Sunshine

Reviewed by Adam Roberts

Deliverer cover

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.

Comments

Posted by Ian Thomas at April 24, 2007 9:44 AM:

I agree completely about the silliness of the plot.

But I thought this was magnificently beautiful, and one which deserves watching on the big screen. There were moments that just took my breath away with their beauty (even in moments of horror for the characters), and I find that increasingly rare in any film.

Posted by Martin at April 24, 2007 10:28 AM:

despite having previously shown no suicidal tendencies whatever (rather the reverse, indeed)

Really? He is rather clearly foreshadowed as having a very specific suicidal tendency: death by sunlight. When the first character dies from exposure to the sun his insistant, unhinged question is "what does it look like?" He then indulgences in persistant, dangerous communion with the sun through the viewing room. Is it any surprise that when he is abandoned he takes this to the ultimate level?

As a general point, the sun as God and light as rapture stuff that Boyle/Garland are playing with here starts off as being rather interesting and then becomes crassly overdone. Much like everything else in the film.

Posted by Aliette de Bodard at April 24, 2007 8:15 PM:

I saw the trailers--and I'm probably a nerd too, because I could never get past the idea that this was the silliest idea ever (one, why is the sun dying, and two, if it really is, yeah, a bomb sure isn't going to make a lot of difference).

It's been enough to keep me out of the cinemas.

Posted by Martin at April 25, 2007 11:09 AM:

One more point:

(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)

It is one of the bits towards the end where you can still see the spaceship-malfunction-drama that might have been under the slasher-horror toss. However even the malfunction drama parts often lapsed into the cliches of the genre (a genre that is almost entirely submarine based.) For example, the second in command cracking under the first sign of pressure, the noble self-sacrifice to save the rest of the crew (twice!), that sort of thing.

Since you like plot holes: what about an abandoned ship covered in a uniform layer of dust that has somehow been undisturbed by the insane stowaway onboard?

Posted by Adam Roberts at April 25, 2007 11:58 AM:

Ian: "I agree completely about the silliness of the plot. But I thought this was magnificently beautiful."

The film is often very beautiful, I agree, and it's a judgment call as to whether this is enough to outweigh the silliness. Seems to me there's a larger issue here, though: the people Boyle hired to do the technical things for his film -- to make it look beautiful, in other words -- are all highly skilled, professional, know their jobs. The person he hired to write the screenplan, Alex Garland, doesn't know his job, either in terms of having an adequate knowledge of SF, or of actually writing the thing properly.

I've often wondered: why this double standard? George Lucas (say) would never in a million years think to himself, 'make-up, yeah, I'll do the actors' make-up ...' or 'set-building ... yeah, I did carpentry at school, I'll build all the sets ...'; but he feels perfectly comfortable saying 'I'll write the screenplay.' Is it because people don't think of writing as a set of professional skills? We all write letters and diaries and whatnot, so therefore we can all write?

Martin: "Is it any surprise that when he is abandoned he takes this to the ultimate level?"

Well, it surprised me. He's shown as being fascinated by the sun, certainly, and prepared to get sunburnt, but this isn't the same thing as suicide. If he were suicidal, why wait until he was aboard the Icarus I? Why not just go for it on Icarus II?

Posted by Martin at April 25, 2007 5:36 PM:

If he were suicidal, why wait until he was aboard the Icarus I? Why not just go for it on Icarus II?

Well, as I said, he is suicidal in a very specific way. Killing himself is just an unfortunate side effect of his desire is experience the sun without any barrier. Whilst on Icarus II his mission outweighs this desire, on Icarus I, alone and without any mission, his desire wins. It is also quite strongly implied that he is getting progressively worse the longer he remains on Icarus II and had he remained he may well have killed himself in this way.

Posted by Lal at June 6, 2007 1:05 AM:

...and despite the fact that the Icarus I has oxygen and supplies to support life for many years.

After the airlock breach occured, the Icarus I was venting air. Without the suit taken by Capa, Searle had no way of fixing the breach and thus was doomed to asphyxiate or freeze.

As for his suicidal tendency, another way in which he was shown to be getting worse was his bad sunburn (skin peeling off both neck and face), which was clearly shown prior to the boarding of Icarus I.

Posted by Wanderer at October 6, 2008 9:07 AM:

I did enjoy this film. However, the plot is set for fail since the beginning.

Our sun is already 5 billion years old and considered halfway through its lifespan. That means, there is a remainder 5 billion years left. If we are still here by then, how can the creators of this movie even think of making such options so primitive? Surely the human race would have evolved to even inhabit planets up to other galaxies by now.

Creating a 'new' star within a star could be rational within even 1 million years, let alone our technological capabilites 5 billion years form now. The film doesn't explain this theory of a 'stellar bomb' though. Roberts is right, this movie is silly for sending a crew, and even more so, they die off from malfuntions at first then to a psycho serial killer -- yuck!

More like a desperate attempt to keep it interesting, which it didn't.

Posted by Wanderer at October 6, 2008 9:14 AM:

Oh, one more thing. I found this strange picture in the film that has been driving me crazy.

When the crew from Icarus II enters Icarus I, they open the door and shine flashlights in before entering.

There are 3 different times the flashlights hit directly into the camera creating flashes. On the second flash, I stopped it very precisely and there was a picture (bad qaulity) of a guy with a white t-shirt and what looks like one of those things you get when going to hawaii. (Lauo?)It has absolutely nothing to do with the film, I think, and is just........weird.

Anyways, I was curious if others had seen this too or maybe my movie is glitched. It is very, very, very, very short and I'm surpirsed I even noticed it.

Posted by aurelstein at October 12, 2008 6:38 AM:

The flash image of the grinning guy was part of the larger image of Icarus I's crew, which is shown later on. I thought it was really weird when I saw it first too.

Posted by Matt T at April 29, 2013 3:38 PM:

I thought they got it about right...How many Sci-Fi films rely on dodgy science. I agree this film was stunning and actually had characters you cared about.

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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.