Cillian MurphyDanny BoyleBenedict WongChris Evans
Medium: film
Year: 2007
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Alex Garland
Keywords: SF
Country: USA, UK
Actor: Cliff Curtis, Chipo Chung, Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Mark Strong, Paloma Baeza, Archie Macdonald, Sylvie Macdonald
Format: 107 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 28 August 2009
Sunshine is the latest film from the Trainspotting lot. It's directed by Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Transpotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later), who recently won a Best Director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. In addition it's written by Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later) and produced by Andrew Macdonald (see above). Boyle likes genre-hopping and so this one happens to be a realistic science-fiction drama set in the year 2057 in which Earth's in the grip of a solar winter and a ship of eight scientists is on its way to nuke the sun. This probably sounds ridiculous. Admittedly it's a nuke the size of Manhattan, but even so. Nevertheless there's apparently some science to explain this which completely passed me by (as it did for a few people who made fools of themselves in print afterwards, e.g. New Scientist). Apparently the sun's dying because it's managed to trap a Q-ball, although apparently this is a slight fudge because in real life it wouldn't be dense enough.
I liked this film. It lost money, with a budget of forty million and a worldwide gross of 32 million, but I can see why and it doesn't bother me. This is the kind of film where they've been flying for 16 months and haven't reached the sun yet, then it'll take them another two years to turn around and get home. Boyle has cited Ridley Scott's Alien, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 1972 Tarkovsky version of Solaris as influences on this film and that makes a lot of sense to me, although I haven't seen any version of Solaris. Apparently 20th Century Fox didn't want to make this film because it reminded them of their 2002 remake of Solaris (which flopped), directed by Steven Soderbergh, which is why it ended up being financed by a Fox subsidiary called Fox Searchlight Pictures. Boyle has also said that he's never going to make another SF film, saying that this one was exhausting. I can believe that too. It's an intense experience that takes space seriously, with only a metal hull separating our characters from any number of gruesome fates. Cillian Murphy's starts his message home to his family by saying that "by the time you get this message, we'll be in the dead zone". Yes, that's scientific terminology, but you still couldn't call it jolly.
That's this film all over. Oxygen and sunlight can kill you. The crew know that their mission is all-important, to be prioritised above the lives of individual crewmembers. If you don't have enough air to keep everyone alive until you reach your destination, then it's time to start drawing straws for who's getting pushed out of an airlock. This is the kind of film that can happily spend half an hour doing almost nothing, because even that's a hair-raising business in that kind of environment. The characters are tough. I liked the "this is not a democracy" discussion, with the scientists putting perhaps a little too much faith in their noocracy instead. (Yes, that is a word. It means "government of the brainboxes".) They're not entirely without arrogance, but you'd need your share to go on a mission like that in the first place.
The plot is something I'm going to avoid discussing in detail, because almost anything could be counted as a spoiler. I don't mean that it's a film about its plot twists, because it's not. On the contrary, it's so single-mindedly realistic in its tone and so dedicated to getting everything right that you don't have a clue what's going to happen because in that kind of environment, anything at all might be fatal. These people are good at their jobs, but this is space. A grain of sand could blow a hole in the hull if it was travelling towards them fast enough. Absolutely everything we require for our survival is artificially generated and maintained, with for instance a sub-zero bath of liquid coolant to stop the computer core from overheating. Apparently Boyle really did fill that tank with freezing water, so those are Chris Evans's actor's real reactions and frosted breath when he's fixing the systems.
The cast are interesting. You've got the Scarecrow and Johnny Storm... um, make that Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans. They're both very good, actually. Murphy had previously worked with Boyle on 28 Days Later. However on the other hand you've also got some Asian cast members, which would presumably be implying that America and China will be the two countries with decent-sized space programs in 2057. It's always good to see Michelle Yeoh, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Hiroyuki Sanada in the cast as well. He's worked both in martial arts films and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, while his filmography includes The Twilight Samurai, The Last Samurai, Kaitou Rubi and the Ringu movies (Ringu, Ringu 2, Rasen). He's good, he is. This is his second English-language movie, by the way.
Oh, and the Icarus II's spacesuits are shiny gold in colour and make them look like Judoon. There was an Icarus I, by the way. It went out seven years ago and no one knows what happened to it.
So what's it like to watch? Almost until the end, I thought it was excellent. It's a little slow here and there, but it can really ramp up the intensity when it wants to. There's a slightly far-fetched plot development in the second half, but it's a shock moment when it comes and it's not as if the film was going to be a walk in the park even without it. Ow. Bloody hell. That is not nice. At one point I honestly didn't think we were going to make it to the end of the running time. The last twenty minutes would have presumably been flash-frozen debris floating against a starscape or something. This didn't seem very likely, but it seemed a better bet than our heroes managing to stay alive.
Where the film loses it, I think, is the ending. If only they'd been willing to be a little more commercial, I'm sure this film would have made a fortune. Unfortunately things get a tad arty as that 2001: A Space Odyssey comparison comes into play, with a fairly simple sequence of events being made to look like a religious epiphany or something. Admittedly these are huge, huge events we're talking about. They've flying towards the sun with a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan, their friends' corpses on all sides and the world's fate upon their shoulders. Earth doesn't have the resources to make another bomb like this. If the mission fails, it's global extinction. Nevertheless the film had been so tense and scary until that point that it can't help but be a let-down when Boyle decides to have his Arthur C. Clarke moment.
In fairness, this is also the right ending. This is how the film needed to finish, I think, and I'll probably like it more when I get around to rewatching it. Commercially though I think the ending's a mistake.
This is a striking film. It's full of intelligent characters doing the hard but correct thing in an unimaginably scary environment, although I did catch a whiff of idiot plotting at the 70 minute mark. Why didn't he tell the others before charging off like that, eh? However apart from that, this is a highly impressive work of cinema with integrity, craft and oodles of lovely scientific research. I now know that Mercury has a high iron content and can act as an antenna to boost radio transmissions, for instance.