Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2007

Start me up

Our sun is at stake in Boyle's visually thrilling 'Sunshine'

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Alex Garland
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Hiroyuki Sanada and Chris Evans
Rated R / 1 hour, 47 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

Danny Boyle is nothing if not interesting. From Trainspotting to 28 Days Later... to Millions, he's always more than willing to take a risk or two. And more often than not, he succeeds.

He takes many of those risks in Sunshine, his ambitious sci-fi epic about a team of scientists charged with the task of re-igniting a dying sun and saving mankind from a "solar winter." You can feel the angst among the seven crew members, each an expert in a specific field. You can feel how important this mission is -- not to them personally, but to mankind. The first mission of this kind, the Icarus I, failed. This is the Icarus II, and we get the feeling that time is running out. There will probably never be an Icarus III, no matter if this group succeeds or not.

Fittingly, the crew on board the Icarus II treat the sun with an almost God-like reverence. There are some beautiful scenes in which either Searle (Cliff Curtis), the crew's doctor/psychologist, or Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) stare at the sun in awe. The ship's computer system has calculated just what percentage of brightness the human eye can withstand, and for how long. Searle, in particular, is blown away by the sun's majesty.

Even so, the crew comes face to face with serious ethical choices that tie directly to their humanity - or perhaps I could even say their human folly. At a certain point, they find another ship floating near their course...and the question arises as to whether or not they should go off-course and possibly jeopardize the mission in order to potentially save a few people. Human instinct says yes, but the logical (if heartless) Mace argues that all of mankind - whose chance at survival rests on the mission's success - is obviously much more valuable than anyone who might be aboard that other ship.

Such questions are brought up time and again as the crew runs into various kinds of trouble. I would describe Sunshine as a philosophical suspense movie more than as sci-fi...even though it clearly falls into both categories and then some. This is a movie largely about ethics, about human intervention, about playing God and disturbing the natural order of things.

Though there is no sole protagonist, the most essential character and crew member that emerges is Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), the crew's physicist and the only person aboard who knows how to ignite the bomb that will (fingers crossed) ignite the sun. (There's more scientific explanation and it makes enough sense, but there's no use getting into it all. I'm no expert anyway.)

Sunshine is a display of some very impressive visual flare. Boyle's experiments with light and aperture, combined with the claustrophobic setting, make for an ominously beautiful atmosphere that seems to invoke or enhance every feeling the characters (and the audience) experience. The 2001-inspired outer-space shots do the same.

Subtly, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have made significant alterations to the typical "crew members on a spaceship" template. There is not, as is so common in many other movies, the overriding feeling of carelessness that all the characters take for granted. Most of the time, when a crew has a mission, everyone always expects everything to go perfectly, and only when things start to go wrong do their vulnerabilities start to show.

From the beginning of Sunshine, the characters already seem resigned to the fact that this may be it for them. That's not to say that they don't have hope. They do. But they're smart. They know things go wrong. Just look at the Icarus I. A powerful feeling of nostalgia - a remembrance of "life," which these characters had once, before the mission, and may never have again - hangs over the entire crew. No one's dead yet. And if all goes according to plan, no one will die. They have more than enough oxygen to get home once the mission is completed.

But they're not kidding themselves, either. They seem to view themselves as sacrifices, and they are content with this. When you catch a glimpse of their lust for life, the emotions they feel for memories past, it's almost heartbreaking when you realize how calm they are about their newfound role as potential martyrs for mankind.

Sunshine is an exceptional but flawed film. Many have complained about the third act, which drastically shifts tone and plot. I understand the concern. An entirely new, unexpected element gets introduced into the story, and completely changes the story's progress. Indeed, in the climactic scene, this element is a huge handicap; it inserts itself in such a way that it undermines everything else that's going on in the scene.

However, up until then, this "new element" (I'll reveal no more) actually serves to enhance some of the film's overriding themes. It's a reminder of certain things. It makes us question the nature of this mission and the nature of mankind's actions in and against the universe. The third act is a jarring transition, but it works. Until the very end, when it's no longer necessary.

Some lack of narrative focus and fluidity probably prevents the film from being something truly great, which it clearly had the potential of being. But that's alright. Risks were taken. Some of them paid off, some of them didn't. Boyle, Garland and an impressive cast pull it off anyway. For all its plot and technical, scientific elements Sunshine is as much an emotional experience as an intellectual one. It may not be perfect, but as philosophical suspense thrillers go, you'll find few other movies with this much at stake.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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