I wish I hadn’t seen the trailer for “Sunshine” a number of months ago online. As soon as I saw it, I started to get worked up and excited about the new film from director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “28 Days Later”), writer Alex Garland (“The Beach”) and star Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”, “Batman Begins”, “Red Eye). This is clearly a case of my expectations exceeding the actual film.
Also, “Sunshine” brought back some bad memories. It was a night over Thanksgiving weekend, some years past, when my friend Luci and I entered a theater in eager anticipation of the new Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney film. Two hours later, our faith in each, my friend is a huge fan of Clooney and I am a huge fan of the director, was sorely tested. A science fiction film in which the characters talk for almost the entire film? Or stare with little emotion at each other? It sounds even worse than it actually was to sit through “Solaris”.
“Sunshine” isn’t as bad as “Solaris” but it is a pretty big disappointment.
The Icarus II is just a few days away from fulfilling its mission. The crew of 8, led by Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) awake after sixteen months in a deep sleep, their complex ship traveling through space, a payload of explosives larger than Manhattan at the front of their ship. Their mission? To deliver this payload and detonate as it hits the sun; the sun is dying and Earth is getting colder and colder. They realize they could be on a death mission, but their lives are inconsequential in comparison to the fate of mankind. The rest of the crew includes Capa (Cilllian Murphy), the physicist in charge of the payload of explosives, Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), the botanist overseeing the eco system on board the ship, which also helps to provide food and oxygen, Mace (Chris Evans), an engineer, Trey (Benedict Wong), the communications officer, Searle (Cliff Curtis), the crew’s therapist, Harvey (Troy Garity), the second in command and Cassie (Rose Byrne), the pilot of the ship. As the ship gets closer and closer to the sun, things start to go wrong and they discover a signal coming from Icarus I, a ship thought lost seven years before. Then, they make a fateful decision.
Directed by Danny Boyle, the trailer initially looked so exciting because I know Boyle generally works with lower budgets than most mainstream films receive. Watching the trailer I was amazed by the special effects and the hints at a story blending elements of “2001”, “Armageddon” and “Alien”. And the special effects are impressive, but the combination of various other science fiction films, something that initially seemed so intriguing, has, in fact, simply created a mess of a narrative.
The best thing about the film is the look. Boyle and his team have created an interesting and unusual environment within the spaceship. They do a great job of establishing the size of the environment and the unknown quality of this type of vessel. As this is only the second vessel to make this voyage, everything is a bit of a crapshoot. They can take all of the technology they have and put it together and hope that it will help these astronauts get to their destination, but they don’t know. And the earlier vessel, the Icarus didn’t make it. Perhaps it was something on the ship? They don’t know. But they go with their educated guess. There is simply no alternative.
The ship is a mixture of ideas from other sci fi films. There is a bit of “Outland” to it, in the sheer size. There is a bit of “Alien” to it, in the fact there are many places to hide. It has a lot of “2001” to it, in the fact people are living on the ship, hibernating, doing normal activities. Unfortunately, it has more than a little “Event Horizon” in it as well.
We also get a real sense of the sun, which may seem like a silly thing to say, but they are going to try to restart the sun, so we have to feel the presence of this star throughout. As the ship approaches, there is a terrific scene when the ship turns slightly the wrong way, damaging the shields on the outside of the vessel. Two crewmembers have to go out and fix it, but they have to turn the ship in the opposite direction, to give them some protection from the sun. Naturally, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Less successful are the characters. For a film like this to work, we have to get a sense of what the stakes are. They talk about how they have to restart the sun, but we don’t see why. We know the Earth will not survive without it, and we know this only because they talk about it. We never see any of the effects of the dying sun. When the characters talk about things we could, should see, we have to wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just mount a radio play or write a book instead.
In one scene, Capa (Murphy) sends a video greeting back to his folks at home. He struggles with it, because it may be the last time they ever hear his voice. But we don’t ever see them, and get a sense of what this character’s personal involvement is in this mission. This is the only attempt made to connect one of the crewmembers to the outside world. No one else seems to have a family or people to come home to. In most sci-fi films, we see some sort of communication from Earth, a tearful goodbye from a loved one to the heroic astronaut, a child’s plea for their daddy to come home. I’m not saying “Sunshine” should have included such an obvious cliché, but it needs something to give us a reason to care for these characters.
As it is, the crewmembers interact with one another. And they don’t seem to like one another, or perhaps the weight of the mission is weighing heavily upon them. Ace (Chris Evans) sports shaggy hair and a beard until someone tells him to get a haircut. Why did he sport this long hair? Corazon (Yeoh) is in love with her rain forest garden. She even seems to consider it a living breathing human being. But why? Searle (Cliff Curtis) seems to go a little crazy while watching the sun. But why?
Because these things aren’t explained, we really don’t get a feel for these characters. Because we don’t have a feel for the characters, we don’t really care what happens to them.
Also, “Sunshine” repeats a number of things. I’m not sure why this is done, perhaps to impart how important these various things are. But it doesn’t work. There are a few scenes in which crewmembers are trying to correct something that has gone wrong. Naturally, they want to save the people involved, but then a crewmember solemnly intones, “We’re going to do what we should do. For the good of the mission”. I half expected them to stand in their superhero pose and lift their face to the sky, staring defiantly towards the heavens. So, we get it, the mission is more important than a handful of astronauts. There are millions of people on Earth who could die. Later, someone else makes virtually the same comment, and we get virtually the same message. Well, the third time, you have to wonder if the filmmakers were paying attention.
And then the ending. It just doesn’t make any sense. It seems like the filmmakers wanted to pay homage to one last great sci fi film from their past, unfortunately, they chose “Event Horizon”, and decided to throw in a little crazy subplot. It might have worked. If they had established the motivation, the reason, the meaning of these actions.
“Sunshine” is a big disappointment.