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Sunshine (2007)
Director: Danny Boyle

review by Paul Higson

Alex Garland is well on his way to becoming the king of pastiche. His first 'original' screenplay for Danny Boyle was 28 Days Later, which freely sampled several post-apocalyptic fantasies. For his second outing with Boyle, Sunshine, Garland used Dark Star as the starting point, shed the humour, then went on to pick 'n' mix his pop sci-fi cinema faves from there. In common with Dark Star, Starshine involves astronauts delivering bombs, in the first film towards unstable planets and asteroids, in the second to a fluttering sun. There is in both, naturally, the claustrophobia, and the cabin fever. They twin up on a malfunction and a mother computer that refuses to override an order. One of the team is instructed to ride the bomb into its target. Snap! Furthermore, whereas in Dark Star one crew member becomes at one spiritually with a shimmering meteorite cluster so in the new film does someone touch and become an ethereal one with a spangled sun. The film opens in space with its crew some consiberable time into their mission, and it remains in space, though out of plot necessity the story returns to earth for an epilogue. On top of that Starshine has a bogey-monster by the name of Pinbacker, which draws on the name of the Dark Star crewmember portrayed in the 1970s' classic by Dan O'Bannon, the author of both that film and the later Alien. Sunshine is offering us nothing hugely different. It's a variation on a theme, but that familiarity and the technical perfection of delivery make it an easy and entertaining ride for genre fans.

Six men and two women crew Icarus 2 in a 'suicide mission' to rekindle a faltering sun. Back on Earth the sky is dim, and a perpetually winter reigns. The team are to deposit a bomb the size of Manhattan into our star. There is enough oxygen to get them a quarter of the way back home, though chances of a return seem slim, especially as the nearer the Sun they get the more susceptable they become to surprises like solar winds. They lose oxygen when their garden dies and their captain, Kanada (Hiroyuki Sanada) is lost in the infernal blast of the sun's rays while correcting a problem outside the craft. Crewman Trey (Benedict Wong), while working alone, had made a series of complicated manual adjustments in an emergency but failed to coincide the movements of the protective panels with the rest of the craft. The panels form the surface of an 'umbrella'... no, make that 'parasol', spread out, in front of the spaceship. There is now no longer enough oxygen for them to complete their mission. As pointed out by the ship's botanist, Corazon (the beautiful Michelle Yeoh), who is seriously down following the loss of her gardens, there would be enough oxygen to complete their mission if they were to lose another three crew.

The ship picks up a sound and discover the original mission craft, Icarus 1 is emitting the distress signals. It has crashed on the darkside of Jupiter. Lost seven years it is unlikely to contain any survivors as the food and oxygen would not have lasted that long. Not for all seven of them, that is. They agree to visit the craft to collect the second bomb in order to double their chances of a success but the ship is going nowhere and a sabotage results in only half the away team returning to the main craft. The earlier loss of oxygen unresolved they still need to lose one, and the clinically cold group of scientists agree on whom to remove. Wong had already been displaying signs of mental collapse. Wracked with guilt following the captain's death he is already on suicide watch. There original concerns are well founded. Down to four crew the computer informs the ship's physicist, Capa (Cillian Murphy) that there is still not enough oxygen to last them to their mission's end. Someone or something is also on board, consuming the precious air and the gruesome body-count continues to rise.

Sunshine is a supremely polished production, aesthetically. The sound and music has been hyped up as essential to the overall effectiveness of the film, but it comes across at times as too much of an attack on the eardrums. Manchester band, I Am Kloot contribute a reasonable, low-thrum score and some sounds do standout fantastically, like the clopping shut of the panels and the Icarus 1 distress signal, which sounds like a Radiophonic Workshop riff on whale song. The technical dialogue sounds fine, but the crew are largely humourless and speak in one voice. Some appear unperturbed by their predicament so why should we give a sod? There is not much character, a pity as, in particular, Michelle Yeoh can be subtle and brilliant, while Mark Strong is normally breathtakingly precise in his portrayals (as seen recently on television in The Long Firm and Low Winter Sun). Here, they are a basic worker bee and a ludicrously superhuman villain, respectively.

The crew is too young and handsome, something that the makers have argued incessantly needn't be incorrect. To prove their point they have been wheeling out their scientific consultant, Brian Cox, who bears an uncanny resemblence to not only Cillian Murphy, but also Alex Kapranos and Brett Anderson, dependent on which angle the light hits him, his head is turned or his floppy fringe sits. Bringing Cox to the fore can backfire as, in person at a special preview at Manchester's Cornerhouse on the 27th March, he admitted that he had to learn how not to be too pedantic about the accuracy of some of the science where it serves to ramp up the impact of the action or plot. Everyone knows that in space no-one can here you fart or shriek. If you don't like it, augments our expert, then wait for the DVD release and turn the sound down. However, too many liberties are taken with the science in Sunshine which can result in dangers for them when arguing the corner of scientific realism. The ending, in particular, is super grade nonsense. There are enough basic flaws to couple it with Silent Running. Those who fill the IMDb with jibes about the makers calling the mission crafts Icarus are inglorious tits in their failure to correctly interpret the intended humour in it, adds Cox. But again, piling on the faulty science, people question the makers over and over, and they asked for it.

The film closes with an unnecessary track by Underworld, a bit of goth dancefloor pomp which simply doesn't belong. Seeing how keen they are on it, the film could have been improved by copying in some of the comic spirit of Dark Star, ordering its stars into asbestos underkeks and seeing the credits out to a singalong of The Sun Has Got It's Hat On. Benedict Wong, also accompanying the film to the Cornerhouse, detailed the 'boot camp' ordered up for the eight actors, student lodgings, scuba diving, seminars with Cox, and a diet of films a tone or quality of which Boyle wanted transported into Sunshine. Films programmed for the cast included Alien, Das Boot and The Wages Of Fear (it was not specified whether it was the French original or the Friedkin remake, though the latter would have been closer in grim purposefulness). For all its magnitude and scope the film has a subtle delivery plan and a beautiful sheen. Some colours are diluted, yellows and blues largely absent on the interiors where greens and reds dominate. A bobble-head toy, in a, if you will pardon the quip, nod to the dipper from Alien, is a rare yellow. Deaths can be spectacular, in extremes of scorching light and freezing dark. The astronauts are vulnerable flesh-and-bone cogs in a huge machine, but as clinicians and logicians they are impossible to care greatly about; even Yeoh cares more about her plants than she does about anything else. It matters little, though, on a big screen. The wonder is enough to surt the two hours in space and the story and visuals never lose pace. Whether its flaws will see it safely through repeat viewings and on the smaller screen is to be seen, but for now, it's immensely satisfying.

Sunshine widescreen

Sunshine (2007)
Director: Danny Boyle

review by J.C. Hartley

The suspicion when viewing this film on the small screen is that the lessened impact will bring into focus those imperfections bleached out by the searing visuals at the cinema. Much has been made of the cod science of the central conceit, that a dying Sun, still toasty enough to maintain life on earth, could be fired up again by a nuclear device, even one as massive as Manhattan Island. Or, in a film replete with SF movie references, was that just a reference to the Manhattan Project? In 'reference city', the temptation to be a smart-ass, and end up making an ass of yourself, is sometimes just too tempting. No matter, rewind, erase.

First of all the science doesn't matter, it is a device, like the bomb, to get a group of individuals into a perilous situation in space, to avert a perilous situation on Earth. The Sun of course isn't dying a natural death; a speculative particle has got in there and, like Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper's fluoridated water in Dr Strangelove, is sapping its natural processes. An unnatural element will also enter the Icarus 2 spacecraft, in the last 20 minutes of the film, attempting to disrupt the purpose of the mission; and this alien interlude threatens, in fact probably succeeds, in destroying the harmony of the proceedings up to then. No matter, rewind, erase.

An international crew pilot a spaceship, the ironically christened Icarus 2, towards the Sun, in an attempt to detonate a bomb that will disperse the particle infecting it. An earlier mission has mysteriously failed. The crew witnesses the transit of Mercury, then shortly afterwards picks up a distress signal from the earlier mission. The crew debate the logistics of altering course to retrieve the payload bomb from the Icarus 1. the decision is left up to physicist Capa, played by unbearably pretty Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, 28 Days Later), who opts to make the rendezvous. A miscalculation in the plotting of the new course by navigator Trey (Benedict Wong, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) leaves the ship unshielded and, when Capa and Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuke Sanada, The Last Samurai) go out to repair the damage, Kaneda is killed. A subsequent catastrophe sees the ship's supply of oxygen destroyed. The rendezvous with the Icarus 1 reveals a ranting video-blog left by the captain Pinbacker (Mark Strong, Stardust), and evidence that the crew had sabotaged their mission before committing suicide. When the ships' airlocks become uncoupled, the ship's psychiatrist Dr Searle (Cliff Curtis, The Fountain) sacrifices himself to save Capa and engineer Mace (Chris Evans, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer), but acting captain Harvey (Troy Garity, Perfume) is killed. Back on board Icarus 2, survivors Capa, Mace, botanist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh, Memoirs Of A Geisha), and pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne, 28 Weeks Later), decide to execute Trey to conserve their oxygen, but are themselves murderously stalked by the mysteriously surviving and psychotically zealous Captain Pinbacker, as they attempt to salvage their mission.

Criticism of this film tends to be largely forgiving of the dodgy science but bemoaning the last 20 minutes of 'slasher movie' outtakes that undermines the magisterial pace and tension building of what has come earlier. Reference heavy as Sunshine is, what becomes apparent is that writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle, while bringing home a visually impressive science fiction film, and for the UK too, have conjured a homage rather than a creative piece of cinema packed with ideas.

Writer and director have cited their influences, and it is to be applauded that miniature masterpiece Dark Star has received a bit of exposure as a result. The isolation boredom and alienation experienced by the crew of Dark Star, was leavened by the humour their situation generated for the viewer, a better touchstone for Sunshine would be 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

In 2001 the characters occupy their own hermetically sealed worlds within the capsules that protect them in space; Dr Heywood Floyd's (William Sylvester) listless distracted videophone conversation with his family, encapsulating the sterility of human sensibility at that time. Capa's message to his family in Sunshine, is equally distracted but emotionally charged, and followed by a violent confrontation with Harvey, who has missed the opportunity to send his own message. Although there are hints of a relationship between Cassie and Capa, it is either unrequited or long since over; the crew of Icarus 2 have their own private agendas. Dr Searle, the crew's psychological support, sits in the observation booth staring at the sun, Corazon lives in her oxygen garden, Captain Kaneda allows the surf of fire breaking over the edge of Icarus to destroy him, as Searle cries, "What can you see?"

When Oracle the shipboard computer overrides Cassie's command there is a frisson of excitement, recalling Hal, the paranoid computer of Discovery One in 2001, seizing control while bound for Jupiter. But Oracle is attempting to save the ship and crew from Trey's co-ordinate error. When Mace disconnects Oracle later in the film, the computer's voice slows down, but with no reprise of "a bicycle made for two." Sunshine even has a confusing, possibly spiritual, ending to compete with the Star Child of the earlier film. Capa has already suggested that gravity effects near the sun will distort time; perhaps his final scene depicts him caught forever in the chain reaction that detonates the bomb.

When searching the Icarus I, a crewmember urges his fellows not to split up, in case aliens pick them off. And this lonely joke pins down the problem of modern SF; the audience has come to require aliens. Perhaps Pinbacker's murderous onslaught is the writer and director's tacit acknowledgement of this. The sequence reads like a budget Alien, with visual effects masking Pinbacker in sun glare, and a confusing perspective switch at the, climax, where Cassie appears to free Capa from Pinbacker's throttling hand by peeling the skin from the latter's entire arm.

An emotionally retarded crew, solitary walks down illuminated corridors, a conversational computer, death stalking the crew through space, and a finale with a potentially spiritual revelation; boxes are ticked but Sunshine is less than the sum of its parts. All the successful efforts at tension building in the earlier part of the film dissipate like early morning mist on a summer's day, during the frenzied ending. The director put his cast through a barrage of training, involving bonding, isolation, background reading, scientific lectures and the like. The sheer weight of background stuff is daunting; for example, the gold spacesuits were inspired by South Park's Kenny's parka. The earnestness with which the making of this film has been pursued is not reflected in the final product; perhaps a lighter approach would have allowed more creativity and imagination to filter through.

With Capa poised in a stasis within heat death, the action shifts to Earth where Capa's sister receives his last message; he suggests that the success of the mission might be heralded by a particularly nice day, and as sunlight sweeps over a snow-scape the camera pulls back to show Sydney Opera House snowed in. The scene bizarrely suggests Lady Liberty buried up to her shoulders in sand, and the temptation is to cry out ""You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
Sunshine

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