Director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew MacDonald’s partnership with Alex Garland has been one of the most productive in contemporary British cinema; MacDonald’s company DNA films is (I think) the only one of the British ‘studios’, set up with Film Council Funding, which is, thanks to its deal with Fox Searchlight, still going strong. Boyle famously filmed the adaptation of Garland’s novel The Beach; in 2002 they teamed up again to make 28 Days Later, which introduced the world to the young Cillian Murphy, as one of the only survivors of a terrible plague. Now the gang has reunited, and brings us Sunshine.
Fifty years from now, our sun is dying. The planet lies frozen. In a last ditch attempt to save our world, humanity pools its resources to send a mission to the sun, in order to deliver a bomb which they hope will reignite our dying star, effectively creating a mini-Big Bang (or small bang, if you will). The eight astronauts and scientists on board are, not surprisingly, a fairly rag-tag band of the type of social inadequates who would be prepared to spend several years in space on what might well be a suicide mission; nonetheless, if they can pull it off, they will, quite literally, be the saviours of the universe.
As their ship, the Icarus II, approaches Mercury and they lose radio contact with earth, they pick up a distress signal from Icarus I, the ship which disappeared from the same mission seven years earlier. The crew argues about whether to ignore the signal or to respond – Mace (Evans) and the Captain, Kaneda (Sanada), point out that their mission is to deliver the bomb, nothing more, and though Cassie (Byrne) tries to reason with them, she is over-ruled. But when a terrible, tragic accident means that Icarus I may be their only hope of success – and with so much resting on them – their course is set…
Danny Boyle and Alex Garland have a besetting sin. Garland comes up with fantastic high-concept ideas to rival anything coming from Hollywood and Boyle visualises them sensationally. But at some point, usually about two thirds of the way through, they seem to lose confidence in their big idea and start throwing extraneous elements at it, usually turning it into some kind of OTT slasher movie. They did it with 28 Days, which began so promisingly until we got to the silly soldier sub-plot and harmless cycle courier Murphy turning into a bloodspattered psycho.
Similarly Sunshine starts so well. Beautiful credit sequence. There’s a nicely economical intro to the crew, quickly giving a sense of all their little flaws and foibles (as well as how boring it would be stuck with the same 8 people for years on end): Corazon (Yeoh) in her garden – creating oxygen for the crew as well as fruit and vegetable; Mace in the engine room; Capa (Murphy) checking the payload again and again; Searle (Curtis), the ship’s psychiatrist, staring into the sun, clearly going a little bit mad. Its nicely Kubrickian; the blinding bright white light of the sun sharply contrasted with the gloom of Icarus II, tucked behind the shield that keeps the humans alive.
Anyway, then everything goes wrong and, hey presto!, Boyle and Garlad cannot resist the urge to over-egg the pudding. Seems to me there is more than enough conflict and ‘reversal’ for the crew members to overcome but, no, lets bung in a mad stowaway. And just like 28 Days, from a clever, cerebral thriller, the film turns into a slasher flick. And a predictable slasher flick at that. If you watched 70s B-movie disaster flicks like The Savage Bees, it was always the disposable black sidekick who was killed first to show the threat is real. There are no black actors here but its interesting that the Asian actors seem to be just as disposable despite the initial set up of them as equals.
And then there’s just nitpicking – one oxygen garden, when its crucial to the crew’s survival? Why only one person who knows how to arm the bomb? What if Capa had hit his head on a cupboard door on his first day? But hey, it’s a movie. Well, yes, it is a movie, but Sunshine is presented as scientifically accurate or at least plausible, so these little flaws and inconsistencies are irritating.
But it does look amazing – hard to believe it was filmed at Three Mills – and is very well acted. Chris Evans in particular surprised me having only seen him in Fantastic Four. For two thirds of the film, Sunshine has a lot to offer. If only Boyle and Garland could rein in their worst instincts, what a movie they might make.
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