Friday, August 10, 2007

In Theaters: Sunshine

Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE is a hugely ambitious film, in a way aspiring to be the next 2001; sadly, it fails to compare favorably to 2010. A dour, albeit very pretty affair, the movie heaps importance and symbolism on a plot that doesn’t earn it, and fails to overcome the central challenge of coming up with natural and organic complications for a fairly straightforward storyline. It’s a real disappointment; some very talented people obviously put in a lot of work to make a gorgeous epic on a relatively low budget, but bad decisions were made at the basic story level and the picture just can’t overcome them. (And it’s not like I can’t enjoy films wherein style prevails over substance.)

The film centers on a mission to revive a mysteriously fading sun; the Earth is rapidly becoming a frozen waste, and so the Icarus II is speeding towards our nearest star to deliver a bomb which will hopefully restart the whole internal fusion process. The multinational crew speeds along to the center of the solar system, a giant golden heat shield preventing them from being fried to a crisp, and shortly after they lose contact with Earth they make contact with the Icarus I, the first ship sent to do this, and eventually the crew votes that they should try and dock with the lost vessel to see what they can use and what precisely happened. An accident during a trajectory change kills the captain and destroys the ship’s oxygen-generating greenhouse, ironically forcing the crew to dock since they have no other choice. On board the Icarus I, things get weird. Er.

In many ways this is the classic space voyage model, the one where the crew are constantly menaced by the sheer lethality of outer space and the fragility of most spacecraft. And it has its charms, to be sure. But while the disasters are well-executed in themselves, a certain predictable pattern sets in. Simply put, this is a movie with a very high body count, and basically every major crisis, no matter how clever the crew are in trying to work through it, must inevitably be solved by the heroic sacrifice of a crewmember. It becomes clear early on that actual intelligence and problem-solving don’t really affect the outcome of the story- the crew just have to keep whittling themselves down until they reach the point where the bomb is to be delivered. It makes you wonder how NASA gets anything done.

At some point, it is revealed that the mission has a saboteur. This element had a lot of potential to break the rhythm of “disaster, sacrifice, disaster, sacrifice” because there’s an actual antagonist of sorts, but instead this somehow turns the proceedings into a slasher film, with the murderer given both a shallow motivation and a Freddy Krueger-like appearance, hidden behind constant camera distortion which manages to kill all suspense by making it impossible to see what’s going on.

What really kills the film for me is the tone. Yes, reigniting the sun to save humanity from extinction is serious business. But neither the story nor the characters have enough depth to merit the ponderous, humorless gravity with which the film is executed. Thematically, the movie seems to be about persistence in the face of disaster and raging against the dying of the light, etc., and there’s some parallel to global warming, but none of this gets developed enough to make us buy into the sheer importance of everything. At heart you’ve basically got the kind of plot that would make a great old-school science fiction novel, a fast and sharp and intellectual affair wherein very smart people work together to master the perils of outer space, and all the symbolism does is slow things down.

I actually don’t want to seem too negative, since this isn’t a terrible movie. It has many, many good points, which just happen to be outweighed by the bad ones. The film is a visual delight, with production design reminiscent of ALIEN and lots of very well-composed shots. There’s considerable skill evinced throughout, from subliminal flashes as the crew explores the deserted Icarus I to a nice visual clue when a character opens a drawer. The performances are consistently believable, the highlights being Cillian Murphy in the lead, as the physicist responsible for making sure the “payload” does its job, and Michelle Yeoh as the scientist in charge of the ship’s oxygen farm. This is very much a film made with considerable skill and effort by everyone involved. And let’s face it, for certain segments of the audience (myself included), the spaceship porn alone will be enough to make this worth seeing at least once.

It’s just so damn monotonous. I mean that in the literal sense of the word- the tone of the thing just keeps getting more melodramatic and desperate; instead of ups and downs, we just have down and further down and “how did these people even manage to get into space?” down. Even the plot seems specifically contrived to make things more complicated than they should be- the entire “saboteur” subplot depends entirely on the Icarus having the security system of a college dorm, a crucial change of trajectory is done with only one person on the bridge, and nobody seems to think what effect letting unshielded communications towers melt in the sun’s heat will have on the rest of the ship. It’s not quite an Idiot Plot, but it’s a People Using Less Intelligence Than They Should Have On a Critical Space Mission Plot- watching this film, I got the distinct impression that the crew of the Apollo 13 wouldn’t have had half the difficulty of this group.

At this point I may be getting unnecessarily nitpicky. But the film’s failure to grab me on a more basic level drives me to see all the little flaws. Like a lot of modern science fiction, the film suffers from a weighty pessimism tempered only slightly by the hope of redemption; it’s a film about the future made by people who aren’t sure there’s going to be one. Of course, I considered CHILDREN OF MEN, with a similar tone and similar themes of man’s persistence in the face of extinction, to be the best film of last year, but it was a keenly crafted thriller which didn’t wallow in its darkness and took pains to remind us of the joy of living even as people were doing horrible things to each other. With the exception of a lovely scene set in a holographic simulator, where Murphy watches waves crashing against a barrier as women with umbrellas and wet weather gear laugh and scream in exhilaration, the film is too distant and composed to really remind us of what’s being done. Which just leaves us with the grimness of it all, leaving little wonder why the mainstream has been flocking to the fantasy genre over the past few years. SUNSHINE has noble aspirations, but some basic issues of tone and structure make it too hard to relate to. It will be worth seeing for some, but I can’t give it a passing grade.

Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Danny Boyle

Grade: C+

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