Thursday, August 09, 2007

Film Review--Sunshine (2007)

Apparently, fifty years from now, we’re going to have to deal with a crisis greater than all others. If Danny Boyle’s latest film is to be believed, the sun will begin to burn out sometime around 2050, about five billion years earlier than expected. The film follows the crew of starship Icarus II, who comprise the second and final attempt to reverse the extinction of all life on Earth. This space tugboat carries a bomb the size of Manhattan Island designed to explode inside the sun and create a “star within a star,” a little bang if you will, that will reignite the sun and sustain humanity. But, just as they begin to get near the destination, their radar picks up the distress call of the original Icarus ship, which had disappeared seven years earlier. Reasoning their way out of the direct importance of the mission, they change course to find the crashed ship to salvage whatever they can and, especially, hopefully, a second bomb. If you’ve ever seen a science fiction movie, you can start to guess how well this turns out for them.

There are really two stories here. There is the story of the crew and their relationships, which is fairly well done. Though some of the characters are drawn shallow, and those are the ones that are dispatched most quickly, those important to endgame are presented three dimensionally. This story, however, comes secondary to a sci-fi version of "Prometheus Bound" or, maybe more accurately, "Frankenstein, or a Modern Prometheus," in which man, faced with death, sacrifices everything to bring life to Earth. And, like those stories, the good intentions of the characters in Sunshine outweigh any obligation to nature. In the two preceding stories, we see the grim aftermath. Not here, and we’re left to wonder if their goal is the right one. The answer is not presented, but the film asks a number of good questions of the audience and, mostly, challenges them to think about what sacrifice, survival and the both together all mean.

Sunshine works most of the time. When it does work, it is fantastically interesting. When it doesn’t, though, it’s pretty nonsensical. While some of the bad is still sticking in my craw, the good most certainly outweighs it and it is for this reason that I’ve recommended the movie to almost everyone since seeing it. The main body of the story is well written and well performed. While it is true that some of the characters are shallow sketches, those that are more fleshed out have life breathed into them by the actors. Most notably, Cillian Murphy as the heroic physicist is believable and generally excellent. He is especially welcome in the final moments of the film and helps to redeem what looked to be a dismal finale. Visually and aurally, the film is absolutely beautiful. The conceptions of space are stunning, with some of the most arresting space images since 2001. They are realistic, as far as that can be, and slowly drawn, giving the audience time to savor the beauty of the filmmakers’ imaginations. In combination with the music by Underworld, this aspect is an experience unto itself. Like 2001 as well, it will likely be this poetic imagery that is remembered over the storyline.

Like I said, though, not everything works. Most of what fails is the entire third act (barring the last fifteen minutes, which I liked very much), in which the revelation to get us through to the end takes the film in a tragically jarring turn that is out of character with the film and appears to have belonged to 28 Days Later instead. I will not spoil the twist except to say that the movie all of a sudden becomes a chase-and-escape horror film within the span of about fifteen seconds. The mood and tone change, the editing style even changes, and it leaves viewers confused. I guess I can understand the inclusion as some kind of vengeful hand of nature, but it could have been done in many ways far more consistent with the rest of the film. The move does not succeed in ruining the film, but it could have in lesser hands.

Probably the best compliment I can give a film like this is that it bears repeat viewings. The questions it asks are always worth thinking about and, once it arrives on DVD, it’ll be a joy to go through and pause on the celestial imagery. Pulling from multiple sources including Tarkovsky’s Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Dark Star, it may not break any new ground in the genre, but these references are homage rather than ripoff and it’ll be interesting to look for how these are used throughout the film that I couldn’t determine on first viewing. The story does have its holes, and there is that problem with the back third, but it is completely outweighed by the beauty and power of the imagery. Danny Boyle has, once again, done well with a genre hard pressed to find mainstream appeal.