Monday, August 06, 2007

Sunshine - a film by Danny Boyle

Scottish director Danny Boyle's eighth film, Sunshine, is an ambitious and moody space thriller that starts out great and ends up somewhere between "pretty good" and "kinda good." The cinematography and art direction, especially lighting, sound and set design, are outstanding. The performances by supporting actors Cliff Curtis, brilliant (can't resist) as the spaceship psych officer addicted to bathing his inner darkness in light, Hiroyuki Sanada, as the stoic Captain Kaneda, and the ever-awesome Michelle Yeoh, as Corazon, tender of the Oxygen Garden, are pitch-perfect. Lead Cillian Murphy is pleasing to look at and not annoying, which is probably enough, though I don't really buy him as a nuclear physicist (perhaps I've met too many).

The first act is wonderfully languid in the best space-is-so-big tradition. The earth has become a frozen wasteland, and a team of astronauts cast by Benetton in a ship predictably called Icarus are on their way to the sun to detonate a nuclear payload that they hope will jump-start the dying star. The second act sets up a compelling psychological conflict, between playing things safe and taking risks to get better results, as the crew intercepts a signal from the sister spaceship whose mission was lost seven years earlier, and attempts to rationalize their curiosity about the lost ship with justifications based on flimsily calculated benefits. All perfectly good fodder for a psychological thriller about the vast loneliness of the universe and the hell that is other people.

Unfortunately, in the third act this film suddenly becomes a cheesy slasher flick. Too in love with their characters to make them compellingly conflicted, Boyle and writer Alex Garland transfer all that conflict onto a barely justified bogeyman out to thwart the dwindling crew of surviving goody-goodies. It's so much more interesting when the characters are their own enemies, torn between self-interest and the good of others, a conflict that Boyle navigated skillfully in Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and even the adorable kid flick Millions. But here he pulls his punches, allowing all the characters who have survived the first and second acts to choose goodness and service while introducing a hastily sketched surrogate for their darker impulses. The last half-hour of the film involves many blurry chase scenes, and several incidents where the ship is damaged and the crew must race against time and the psycho to keep the whole thing from blowing up.

Sunshine starts off drawing heavily on 2001: A Space Odyssey, references Alien but ultimately ends up in territory closer to the pre-Titanic James Cameron's underwater disaster snoozer The Abyss. In that movie, a group of stranded submariners were picked off one-by-one by a water phantom that represented their darkest impulses and fears. The Abyss was a far worse film than Sunshine, which has most of its problems at the end and looks great throughout, but it's a weak position to end up with when you aimed for the company of Kubrick and Ridley Scott. You should still see Sunshine if you like spaceships, fire or Irish girly boys. All of which are good things.

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