It’s 50 years from now and once again mankind faces extinction. Not from a meteoric Armageddon, or the inconvenient truth about the environment, but from the death of the sun itself. A second ice age threatens to end life as we know it and so mankind looks to its last hope for survival, a spacecraft christened the “Icarus II”, which carries a nuclear device the size of Manhattan intended to be fired into the center of the dying star to relight the burner.
Since the “Icarus I” clearly failed in its maiden attempt, only a single nuclear device remains. If the crew of the “Icarus II” fails as well, there will be no more chances. Understandably, the weight of this responsibility hangs heavily on the multi-racial multi-national crew. These seven men and women know that they are nothing BUT expendable. It causes them to question every decision in the light of a philosophical context. Anything or anyone who stands in the way of the success of their mission must be avoided or stopped. Mankind must prevail.
The serious space movie is one of the most limited genres around, with virtually the ENTIRE ground having been covered by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001:A Space Odyssey”. You get pretty much what you expect each time out: The loneliness of space travel; a pleasant but suddenly disobedient talking computer; a technical malfunction that threatens the lives of the spacemen requiring a tense spacewalk in order to make the necessary repairs; the tragic death of one of the protagonists who sacrifices his or herself for the greater good of their colleagues and/or humanity itself; Cabin fever tension between the shipmates courtesy of Jean-Paul Sartre and last but certainly not least, a touch of the spiritual in probing that which “man-was-not-meant-to-know”.
Alex Garland is a writer who is clearly no stranger to this theme. His debut novel, “The Beach” set the tone for all of his following work. Alienated characters one step removed from tactile, real life experiences who seek some kind of connection to the physical or spiritual world. The one that exists outside their windows and beyond their Playstations and Gamecubes. They seek to find communion with the unknown or secret knowledge, the true meaning of the word “occult”. Instead of “The Beach’s” Gen-X backpacker, we are given 7 scientists on a seemingly impossible mission. All are withdrawn not only from each other but from their own psyches. They are all clearly far from where they belong, on the last leg of a journey that has them staring right into the center of the sun. This is where science crosses over into the spiritual. Human notions of the physical universe and it’s spiritual creator are closely entwined when considering the life and death of a star. For within our own vocabulary the “heavens” can be celestial as well as scientific.
Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”) crafts a jaw-droppingly beautiful film. He makes a fantastic decision to avoid establishing shots of the spacecraft and to begin the film with the mission already in progress. We are placed in the same position as the ensemble cast, trapped within the claustrophobic space and forced to consider the film’s issues along with them.
Garland and Boyle are nothing if not ambitious. They want us to consider the Big Questions about the importance or inconsequence of mankind as well as the argument of science versus fundamentalism. It is said that there are no atheists in a foxhole. But how about in space? If you were to look into the center of the sun, would you see the face of God?
The first two thirds of “Sunshine” play on these issues in an intelligent and actually quite subtle fashion. There are no deep monologues about the vastness of the universe or the crutch of spiritual belief, thank God. Everything is conveyed through action and reaction and the very powerful images that Boyle and his team conjure up to create the power of the sun’s light. Something they are clearly trying to suggest is more than a literal “illumination”. Yet, this is actually the film’s singular flaw. Boyle and Garland do not seem to be on the same page philosophically and the film cannot contain their oddly opposing views. Garland is trying to tell a story about man’s inability to comprehend the universe without making himself the center of it, while Boyle is photographing a movie about man’s spiritual connection to the divine. Boyle does not see the divine as being within man himself but rather something outward, to be literally reached for and just barely out of grasp.
In fact, Boyle is quite literal altogether. He layers images onto the subtle script which are both obvious and yet perplexing in the extreme. Images of sex and reproduction are everywhere and yet there is no actual sex on-screen. The “Icarus II” looks like a sperm cell as it approaches the center of an egg-like sun which it needs to penetrate in order to preserve life itself. In one scene, several crew members must be shot out of the wrecked “Icarus I” back to their own ship like a journey through the birth canal. These are presented but have little to do with the film’s more central themes and are certainly abandoned by the last third where the whole film falls apart completely.
In “28 Days Later” Boyle and Garland switched from their rage plague story to a post-apocalyptic study of the more mundane evil that lies in the hearts of common men. The infected were less threatening by the end of that film than Christopher Eccleston and his droog-like gang of soldiers bent on power struggles and deviant desires in a world without laws.
They attempt something similar here but it’s a complete mistake. The 8th inning arrival of a slasher film boogeyman, with the burned flesh of Freddy Kruger and the physical strength of patient V. in “V for Vendetta” turns the film into nothing more than “Ten Little Indians” in space. A tense, minimalist film turns into a stalk and slash thriller without even a strong philosophical angle from the talkative villain. The death of mankind being “God’s Will” is a fundamentalist notion but it has no power when voiced by a knife wielding maniac. If there is a real lesson to be learned here it’s that sometimes a filmmaker’s reach can exceed his grasp.
But the film is still worth a look. The ensemble cast is terrific and Cillian Murphy in particular continues to impress with his quiet, introspective screen presence. None of the characters are particularly well defined and so it’s up to the actors to convey their feelings between the very terse lines of dialogue. This they do quite admirably. As mentioned before, the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful and flawed as it is, Boyle and his team conjure up something truly magical in the final minutes of the film as Murphy reaches out and is able to grasp what Boyle himself could not.
Danny Boyle (director) / Alex Garland (screenplay)
CAST: Cillian Murphy … Capa
Michelle Yeoh … Corazon
Hiroyuki Sanada … Kaneda
Rose Byrne … Cassie
Benedict Wong … Trey
Chris Evans … Mace