I have a sort of love-hate relationship with the cinema: I really like the sense of occasion of going out to see a movie, and I just love the big-screen experience when a film-maker really knows what they are doing- sometimes there's just no substitute for the power of being there (cue old fart's nostalgia about that first 'Star Destroyer moment'). On the other hand, much of what passes through our local multiplexes is too uninspiring to encourage me to venture out very often; and the proportion of formulaic shlock I end up sitting through when I do make the trip only confirms this prejudice.
So I must confess to being both surprised and pleased at dragging myself out last Thursday too see the big budget SF movie Sunshine. Two films in as many weeks? A real turn up for the books!
The spur for this moviegoing extravaganza was the name of Danny Boyle as the director- the same man responsible for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later.... The latter I really liked; the former was simply brilliant- the opening of Trainspotting is simply one of the most exhilerating 20 minutes of cinema I have ever watched. This full-throttle romp captured me in exactly the same way as did the similarly relentless opening to Alfred Bester's classic novel The Stars My Destination.
Intrigued then, but with expectations set to middling, I set out with Andy to give Sunshine a go.
The plot of Sunshine is uncomplicated: it is the middle of the 21st century and the sun is dying. So a spaceship is sent out with a gigantic nuclear bomb to restart the star's nuclear core. It goes missing, naturally enough, so a second ship is sent out in a last effort to save humanity. Hmm: a mission to save mankind setting out after the failure of a previous similar mission? Who'd've guessed that the unexpected discovery of the first ship would lead to a change of the mission parameters of the second, with equally unexpected consequences?
So far so familiar. And an awful lot of what we see as this unfolds is as familiar as the plot. Cultural cross-references have a way of passing me by (which can often make even the most cliched plot deliver a surprise or two- so that might be a good thing!), but even I was able to notice nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dark Star, Alien, and Event Horizon. Still, these are all very good films to 'take inspiration' from, and I guess it is arguable that Boyle might've been seeking to use that very familiarity to shortcut the exposition needed to get his setting and premise across so that he could concentrate on his characters and his story.
And, to be fair, Sunshine is more than just another SFX-driven Potemkin village of a blockbuster. Sure, as an SFX movie it was actually really quite good. The CGI spaceship looked very nice, and there were some other very nice FX sequences. More importantly perhaps, the sun was handled aptly. The film succeeded in taking the familiar distant orb and turning it into a majestic and malevolent presence. So while not necessarily an SFX blockbuster, Sunshine certainly delivered some impressive imagery.
Better still- the imagery didn't serve as a substitute for a story. There are characters driving the narrative as well as macguffins. Heck, there's even a dramatic theme underlying the story, a theme hinted at if not given away outright by the name of our heroes' ship: the Icarus II. This theme develops along 2 main lines in the film: the classic hubris of flying too close to the sun; and the more Nietzschean jeopardy of staring too deep into the sun so that it warps your soul. In fact, it might not even be too fanciful to suggest that Sunshine takes the Conradian inspiration of the classic Alien and turns it inside out, from 'the heart of darkness' to... well I think you should get my drift.
There are several elements of the movie which support this interpretation of the moviemakers' lofty thematic ambitions.
First off is the strong presence of eyes, both literal and metaphorical. Check out the intro clip on the movie's website to see just one example: the Icarus II looks very like an eye, with iris, cornea, retina and optic nerve (seriously- just take a look!). Second, the notion of the sun's light getting inside the characters' heads is made pretty explicit. And then there are those hardened EVA suits. These looked strangely piglike to my mind, often giving the impression that their wearers were snuffling in the ground, so as to contrast with the whole idea of man looking up at the sun. All a bit fanciful? Perhaps, but there was definitely something of this ilk going on in Sunshine in my opinion.
The main problem with all this was that it was presented in a film which was ultimately a bit confusing, and which relied, in the end, on a plot twist which was an absurdity too far. Added to this there was the inherent implausibility of the ship's crew as agents of their mission. I mean to say: the Icarus II was a ship which was carrying all that remained of Earth's fissile materials on one last mission to save the planet. Looking at the crew assigned to this mission, you just had to ask yourself: where the heck were the military? The rag-tag civilian crews in Alien and Event Horizon made sense in those movies (not to mention the fact that the crew in Event Horizon were simply the most competent I've ever seen crew a movie spaceship); their counterpart in Sunshine just seemed a bit out of place.
In a strange way then, you could say that Sunshine is a film which was hoist on its own petard; in trying to reach beyond staple blockbuster fare, it ended up reaching beyond its own resources. It was interesting despite its flaws, and is certainly worth the effort for the big screen experience if you like this kind of film. Not bad at all really.