Monday, July 23, 2007

FILM: "Sunshine"

Sunshine may be a science-fiction flick, but its core is that of a natural disaster on par with Deep Impact, and the emotion is right up there with that of the similarly claustrophobic and aesthetically pleasing independent film, Cube. It's a merging of the kinds of big-budget special effects that make a tidal wave of solar fire with the low-budget artistry that gets just the right color of blood against a sterile, flickering white.

Sunshine
, the tale of an eight-man crew of scientists on their way to reignite the dying sun with a stellar bomb, may not sound like a bright idea, but it's directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland (who last brought you 28 Days Later... and The Beach). For Boyle, it's a technical step up from his previous films, and a striking success in the genre where similar stylist Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain) failed. However, while Boyle handles the heat of the kitchen, Garland's third act doesn't hold up well under the focus of the sun, and his great ideas are saved only by Boyle's imagineering and the excellent casting of Cillian "Can't Miss" Murphy, who hasn't been in a bad film since '02. For the first two-thirds of the film, you'll notice that Boyle's camera is wide, focussed on the majestic, deafening nature of space (scored by the epic electronica of Underworld) and that the inevitable deaths of this thriller are clever, and according to character. It's only in that final stretch that Boyle is forced to focus on narrow corridors, dark passages, and Murphy's piercing, panic-stricken eyes. (It's no surprise that the solar-plated space-suits of the film are carefully designed to show the eyes, and the eyes alone.)

Then again, there's another way to look at Garland's plot, and that's as a mirror of the utilitarianism of this crew. Just as the majority of them sacrifice themselves to ensure the mission succeeds (what are eight lives in the face of all life's extinction), so too does Garland's script sacrifice plausibility -- one of the least necessary features of a science-fiction film -- in order to give Boyle the climactic shots that cinch the film. Along the way, he actually mirrors another plot point: Capa (Murphy) votes to deviate the ship's course to investigate the distress beacon of Icarus-1, the ship that preceded them seven years ago, hoping that their fissionable payload will give them a better shot at succeeding. However, the deviation from their plotted course backfires, and, due to the human error of their naviagator, Trey (Benedict Wong), their solar shields are damaged. From that point on, things go badly for our crew, just as Garland's eventual deviation (for Boyle's greater good) results in some bad writing. The crew faces immolation, suffocation, and even the irony of hypothermia as they desperately try to finish their mission, and while I won't tell if you they succeed or not, Garland's script holds up well enough under the pressure to go from coal badness to some diamond-like grace.

Eerily beautiful as Sunshine is, it's also a great character piece. The film isn't played for laughs like Serenity was, but there are tones of those anti-heroes in our last-ditch crew, from the resolute do-or-die computer technician Mace (Chris Evans) to the high morals of the love interest, Cassie (Rose Byrne), and the cool calculations of the doctor, Searle (Cliff Curtis). In the efforts to stay under two hours in length (the one focussed success this has over films like 2001: A Space Odyssey), not all of the characters get as much development, and some are reduced to stereotypes, like that of the selfish communications operator, Harvey (Troy Garity), or the zen-like oxygen specialist, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh). Luckily, Boyle manages to find a nice resolution here, compressing his action scenes to the barest essentials of testosterone and the most critical moments, as achieved by jagged flashcuts and solarized double-vision. His greatest feat is in his utilization of light: from the blinding sun to the ash-covered blackness, Boyle makes the confines of his spaceship far more extensive than they are, and manages to make single scenes far more vivid than they would otherwise be (which is where he saves Garland).

The only thing missing from Sunshine is a prolonged tension: things go wrong, but always in small, self-contained doses, and we, as an audience, are given far too many chances to recover. Alien, which is the other great science-fiction film this will be compared to, didn't have Boyle's range of effects, but it had a more exacting atmosphere, and the tighter focus actually scared us, as opposed to Boyle's epic focus, which simply awes us. But, hey, if you've got a problem with just being awe-struck, perhaps you should just cake on the sunblock and stay in today; for the rest of you, grab the cool sunglasses, because Sunshine is a film with vision, and you'll want to look directly at its brilliance.

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