SUNSHINE (2007, directed by Danny Boyle, 108 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
It wasn’t long ago when the ecological horrors of ’70s sci-fi films like Mad Max or Soylent Green seemed quaint and naive, another relic of the era, like sideburns or double-knit pants. Films like the new space trip spectacular Sunshine are now one of the few beneficiaries of the fact that we are living in a time when a future of natural and unnatural calamity seems to be a real possibility. 28 Days Later director Danny Boyle refracts the dread of an imminent environmental disaster into a story of the sun’s sudden cooling, seeking to tap into our sense of mourning for the end of life on earth.
Problem is, on top of that he wants to make a monster movie, and if one is going to make a film with the creepy creature thrills of Alien AND the existential ambiguities of Tarkovsky, you’d better finesse some mediating tone to hold things together. While Boyle keeps our attention by regularly flashing bright lights into our eyes, his rocket ship’s journey into inner/outer space takes too many blows to the hull, cruising through turbulence that is the consequence of welding together bits of every hit science fiction film from 1958’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space down to Michael Bay’s lunkheaded Armageddon.
After our sun begins dimming, a crew of scientists and engineers hop aboard a space ship to deliver a nuclear payload to restart the waning star (which is acting suspiciously like my first car — a Nova, by the way). Boyle again works with 28 Days Later zombie killer Cillian Murphy as Capa, the physicist with the beatific blue eyes who is at the center of the action. As some chilled-out electronica courtesy of the band Underworld pulses in the background, the ship’s overworked psychologist (Cliff Curtis of Whale Rider) communes spiritually with sun’s blinding rays and tries to verbalize his trip in a way that Kier Dullea never would have dared in 2001.
Sunshine is best when it is being vague about the heavy thoughts rolling around in the heads of the handsome multi-ethnic crew, often photographed as distorted black silhouettes against the exploding orange orb they’re zooming toward. It’s a stellar cast of international talent headed on this suicide mission (what else could they think when their ship is called the Icarus 2 fer chrissakes), including Crouching Tiger‘s Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sinada (of Ringu and The Last Samurai) and the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch Chris Evans, now measurably the hottest actor in Hollywood.
But just as you’re buying all the heaviosity this bony-lean and beautiful cast is doling out, the movie shifts gears and steers into a asteroid belt of cliches, hitting enough sub-plots for a month of Sci-Fi Channel programming. First it’s heated arguments over navigation, then a daring trip out of the ship to fix the heat shields, then spooky abandoned vessels, and finally a monster stalking the cast. Boyle has spun himself through a number of genres over the years — Hitchcock-style thrillers, druggy heist films, musicals and zombie films — and he’s always added an unpredictability to his psychologically taut tales. Here, I kept awaiting Sunshine to betray my expectations, and instead every situation slowly unfolds pretty much the way you imagined it might.
Even Boyle’s usually strong production design (from 28 Weeks Later‘s Mark Tildesley) adds little to the genre’s iconography, except maybe its gold-gilded spacesuits and the ship’s lushly verdant oxygen garden. Boyle’s films can veer towards the ludicrous in their zeal to keep us entertained. He’s usually an eager and precocious kid, afraid that we might ignore him. Here, the more light that is shed, the more it becomes apparent that Boyle hasn’t the foggiest idea what this trip to the sun is really about. I couldn’t help but feel a little burned.