Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sunshine

"Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy."

Oddly enough for some of the crew in Sunshine, there is an uncanny, eerie even unhealthy fascination with the sun. The crew is drawn to it in a mesmerizing, almost Pied Piper-like fashion. Ultimately, the sun is like a drug for some as it drives the fearless and sometimes fearful crew of the Icarus II toward their respective fates.

On Earth, unfortunately, the sun isn't exactly shining down on shoulders in quite the same way it did for the late John Denver and happiness is a little hard to come by as a result. With the planet stuck in a persistent deep chill, Earth and the human population are in need of a little love and warmth from the greatest star in the universe. The crew of the Icarus II is tasked with saving humanity and somehow rising above their own human conditions and natural responses to self-preservation.

I had my reservations about this film for quite some time. With little to no fanfare or discussion of it, I had not heard alot about Danny Boyle's Sunshine [2007]. I had seen 28 Days Later [2002], and liked it, but was never in love with that film, although. I did like it, though I would probably like to watch it again. There was an almost documentary-like, low budget realism about 28 Days Later, which I didn't fully appreciate at the time. Boyle's vision and unique talent was palpable though and he put it all onto film, as he did earlier with the tripped-out Trainspotting [1996].

Being an unabashed fan of robots, monsters and aliens, Sunshine never quite appeal to me, but I never fully understood its premise. I couldn't have been more wrong. Unnecessarily concerned and cautious about the film I nearly robbed myself of the experience. I'm not certain if I've ever misjudged a science fiction film as significantly as I did in the case of Sunshine. I normally have a really good gut for garbage [including ice cream sandwiches and peanut butter cups] and generally a good instinct for the quality films. Let's face it, time is of the essence and we don't exactly have a whole lot of time to spare when it comes to watching films, writing about them and first and foremost being a dad. I need to make clear, sharp, decisive choices and move forward. Sunshine was left in the stardust upon its release by an ill-informed 'me'.

Furthermore, upon Sunshine's release, I had significant reservations regarding the cast specifically Chris Evans. He had not impressed me and was actually a fairly large turn off as actors go for me. His shtick was so deflating. Evans was particularly annoying as the Human Torch in the lackluster and disappointing Fantastic Four [2005]. Evans' presence in the film wasn't cute and he didn't remind me of Johnny Storm. So, this specific gripe saw me pass on Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer [2007]. Even the voluptuous Jessica Alba wasn't enough to pull me back. In the case of Sunshine, wrong again, Evans did everything but grate on my nerves and his role was subdued enough that I actually enjoyed his turn in the film immensely. Cillian Murphy [Capa], Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada [Kaneda], Cliff Curtis [the psych officer with a seriously unhealthy affection for the sun] are all exceptional to round out the young, but engaging eight member cast. The ship's on-board female computer is the 9th player. Do you remember a time when leaders on a mission of this magnitude weren't hot shots and were older than 40?

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In 2057, aboard a gigantic vessel, complete with a flower-like sun shield, dubbed the Icarus II [Icarus I disappeared seven years ago in an initial attempt], a crew is launched on a mission to re-ignite our dying sun. With a massive, explosive payload of fissile material ready to go, the Icarus II is on a collission course with the sun to save all life on Earth. As someone who watched Babylon 5, I couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't an homage to Babylon 5's Icarus by Boyle, but I suspect not. In Babylon 5, the Icarus was an ill-fated vessel carrying a scientific expedition to the dangerous planet Z'Ha'Dum. Could the Icarus II, not unlike Babylon 5's Icarus, be offering a substantial allusion to the fate of that character in Greek mythology? Understanding Boyle and the creator of Babylon 5, J. Michael Straczynski, I suspect so. Babylon 5 fans will recall the fate of the Icarus detailed in Babylon 5, Season Two, Episode 16, In The Shadow Of Z'Ha'Dum. Commander John Sheridan's [Bruce Boxleitner] wife, Anna Sheridan, was part of that aforementioned scientific team that ventured off to Z'Ha'Dum awakening the unspeakable evil known as The Shadows. Anna Sheridan was later played in a rousing semi-conclusion to that thread by Melissa Gilbert, Bruce Boxleitner's real life wife, in Babylon 5, Season Three, Episode 22, Z'Ha'Dum. While certainly an interesting science fiction reference to one of the most significant portions of the Babylon 5 series, I do digress. In Sunshine, the Icarus II scientific team certainly has the palm of its hands full with the fates of their families and humanity on a grand scale.

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The journey is it for me here. Sunshine is a contemporary nod to classic science fiction like Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] especially in design and mood, or Alien [1979] in atmosphere or even Event Horizon [1997] in style and philosophy. There's no question about it. It is a visual experience like only a moving medium like film could possibly provide. Filled with human tension, frailty, emotion and conflict, Sunshine transports us and never leaves us behind because of the logical human threads that run through the picture. In other words, there are no monsters other than those within our hearts and minds. Even then, it is not played over the top, the characters are generally working together toward their common goal, but they are compelled to swim against the burning tide of the sun by their very individual natures. The sun may be burning out, but it's still pretty f@*&@ hot out there. The men and women on board are faced with genuine human problems, technical, emotional and otherworldly, on a mission of huge magnitude. They don't need monsters working against them too. Overcoming the obstacles is part of our journey with them and we are right on board the Icarus II relating to the crew, feeling their pain and desperation and struggling right along side them.

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We witness a glimpse of the best and worst of humanity. At one of the film's critical turning points, the Icarus II finds an old friend. The question is asked if they should divert from the mission or stay the course. The question of humanity is placed squarely at the fore without appearing too obvious. The age old question poised in science fiction in classics like Star Trek is given another interesting spin. Should the value of a life or a few lives outweigh the value of humanity? Should the one outweigh the many? This question results in a series of consequences and ramifications based upon choices that are made that informs the film going forward. The most fascinating aspect is how the characters respond to the pressures of their fragile situation embracing either the selfish or the selfless. Acts of self-preservation are juxtaposed with moments of courage. Boyle injects his tale with worry, discomfort, anxiety [the crew has been aboard the Icarus II for 16 months] and white knuckle suspense. As the heat rises, the tensions rise and the human race for survival sweats excitement and races until its breathtaking and beautiful end.

As the journey moves along their fates and the success or failure of their mission becomes all the more clear. A monster of sorts is thrown into the mix for good measure. In hindsight, the ambiguous nature of the creature is ultimately less problematic than I originally perceived its existence to be, as it begs cerebral questions of God and existence as the characters are forced to ponder them. I could think of other possibilities that might have offered better options for the film toward its climax, but it was cleverly vague and good and creepy enough to satisfy. In some ways, the questions of a transcendent reality are left to the viewer for interpretation. Boyle paints a vibrant, beautiful picture that leaves one pondering the picture long after its over. In some ways, this feels like the spiritual flip side to Paul Anderson's Event Horizon if that was a trip straight to hell. This was something entirely different and quite rare. While I loved Event Horizon, Sunshine feels more courageous in its intentions and more profoundly artistic in its presentation and execution. Both films offer rides of great intensity, but Event Horizon is more firmly grounded in a mix of grotesque horror and science fiction, a fusion that was entirely successful in my mind. Are the characters fully realized in Sunshine? They are not, though the Deleted Scenes had they been included would have enhanced this aspect of the film. Still, we glean enough about the crew to care about them and their mission.

The production design and visual flair, not to be confused with the solar flares, is another important aspect of the film. From the space suits to the ship and its striking interiors [how a and lighting, like 28 Days Later, it is indeed a detailed and visionary visual trip worth your time and made all the more beautiful on Blu-Ray. The space suits are gold and shiny and while not entirely practical certainly pay homage to the kinds of sci-fi from a bygone era. The greenhouse could be a tribute to Silent Running [1972]. The adventure is grounded in a tradition and pure science fiction ethic, but with the classic Boyle twists and refreshing translations. It is truly stunning and the film is complemented by an appropriately tasty electronic musical score with work by John Murphy. The affect is one reminiscent of the effective us of composition by the likes of Vangelis for Blade Runner [1982]. It is a spare work that accentuates the power of the film in the quiet of space. The film is a tour de force of visual poetry as a result.

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If I've ever been wrong on a film, and I really misread this one, Sunshine would be that film. Credit goes to John Kenneth Muir and Blu-Ray.com's reviews for inspiring me to check this picture out. It's been some time since I've read those reviews so that I might write mine uninfluenced by their own details. Going back, Blu-Ray.com and Muir both reference Alien as an influence and the crew chemistry and tight quarters certainly captures that vibe [minus the chest-bursting alien]. The female computer, as Muir, mentions, could easily be an homage to the Nostromo's Mother or 2001: A Space Odyssey's HAL. The film isn't ripping off anything, but rather offers a loving tribute to the best in science fiction within its own context. On its own terms Sunshine is a special picture. As Muir points out, in those films, the computers were "treacherous" and that plays into the unsettling, alien nature of the traveller's sphere of influence within the Icarus II. In the end, like the new android in Aliens [1986], played by Lance Henriksen, as a replacement to the treacherous one found in Alien, the computer here offers a bit of help in a scene that literally takes that device and switches up convention. I love the scene.

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Muir references the influence of Joseph Conrad's The Heart Of Darkness, which has certainly influenced film and literature ad nauseum since its publication in 1899 and more officially in 1902. While Sunshine is certainly indirectly riffing on that subject matter, its intentions are more often subtle than severe, although those moments exist too. What are we made of? We're reminded throughout the film to ask ourselves who we are.

I couldn't help but feel like Sunshine was what the creators of Stargate Universe were shooting for with their new series, and perhaps there are elements of this film in that series. Sunshine is a taut, compressed, beautiful picture built upon stunning visuals combined with unique directorial flourishes and camera techniques. Sunshine is a psychological, sobering, and reflective tale. It mesmerizes us with its ability to generate a story on fate and the human condition that is at once hopeful and ironically not-so sunny in equal measure.

5 comments:

J.D. said...

Fantastic review! And I completely agree with you that SUNSHINE seems like the fusing of 2001 and EVENT HORIZON. And I also agree with you on the casting of Chris Evans. When I first learned this I thought oh, this film is gonna suck, he will be the weak link but he was quite good. In fact, every one was excellent.

What I think I like most about SUNSHINE is that Boyle goes to great lengths to make the science as realistic as possible. In the DVD extras, there is mention of all kinds of science experts that consulted on the film, which is what Kubrick did for 2001. I also like that it was going for serious science fiction which seems so hard to do and there's not enough good examples out there (I still haven't seen MOON which I've heard is excellent).

However, for all the good will and amazing technique this film creates, it loses its mind in the last third of the film. I was not crazy at all about the shift in tone to a slasher film reminiscent of EVENT HORIZON. For me, it tests the film’s credibility. Did the filmmakers really need to add even more danger for the protagonists to face? Isn’t the fact that they are heading straight towards the Sun with limited resources and crew challenging enough? I dunno, the film lost me at that point and did not recover until the moving final image.

John Kenneth Muir said...

Sci-Fi Fanatic:

A thorough, in-detail and great review of this film. What a thrill to see your post on this sci-fi/horror treasure today!

Thanks,
John

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

John

Thank you. Your affirmation of my writing along with J.D. is sincerely appreciated.

J.D- Right there with you. The cast, top to bottom was excellent. I was thoroughly impressed. I loved the Japanese actor. I loved Byrne [who is apparently the star of the series Damages next to Glen Close]. Yes, everyone is terrific.

This is just solid, genuine science fiction. I really loved it.

Your points about the final act definitely diverge into Event Horizon territory or even Roy Batty in Blade Runner. It's really a bit of a jolt. Perhaps it doesn't quite jive with the first two brilliant thirds of the film, but it's not a complete loss for me. I do agree it could have gone without it. The mood changes and so forth.

In some ways, it's a bit like Space:1999's abrupt change in the second half of Alpha Child. These radical departures can affect the flow of a film or television episode. Still, Sunshine is shining example of science fiction and top flight execution on the whole.

Thank you both.

le0pard13 said...

One very fine review, SFF. I very much enjoyed this. Kind of a throw-back to the British sci-fi gems like THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, etc. Although, I agree with J.D. in that its trip to stalker/slasher bogeyman neighborhood late in the film is its Achilles Heel. I like the finding of the ICARUS I as something of a good complication for the crew and story, but not what they did with it. Thanks much for this.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Leopard13. Thanks so much for stopping by. I've been a fan in the shadows over at your site for quite some time. I enjoy your entries very much.

You hit it in the head with "kind of a throwback." Exactly! That's exactly how it feels, yet remains original. Although, that third act sort of detours I know. I agree with you in that Boyle/ the screenwriters could have done something a little less Event Horizon there and it would have worked beautifully for me. I do agree. It is a problematic thrid act and while I'm willing to forgive it, I think it may have taken some of the wind out of its critical sails/ sales.

Cheers for the inspiring thoughts.