H G Wells’s reaction after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, famously, was “I have just seen the silliest film.” He wasn’t wrong about that silliness, either, as far as that work’s plotting, character, premise, or overall message go: Metropolis spins out a clumsy storyline at eye-numbing length, with stagy over-acting from all the principles and an ending so sentimental and politically-obtuse as to beggar belief. As to completely bankrupt belief and then imprison belief for debt in a rat-infested cell, prior to banishing belief to a distant and barren island. But it’s a film that has endured, because it’s so damn good-looking: the design of the futuristic city, the iconic robot Maria, the whole elegantly stylised future, all these are simply splendid. It may be that a film, any film, can survive all manner of silliness if it inhabits its idiom, its visual medium, with enough creative aplomb.
My reaction, after watching Danny Boyle’s new film, was: “well, instead of being stagy and overplayed the acting is filmic and rather subdued, and instead of the ending being sentimental and obtuse it was sentimental and—in the final shot—actually rather touching. But otherwise I have just seen the silliest film.”
The story is straightforward. The sun is dying. Earth, before the film begins, sent out a spacecraft, the foolishly-named Icarus I (I mean, had they even read the story of Icarus?), porting a special bomb “the mass of Manhattan” to drop into the sun and reignite it. Somehow. I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, actually; and the film doesn’t elaborate. I guess we’re supposed simply to swallow the idea that a bomb massing (at a guess) ten-to-the-twelve kilos—which is to say an object one million trillionth of the solar mass—could have any effect at all upon the sun. As if the Pacific ocean were frozen and you attempted to rectify the situation by squeezing out a pipette-full of antifreeze. But, anyway, Icarus I vanished mysteriously; so now Earth has sent out Icarus II, a craft of identical design, to get the job done. The ship is crewed with a bunch of improbably gorgeous scientists: bomb-manager Capa (played with characteristic placidity by the scary-eyed Cillian Murphy), pilot Cassie (the ever-beautiful Rose Byrne), Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), botanist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) in charge of the plants that produce the ship’s oxygen, a ship’s psychiatrist (Cliff Curtis), and various others.
The story, in other words, is a will-they-won’t-they mission to save the world; and scriptwriter Alex Garland clearly believes the way to make this interesting is to throw lots of obstacles in the way of the mission, one after the other, any of which could result in the world’s doom. But there’s an inevitable sense of diminishing returns to this narrative strategy. So, there are various shipboard malfunctions, and one crewman dies; but we’re only twenty minutes in, so this can’t be the fatal eventuality that results in global quietus. Then there’s the discovery of the Icarus I, which turns out to have been hidden right in front of the sun for the last seven years (pause for a second: right in front of the sun, for seven years, and no Earthly sun-directed telescope or detection devices spotted it? Of course it’s small, compared to the sun; and the sun is bright and noisy; but presumably the sun itself is the major focus for all the world’s scientists, what with it dying and all, and even today we have the technology to spot objects on or near the sun of really small relative size).
Where was I?
Yes, so then the Icarus II docks with the Marie-Celeste-y Icarus I, and there are further shipboard malfunctions, and more crewmen die, but again, we never really doubt that our resourceful protagonists will forge onwards. Then (I’m straying into the realm of spoilers here, so be warned) the film shifts mode from high-tech-malfunction-film to slasher-film, as a psychopathic killer gets loose aboard the spaceship determined, for reasons only nebulously articulated, to sabotage the mission. More crewmembers die. But it’s all remarkably unsuspenseful, despite the fact that Boyle (a very talented auteur indeed) throws a whole bucketful of fancy directorial techniques at the screen to try and jazz the tension up, particularly in its latter stages: weird editing, jarring camerawork, copious use of subliminal or near-subliminal intercuts, odd bursts of extraneous sound and so on. But none of this can bring the plot to life, and I for one remained neither scared nor spooked.
The film’s pre-release promotional tour put Boyle’s official scientific adviser for the project (Manchester Uni’s Dr Brian Cox, who is a physicist working on the Geneva Large Hadron Collider) in front of the camera a great deal, and from him I’d got the impression that the film pays at least as much attention to the physical realities of space flight as, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. But, no: the Icarus II whooshes and grumbles through the soundless interplanetary medium, and vacuum explosions go kaboom just as they do in Star Wars. This very near future seems to have developed artificial gravity generators that enables the crew to walk about their non-accelerating spacecraft as if they were in a room on Earth. In, indeed, a film studio on Earth and not in space at all. But nothing more is made of this remarkable ability to generate gravity without mass or acceleration.
The mission requires the ship to fly very close to the sun to deliver its payload. We’re not told whether the bomb needs to be delivered to a specific portion of the sun’s surface, but the implication (until the freewheeling final sequences, at any rate) is that the required trajectory is very specific. But why on earth would the bomb need to be delivered into a specific spot in the photosophere? And if it didn’t, then why all the kerfuffle of a crewed ship at all? Why not send an automated craft? The risks of humans crewmen cracking under the stress (risks which, this film implies, are pretty much certainties) would be entirely removed. The sun is at the bottom of a very deep gravity well; line up the bomb and shoot it straight down. How hard could that be?
But that’s not the way the narrative logic of the film works. The sun, in this film, is treated as if it is a giant wall, up to which the spacecraft can drive, fire off its bomb, stick its gearstick into reverse and then back-up (the crew will have, we’re told, four minutes to get away). It’s certainly not treated as a body with an escape velocity fifty-five times that of Earth.
There’s something nerdy in this sort of nitpicking, I concede; and whilst these sorts of questions interfered with my ability to suspend disbelief it’s possible the film will attract many viewers for whom they won’t. But there are other sillinesses in the way the story is laid out. One character is stranded on the Icarus I as Icarus II goes on with its mission. He immediately commits suicide, despite having previously shown no suicidal tendencies whatever (rather the reverse, indeed) and despite the fact that the Icarus I has oxygen and supplies to support life for many years. Wouldn’t he stick it out for just a while, on the offchance of rescue, however long the odds? Two of the characters interact by getting all macho and fighting with one another, but otherwise the interpersonal relations between the crew are tuned right down to the most minimalist emotional background noise. Perhaps this was deliberate, just as the almost complete absence of any background to any of the characters may have been deliberate. It might have worked, too, to focalise the characters in situ; but actually the effect was to excavate affect from the crew members, such that it was hard to care whether they lived or died.
But putting all that on one side, there’s a key question: is the film not damn good-looking?
It is. Alwin H. Kuchler’s cinematography is uniformly excellent. Director Boyle does brilliant work with his colour-palette, such that the scenes inside the ship (all greys, blues, greens, and all fairly muted) stand in visually jarring and thrilling contrast with shots of the sun—very vividly and beautifully rendered by the special effects team, always striking and lovely and sometimes, on the widescreen, almost overwhelmingly so. You get a real sense of solar scale and power from these shots; and some of them are worth the price admission alone.
There are other visual saving graces, too: some nice mettre-en-scène with corridors and doors; a couple of nicely done riffing-off-Kubrick moments with airlocks-as-obstacles and clunky spacesuits (one of the best, near the end, squeezes surprising tension out of nothing more than besuited Murphy falling over and trying to get back up again). And, at least in part, the film succeeds in bringing to the screen something of the quasi-mystical inflections of sunlight (the illumination that sears the spirit, the life-giver than kills), even if its focus on ‘staring at the sun’ is perhaps over-literalised.
But I remain unconvinced that Sunshine has enough visual panache and beauty to overcome its various sillinesses. I doubt that it will join the ranks of great sf cinema. Perhaps that’s because its two awkwardly-welded genres, spaceship-malfunction-drama and slasher-horror, are too frenetic (or at least, are here too frenetically rendered) to give the often beautiful visuals a chance to breathe, to fill and lodge in the viewers’ eyes and brains as they need to do. It needed a slower hand.
Adam Roberts has also written novels which attempt to finesse dodgy science with thematic and descriptive expressiveness, so he feels he knows what he’s talking about with respect to this film.