Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
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You have to give Danny Boyle credit: his career so far has certainly been unpredictable. He went from Shallow Grave to his virus saga 28 Days Later, followed those up with a family film of sorts Millions, and his latest is a sci-fi effort Sunshine. Face it, the dude has range. As expected, his version of sci-fi is very different stylistically speaking from the many others we have seen in the past. Even the storyline is one that I don’t recall ever seeing before, although I’m sure there have been novels written about the idea of our sun going dark. Sunshine centers around a mission to the sun which is intended to start a new “star within a star” in order to save life on earth. As in all missions in sci-fi films it will not go smoothly and sacrifices will have to be made in order to claim “mission accomplished.”
Unlike many of my friends I certainly don’t consider myself a sci-fi junkie, and I don’t care to spend endless hours debating holes, or inconsistencies in various sci-fi plots. When it comes to this genre I care most about character development and a strong plot that has some connections to our current lives here on earth. The idea of our sun losing its power and a bunch of young people heading out there to save us all is a great idea, it really is, and maybe it’s because Sunshine didn’t fulfill my expectations that I’m left cold as I write about it.
Let’s skip past the first reel of the film which sets up the mission as our young heroes head into the “dead zone”, the area where they can no longer communicate with earth. The fly in the ointment comes when their mission is diverted because they receive a signal from a ship that attempted the same mission but failed nearly seven years earlier. After some discussion it’s decided that the will try to rendezvous with the ship because even if the crew is dead, the payload that it was trying to deliver to the sun may still be intact. It’s at this point that an error occurs and their plans have to be re-evaluated. I won’t go into the details but the error requires two of the crew to go outside in those clunky spacesuits (wouldn’t you think they would make these things more comfortable and practical in the future?) and try to fix the problems. As is inevitable in these scenes, one of the crew won’t make it back, and this is actually the first of two scenes where an unlucky soul goes floating off into oblivion.
Speaking of those clunky spacesuits, there is some neat cinematography which gives us the point of view from inside the suit as though we are next to the person inside it and as we hear them breathe and try to maneuver we get the sense of how difficult and claustrophobic it is in there. The cinematography in Sunshine is the best part of the film as the camera glides across the outside of the massive ship and catches the sun with its glaring rays shimmering across the “shield” which protects the ship. The production design is also solid as we haven’t seen a spacecraft quite like this one before. I already mentioned the cool shield on the outside of the craft but the inside is equally impressive with its greenhouse and an observation deck that serves as a sort of “tanning salon” for one member of the crew.
So, I have spoken much about the fantastic look of the film but not much about the characters. That’s because there really isn’t a lot one can say about a crew that doesn’t have any unique personalities. Maybe it was Boyle’s intent to occupy his film with smart but real people that really could be you or me. Still, I’m not buying it. When things go awry the crew reacts in ways that I don’t find convincing for trained astronauts. They scream, fight, and blame each other for what has gone wrong. They even talk about having to kill off two or three of themselves to make the oxygen last longer. I understand the film is trying to show how the pressure of such an enormous task can affect people but I found much of it silly and unconvincing. Would a group of such annoying and unprofessional people actually be sent to do such a daunting task as saving the earth? It’s rare that I don’t talk about individual performances but as I mentioned there really isn’t much to set this crew apart other than the usual mix of stereotypes from hunky to nerdy to annoying.
There is also a “surprise” that occurs after the ship has finished its rendezvous with the first ship and to say that what happens is not plausible is an understatement. It’s at this point that the film also turns into an odd slasher film of sorts, a Jason meets outer space hodgepodge that’s partly hokey and not just a little confusing. It’s as if Danny Boyle just can’t get away from torn flesh and lots of blood, but it sure doesn’t seem to fit in here.
Sunshine begins with an alluring premise but seems to get sidetracked along the way. Maybe the narrative seemed too straightforward for Boyle and his longtime writer Alex Garland but I think that it would have served the film much better if they had stayed on course and not tried to mix genres and throw so much at us. I won’t reveal whether the mission is successful but I can say that the messenger certainly isn’t.