I was brought up on a diet of sci-fi, horror, westerns and musicals (they don’t make ‘em now do they now?). So I was curious about the new sci-fi film by Danny Boyle/Alex Garland, Sunshine. The reviews have been mostly good and critics have been applauding the fact there’s a return to a more cerebral and thought-provoking take on the genre as opposed to the dumbed-down eye candy with cheesy lines such as, “may the force be with you”.
Well, the trouble with Sunshine..? Where to begin… It is a sumptuous, stunning and visually beautiful film to watch. The sun was clearly the scene stealer. There’s a juxtaposition between the brilliance of the sun with its golden rays on the top deck of the spaceship but deep in the bowels of the ship where the crew live, it is cold, dark and claustrophobic. The story revolves around 8 scientists who are on a mission to save the sun as it is on its last rays. There’s a nuclear bomb strapped to the ship and they have to navigate it into the sun. You kinda know they are doomed as the ship is called Icarus II and we know what happened to Icarus…
The mission is going well and then…they get the “distress call” from Icarus I who disappeared into the void 7 years previously. At this point, I would say there should be a do’s and don’ts for sci-fi reminiscent of the scene in Wes Craven’s Scream where one of the characters reads out a list of do’s and don’ts for horror. Top of the list for sci-fi is never, under any circumstances, answer a distress call. Haven’t they watched Alien and Event Horizon?
There’s a philosophical debate about whether they should answer the call and the decision is left to physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy, a Boyle favourite). He mulls it over and thinks it is best to answer it (Doomed!). The debate is rather leaden and steals liberally from Star Trek – Wrath of Khan and Spock’s Benthamsque line about, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Oh dear! Oh dear! A common theme throughout the film was the morality of self-sacrifice but even that seemed confused and rather stilted. And the dialogue is totally unrealistic, which is a shame because Alex Garland is a good writer (though his novels have never translated well on screen.)
There was curiosity and an obsession with watching the blinding dying sun through various filters, and religious connotations being made. The scientists lived and dreamed the sun. I was half wondering when someone would come out with a line like, “Put out my hand and touch the face of God…” in a John Wayne style.
But biggest failure of Sunshine is that you don’t know what kind of film it is trying to be. The aim is to drop a nuke into the sun to save humanity but what does the film hinge on. Is it sci-fi, horror – “haunted house transported to space”, spiritual/religious experiences – "mysticism in the orange glow", an exercise in “madness”, and/or an old fashion morality tale? Because I don’t think Boyle or Garland know either. It is a mish-mash of ideas and mixes up genres. It is not straightforward and simplistic in storyline. It tries to be too clever by half and misfires rather like Icarus II.
The second half of the film has been described as like the film Event Horizon and it includes an interloping murderous sunburned demon who chases the rest of the crew around the ship (it also reminded me of a storyline from the sci-fi series, Space 1999). Crew in peril, someone has sabotaged the computer, oxygen levels are falling fast rather like my concentration at this point and it doesn’t look good for any them. It is at this point you take bets about which actor is high in the pecking order and will be left to the end.
Another touch of Alien is where Cillian Murphy is in a space suit looking out for the demon a la Sigourney Weaver style.
The other problem is that there is no characterisation, the characters don't interact with each other and the acting is utterly flimsy. They coulda called in their lines by telephone and nobody would have been the wiser although this makes the acting better than in Event Horizon where the performances could have been texted in and nobody would have noticed. I was expecting someone of Cillian Murphy’s calibre to have flexed his theatrical muscle. But no, he was a walking somnambulist.
Overall the film lacked suspense, fear and drama. There was probably more drama in the script conferences than in the film. If you are going to mix genres then you have to be clear about where your storyline is going and not leave it hanging in the air. There is some clever camera trickery such as freeze framing, close-up visuals of eyes with the sun rays reflected off them and long range outside shots of the expansive spaceship with the sun as a backdrop that creates a spectacular chiaroscuro effect .
There is nothing new under the sun but if you are going to indulge in a “cut and shunt” of ideas then you got to show subtly, cohesion and imagination. Sunshine leaves a lot to be desired for. It hasn’t the lyricism or creativity of Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris (admittedly I fell asleep half way through). All of these films, including Sunshine, are best viewed on the big screen.
Personally if you want to see a good cross over of horror and sci-fi then go and rent/buy Alien (the Ridley Scott one and not the shoddy sequels). It tells a simple story yet is compelling, atmospheric and scary. There is suspense and fear and I would argue a good critique of capitalism and the art of cynicism.