Thursday, February 28, 2008

Where is the fifth crew member?

Sunshine is a visual marvel. The searingly bright, seemingly alive star contrasted against the inky blackness of space has rarely been realized so vividly; turn down the sound and play some Radiohead, and I imagine the movie would be quite a trip. It's clear that director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland are aiming for the heady, serious sci-fi of 2001 and Solaris, and Sunshine's images match their influences. Strange, then, that for all its awesome images the film is a maddeningly opaque failure. Sunshine looks like a masterpiece, but for all its ambition, as a work of storytelling it's strangely airless and hollow, at once a triumph of design and a failure of imagination.

An early scene of the crew of the Icarus II, on their way to deliver a nuclear payload and jump-start the dying sun, sitting around a breakfast table is unmistakably reminiscent of the same scene in Alien. Even the kitchenware is identical; the only thing missing is the believable, cohesive ensemble. The cast never sells the idea that they've spent many months together in a confined space, and their emotional response to the seriousness of their mission ranges from mopey to bummed. This is partly due to Garland's fatally self-conscious dialogue - even an actor as talented as Cillian Murphy can't help deliver lines like "Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to Icarus II" without sounding like a character in a graphic novel. The same excuse can't be made for Chris Evans, whose character seems to be inspired by Hudson from Aliens but feels closer to Cookie from Forbidden Planet. The rest of the cast, even usually reliable actors like Michelle Yeoh and Cliff Curtis, never get to make much of an impression; when the film turns into a space thriller and characters start to drop off, we've never been invested enough to care.

That shift from straight sci-fi to deep-space boo movie is the biggest of Sunshine's problems. The film teases at its muddled philosophical concerns while, at the same time, contriving a number of action setpieces straight out of 2010. Danny Boyle can't come close to Kubrick or Tarkovsky because, in his insecure need to entertain the kids in the audience, he violates the purity of his own concept. 2001 and Solaris are arguably boring, but their protracted scope is completely intentional and ultimately rewarding for the attentive viewer; Sunshine is like the Cliffs Notes version of those films. The film irreversibly jumps the shark when - well, I won't spoil it, but you'll know it when you see it. For all that Sunshine promises, it devolves into a generic, incoherent slasher movie, like the final reel of Adaptation played straight.

Boyle and Garland's previous collaboration 28 Days Later had many of the same problems, but that film worked, our investment in the characters and the inventive digital cinematography overcoming the weak action-movie climax. The pure kinetic high that propels that and all of Boyle's strongest work is absent here; you never feel Boyle engaging with Sunshine on anything but a vague intellectual level, and the result is a surprisingly dour space opera. When the film reaches a climax that is clearly meant to be awe-inspiring, I felt exhausted and relieved. Maybe some Radiohead would have helped.


Allen Lulu said...

Radiohead always helps.

I liked Sunshine. Albeit I watched it the way it's SUPPOSED to be seen...on my iPod.
It clipped along nicely, I was invested, but then the boogeyman thing, well, that just took me out. I was hoping for something grander. Something worthy of the scope the film set up for itself. Not just a radiated lunatic hell bent on stopping humanity from saving itself. I didn't hate Chris Klein. I thought it was interesting that he showed up in the film and wasn't terrible. I loved the visuals. I just wish it was.....better. I don't know the answer to the script problem. Perhaps it would have just been more interesting had all the machinery just keep failing (human and machine) to the point where it would be absurd and yet, they succeed anyway. I think that might have seemed ridiculous and hard to take but at the same time it might have called into question the futility of playing God. Which is what they were trying to do.
I don't know. I liked it. The imagery stayed it me. It's no "Space Cowboys" but, then again, what is?

James said...

I was really wowed by the first fourth of the film; the production design and photography was so beautiful I was instantly debating what high score I'd be awarding the film. I turned to my buddy and asked "Why didn't they give this a wide release?"

Then came the second act, which saw it transform from sci-fi to disaster flick, and I began to understand. By the jaw-droppingly stupid finale, it made perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie. I admit I went in expecting a disaster movie. But I was expecting a lame, cheap disaster movie and I got a really good one. I did care about the characters, much more so than in things like Alien, since they seemed fairly competent. But again, that was the sort of movie I went in expecting to see and I wasn't disappointed. Expectations matter a lot, I guess. YOu've good some good criticisms and I respect your opinion.