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Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.

Sunshine, directed by Trainspotting‘s Danny Boyle and written by The Beach‘s Alex Garland, is an absolutely maddening film. Even more than their (and star Cillian Murphy)’s last collaboration, 28 Days Later, Sunshine ends up being a movie of two parts. The first hour and change of this flick is as intelligent and gripping a science fiction film as I’ve seen in years. Borrowing liberally from 2001, Alien, The Abyss, Solaris, and other sci-fi classics, it establishes both the terrifying sublimity and rickety U-boat-style claustrophobia of space travel from its opening moments. But, near the end, the movie takes a wildly wrong turn — you’ll know it when it happens — and Sunshine spins off uncontrollably and irrevocably into the yawning darkness of mediocrity. If you’re a genre fan at all, I have to recommend this movie just for its captivating, unsettling first eighty minutes or so — it’s really some of the best hard sci-fi I’ve seen in awhile. But, be advised — sadly, the mission gets compromised well before the end.

Very quickly in Sunshine, we’re given the set-up. Earth’s Sun is dying, an endless winter covers the lands, and the last, best hope of our planet rests on the shoulders of eight young astronauts, who are undertaking what amounts to a suicide mission: They will fly the solar-powered, bomb-carrying Icarus-2 to the Sun and reignite our star with a controlled nuclear blast. (The Icarus-1 tried seven years earlier and failed — apparently, nobody warned these people about the logical consequences of naming your ship thus.) These reluctant heroes include a number of likeable actors: Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later), Rose Byrne (padding out her genre cred again after 28 Weeks Later, and on whom I think I’m developing a crush), Chris Evans (the only good thing about FF, and very charismatic here), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, always good), Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things), Cliff Curtis (Live Free or Die Hard), Troy Garity (Steal this Movie), and Capt. Hiroyuki Sanada (Ringu, The Last Samurai) But, even early in the mission, some of these otherwise-amiable spacefarers are displaying Ash-like symptoms, and that’s even before the crew receive a long, lost distress signal from the Icarus-One. Tense meetings are held, important decisions are made, but faster than you can say the Mars Orbiter, human error has further complicated an already complicated situation, and soon the entire mission — and thus by extension the survival of Humanity — has been jeopardized…

This is all well and good. There are a few narrative quibbles one might make in the early going — Why, for example is Murphy the only person who knows how to work the payload? Seems like you might train a back-up — but, for the most part, everything holds together with some moderate suspension of disbelief. More importantly, the threats seem dire, the tension palpable, the vastness of space awe-inspiring and horrible, the machinery somehow alien and calculating, the odds of success tremendously unlikely. But, at a certain point in the story, just after the dwindling crew of Icarus-2 is forced to weigh the type of heady moral quandary that all good sci-fi is based on, a new threat to the mission emerges — which I won’t give away but which is eminently guessable — and it’s at this point Sunshine just leaps off the rails. The last half-hour of the movie is stylishly done, to be sure, and there are a few good flourishes (such as [spoiler] the final fate of Chris Evans’ character), but it’s assuredly not the movie we started with, nor is it the film Sunshine had been building to so tremendously to that point. (And this isn’t like me griping about the last ten minutes of Children of Men, which in retrospect and after repeated viewings seems uncharitable to an otherwise amazing science-fiction outing– this misstep really alters the mood, character, and ultimately the final experience of the film.) Again, if you enjoy science fiction, I’d give this movie a go regardless — its setup is that good. But, unfortunately, this Sunshine isn’t spotless by any means, and ultimately ends in eclipse.

Update: I’ve since discovered after taking a look at referrals that the film’s official site linked back to this review. Hey, thanks (particularly considering the review is mixed one. Mixed-positive…but mixed.)

Discussion

2 Responses to “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.”

  1. I’m not a huge Boyle fan, and became even less so with 28 Days Later — thought the movie was pretty good until it completely gutted the formerly strong female character, turning her from someone who could cut your throat in an instant into someone helplessly waiting to be saved by the scrawny bicycle messenger, for whom she would later cook and sew.

    Feh.

    Posted by Kitty | July 24, 2007, 10:46 pm
  2. I disagree about the film having two parts. If you pay attention to the story and the symbolism where the story goes makes perfect sense. I am a fanatic when it comes to these kinds of films, but out of all of them; 2001 Space Odyssey, Solaris, Alien, Event Horizon, The Abyss, and Sphere, Sunshine wins by a milestone. Aside from Danny’s new film 127 Hours, Sunshine is easily his best effort. I have yet to witness a better hard science fiction film. By the time another film comes out in this vein we will be lucky if it is as good as Sunshine. Take a second look at this one guys.

    Posted by Wes | December 11, 2010, 8:03 pm

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