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What I Like About Sunshine

sunshineposterI had a chance over Thanksgiving to watch this film with my brother, who hadn’t seen it. This was the third or fourth sit-through for me, and I found that it held up just as well as the first time I saw it. Sunshine didn’t even register on my radar when it was released theatrically because it sounded like a completely different sort of movie; an Armageddon or The Core, brain-dead sci-fi action about a group of people employing an unlikely solution to save the earth from an even more unlikely disaster. In this case, it’s a group of astronauts traveling towards the sun with a bomb which equals (we are told) the mass of Manhattan Island in an effort to jump-start the sun, which is mysteriously dying. That quest, however, is just window-dressing for a sometimes-tranquil, sometimes-thrilling existential rumination that is startlingly reflective, inspiring, and beautiful.

First, the director of Sunshine is Danny Boyle, who has become one of my favorite filmmakers to watch, with productions like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Millions (and the forthcoming Slumdog Millionaire, which I await with great anticipation). Boyle doesn’t tell stories in a conventional way, even when he is operating inside an established genre, but his particular brand of originality doesn’t feel forced, as though he is making an effort to shake up our expectations. And so, it is perfectly natural that Boyle’s sci-fi thriller should satisfy all of the demands of the genre while also transcending them. The movie works both on a cerebral, philosophical level and as an effects-fueled action thriller.

Second, a lot of the magic definitely comes from the actors and the characters they create. Boyle does great work with whole casts (generally small ones) of characters played by unknown performers and minor celebrities (i.e. Ewan McGregor and Kelly Macdonald in Trainspotting back in 1996, Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris in 28 Days Later in 2002). In Sunshine, the cast has Murphy in the lead, as well as Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans, and Rose Byrne (who, oddly, went on immediately to star in the non-Boyle-directed sequel to 28 Days Later). Actually, the characters are so important to my appreciation of the film that at least some of them deserve to be delineated.

Murphy’s character, Capa, is the mission physicist. His role is primarily linked to keeping tabs on the bomb and ensuring that, when it is launched, it has the best possible chance to fulfill its purpose. It becomes evident very early on (and only grows more obvious later), that Capa is the most essential cog in this machine. No matter what else happens, Capa needs to make it to the launch point. It is also clear that he is intensely uncomfortable with his importance. He tends to sit quietly in the corner while more vocal members of the crew argue and discuss, but in the end, some of the most important judgments are his to make, and he certainly feels the pressure.

Cliff Curtis plays Searle, the psychologist on board. He is ostensibly there to make sure no one cracks under the intense pressure of the mission’s importance and the close quarters they all share with each other during journey’s nearly two-year duration. However, more than one member of the crew is dubious of Searle’s mental stability. He seems obsessed with the sun itself, and sports a deep tan from hours spent on the observation deck with the safety filters dialed as low as the shipboard computer will allow (he likens the experience to “taking a shower in light”). He is, naturally, the most reflective member of the team.

Evans is Mace, intensely-focused and often combative. In an average movie like this, he would either be the ultra-competent hero or the crude, macho “jock” character that no one would mind seeing dead. Here, however, his role has more depth than that. His personality places him at the center of every debate and dictate his position at the head of every charge, but his (often unwelcome) need to defer to Capa forces him to be a more complex, and therefore more sympathetic, character than he would otherwise be.

Yeoh is Corazon, the biologist. She is in charge of the oxygen garden, which they all hope will ensure sufficient air for them to reach their destination and return safely to earth (although the latter is of minimal importance in comparison to the former). She is calm and serious, and her pragmatism sometimes makes her a natural ally to Mace, despite their differences. Few things can break through that peaceful exterior . . . until a crisis on-board causes the garden to go up in flames, at which point all bets are off.

Byrne is Cassie, who operates more or less as the ship’s conscience. Her intense valuation of individual human life often places her at odds with Mace’s pragmatic insistence on the success of the mission. The motivations behind her decisions are frequently ambiguous, leaving the audience to decide whether she is merely a coward, unwilling to to do what needs to be done if it means getting her hands dirty, or actually the bravest character on board, unwilling to compromise her beliefs in the face of any challenge. Her enormous compassion makes her the most sympathetic character.

Finally (although there are other characters, I will spare you a full treatment), the shipboard computer deserves special mention. Voiced by Chipo Chung, her serene, unemotional delivery is reminiscent of any number of similar AI characters. But Icarus (which is, of course, the only possible name for the ship in this movie) is no HAL-9000, she enriches the ambiance immeasurably, but that is all. Sunshine is not about the dangers of artificial intelligence anymore than it is about the danger that one day our sun will unexpectedly go out. I’ve spent such a ridiculously long time on the characters because they feel so plausible to me, like actual human beings rather than ready-made casualties of sci-fi mayhem.

Third, there is sci-fi mayhem, and it is glorious. It is also just as much “sci” as it is “fi.” I love the design of the ship and the attention to detail in the logistics of a long-term space voyage powered by not-too-distant technology. The scientific ducks probably aren’t all lined up (I really wouldn’t know), but there is internal consistency. The Icarus has the feel of a fully-fleshed out environment, like the ship in, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The CG space environments and the solid on-board sets mesh together seamlessly; no suspension of disbelief required.

Fourth, the suspense-element of the story is well-chosen, and really delivers. As the Icarus passes Mercury, it suddenly begins receiving a distress signal from another ship. It seems that this is actually the Icarus II, humanity’s second (and, with the necessary resources exhausted, its final) attempt to jump-start the sun. The Icarus I disappeared without a trace seven years before, until the new crew rediscovers just a few thousand miles off of their own projected course. The immediate question in everyone’s mind is whether anyone could possibly still be alive on-board, though it is ridiculous to consider a detour to go check. Far less ridiculous, however, is the realization that, if the nuclear payload of the Icarus I can be retrieved, the mission will have two shots at success. As Capa finally concedes, “Two last chances are better than one.”

The mission is soon jeopardized, however, when the navigator fails to reset the ship’s shields before changing course, causing severe damage to the ship. From here, things fall apart very quickly as the initial misfortune snowballs into a full-blown disaster for everyone on board. Boarding the Icarus I solves none of their problems, and only deepens the mystery of what went wrong. The question is soon answered, however, when it becomes apparent that, out in the middle of deep space, the crew has been joined by an extra body. This person turns out to be the mad captain of the previous mention, a murderous fanatic who has come to believe that the death of the sun is the will of God, and as such it should not be thwarted.

Boyle’s visualization of this character is brilliant. We see just enough of him to understand that he has, shall we say, “gotten a bit too much sun,” however his very presence seems to wreak havoc on the camera lens. Light seems to blur and warp around him. This has the double benefit of, first, allowing our imaginations to conjure up an image of his appearance that is far more grotesque than anything achievable with makeup (but not having our eyes continually assaulted by his hideous appearance, which might render the proceedings unwatchable for some). Second, it conveys the distinct impression that there is something inhuman or superhuman about this character, as though, in his own demented way, he truly is an agent of God (or perhaps of the sun itself, as light does not seem to interact with his physical body in the same way it does with everything else).

Sunshine is the sort of smart, literary sci-fi that only rarely graces the screen. It satisfies what is perhaps the most essential function of the genre (and the one most often dispensed with): the use of a plausible but nonexistent future reality to comment on a deeper truth about humanity, and it does this while still telling a gripping story in a compellingly watchable way. That is why I recommend it, and why it now occupies a spot on my DVD shelf at home.

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~ by Jared on December 3, 2008.

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