name) and attached it to the back of a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island, which was supposed to be detonated inside the heart of the dying star. However, something went wrong and the ship got lost. They quickly assembled another team, and built another ship, Icarus Two (really, they could have done something about the name!) in the last-ditch effort to stave the imminent disaster.
Icarus Two is well on its way toward the sun, and it is clear that everybody on board is overwhelmed by the enormity of their mission, nerves fray and arguments break out. They are entering the orbit of Mercury when unexpectedly the instruments pick up a signal of another ship. The first Icarus turns up and presents the crew of its successor with a hard choice. Should they rendezvous with the other ship, check for survivors, though the chances of finding anybody alive are next to zero, or simply fly by and continue on their designated trajectory?
Mace, the engineering officer suggests the latter, citing their priorities, whereas Cassie, the pilot and the most emotional member of the crew, argues for boarding the first Icarus in case there may be survivors on board the ship. The rest of the crew are divided between the two options.
At that point Searle, the team's psychologist suggests a third solution. He points out that they are all scientists and that they should make the most informed decision. He adds that as nobody really knows whether reigniting process they are supposed to set off by inserting the payload into the core of the sun and detonating the bomb is going to work on not their best chance is to inject two payloads instead of one. And he points to Capa as the team physicist and the one best suited to make the decision.
Capa hesitates but in the end decides it is in the best interest of their mission to ensure injecting two payloads into the sun. So they set out to encounter the other ship. Trey, the navigator, reprograms the coordinates but makes a mistake of forgetting to reprogram the heat shield, which protects the ship from the sun's lethal radiation.
The ship's computer notifies them that the ship's effectiveness may have been compromised due to Trey's error. They have to get out into space to fix the damage on the shield. Two men are needed for the job. Kaneda, the level headed captain, volunteers and as they all look around nervously waiting for another volunteer, Mace volunteers Capa, whom he blames for jeopardizing the mission.
Quickly the two repair the damage but the captain is killed by a blast of the solar wind. The blast also caused irreparable damage on the ship destroying their oxygen producing facilities. Now they have no other option but to rendezvous the first Icarus and trade one ship with the other. But by this point everybody aboard blames somebody for something. To make matters worse, it turns out that the first Icarus, like all ghost ships, has its share of secrets.
Sunshine hails back to the biggies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien in that the entire movie takes place in space and that it envisions technology almost as an active participant in the plot - good old talking ship always works miracles for me! Also, the technology in Sunshine is representative of a certain stage of civilization. More streamlined than, say, Nostromo, but also less detailed, Icarus does look like a three dimensional ship headed out to accomplish a specific mission.
If some of Icarus's rooms look too much like a threshold to hell (or heaven), or if the helmets on space suits look like a cross between a coffin and a mail box, or if the creature haunting the first Icarus is your basic alien intruder, but far scarier than any number of tentacled, slimy, toothy extraterrestrials - I dig that because Danny Boyle's ideas are so downright beguiling that even when he goes for effect rather than realism he can be easily forgiven.
Casting in Sunshine is on par and the actors seem to have clicked together. They look like a team of people who spent too much time together and whose relations are strained to the breaking point. If they come across as generally average, and errant, human beings, instead of larger-than-life ego maniacs, that only works for the plot. In addition, they are given consistent, if unremarkable, lines.
There is next to no humor in Sunshine, and that is perfectly in tune with the story line. Similarly, there is no hint of romance between the characters. Nor is there a single flashback in the entire movie. We never learn anything about the characters' past or motivations.
As for the proverbial romance in space, Capa and Cassie have a brief conversation about their feelings regarding the mission, and that is about it as far as emotional bonding goes. Instead, you do get this sense of enormity of the mission. And as the plot thickens the characters falter or grow under the pressure. And the fact that those who do the former make you sick and you start actively rooting for those who do the latter goes to show that you can write believable heroic characters without resorting to tacky grandstanding.
Sunshine features some dazzling special effects and unearthly haunting score courtesy of composer John Murphy. Cinematography is classy and makes up for all the plot's inconsistencies in the hard science department. For instance, the characters never really stop to wonder what makes the artificial gravity of the second Icarus work perfectly despite the glaring absence of the required technology aboard. At times you do get the impression that the director of Sunshine seemed to have been in too much hurry to tell the story of the astronauts and have simply brushed aside too technical details.
I always have and always will be a sucker for a good story. And Sunshine, simply put, fits the shoe. And if it does come across as a tad brooding, and even harrowing at times, keep in mind that your are watching not only a journey into the heart of the sun, but also a journey into the human soul. And that can be the most brooding and harrowing of journeys.
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