' ' Cinema Romantico: Sunshine

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Tragic Inevitability. It’s a term I return to often. Oh, how I love inevitable tragedy in film. A common lament post-movie is “You could see that coming from a mile away” or some variation, but is that automatically negative? Sometimes seeing it coming from a mile away makes it that much more dramatic when it finally arrives. Consider Danny Boyle’s “Sunshine”, a 2007 sci-fi film that I missed at the time of its release but had heard much about – not all of it good – in the years since. It has a marvelous premise. The year is 2057. The sun is dying. A ship, the Icarus II (which suggests they are just begging for it), has been launched post-failure of Icarus I to attempt to re-ignite the sun.

Why is the sun dying? Unimportant. How are they going to re-ignite it? With a "payload". What’s the "payload"? Not the point. That idea alone works and the question becomes what does Boyle and company do with the idea? As “Sunshine” opens the crew of eight, 55 million miles from Earth, learns they are entering “the dead zone.” The dead zone! This dead zone, it seems, is the area where communication to Earth becomes impossible. If anyone wants to send a goodbye message, now is the time. So Cillian Murphy’s physicist Capa says his goodbyes BEFORE THE FILM HAS REACHED THE 10 MINUTE MARK. Tragic. Inevitably. I was hooked. “Take me where you want to go,” I said happily to the DVD.

And for the first hour or so, “Sunshine” entranced, awed and moved me. Employing a stellar soundtrack, most notably “Sunshine (Adagio In D Minor)”, to exemplary effect, the film is as hypnotic as it is haunting, revealing twists that are dealt with in truly human ways – alternately confused and rationally. Boyle, working with cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, uses an array of stunning visuals to reveal the strange grandeur of the ship and to routinely leave our jaws slack. As the Icarus II closes in on its destination, it happens, of course, upon Mercury – teeny, tiny Mercury – and the entire crew gathers before one of those “Star Trek”-esque video screens to watch in wonder as the first planet of the solar system floats before the Sun like a miniature red rubber ball rolling around in front of a raging forest fire. It is a moment as stirring cinematically as any I can recall from recent times – and without saying so reminds us that this is why the world and humanity is still worth fighting for. Even on death’s doorstep – literally! – they take a moment to breathe in life’s majesty. I wanted to wrap myself up in this scene and drift off to a majestic sleep.

A twist. A distress signal (a la “Alien”) is heard. It belongs to the Icarus I. Impossible, they say, it disappeared 7 years ago. But it is true. They determine its location. They damn near made it to the Sun. What happened? Who knows? Are they alive? They COULDN’T be alive. Could they? Do they attempt to rendezvous with the stranded ship or do they stay on mission? They can’t risk the lives of a few for the lives of billions. But can they risk it to garner a second payload in the event the first payload fails? The closer the Icarus II flies toward the sun, the more perilous the mission becomes, the more nerves of the crew are frayed, the more their faith weakens, and they struggle with staying on point. The navigator makes a slight (read: huge) mistake. It might seem preposterous from the comfort of a sofa but I can only imagine with the fate of humanity hanging on your shoulders and the sun looming in your spaceship windshield that its likelihood would be immense.

This triggers more complications and those complications trigger graver issues and tension mounts. Rose Byrne, that underrated, illuminating Aussie actress, stars as Cassie, the ship’s pilot, and her natural expression, her face sloped downward in a winsome sorrow, becomes, in a way, the emblem of the mission. There is much ado about how they possess enough oxygen to only deliver the payload and not make it back home, but even if we didn’t already know they were situated in the dead zone we would be suspicious of their survival. It’s a suicide mission with serious heroism at stake and while sadness and suspicions envelope the Icarus along with the solar heat, Boyle continually cuts through the existential dread to find moments of real transcendent beauty. When one character meets his maker, coming face to face with the all-consuming sight of the crew’s destination, it’s not a horror movie moment but something glorious. "What do you see? What.do.you.see?"

This is why the film’s resorting to a familiar trope around the 70 minute mark is so infuriating. It has the DNA of a good idea but that is mangled and lost in its execution, as if it were sent express delivery back from studio-wranglers on the blue planet hell-bent on ruining a up-until-then brilliant elegiac and contemplative film. The esteemed Roger Ebert wrote: “The drummed-up suspense at the end is not essential, since Boyle and Garland seem more interested in the metaphysics of the voyage.” Exactly! It’s not essential. So why is it there? Why?! And the drummed-up suspense is made even worse by both hyper and confused editing and by the fact that the true conclusion to the movie actually gets it right and could have easily been reached without trading in its mysticism for "It Came From Outer Space."

That makes "Sunshine" a sci-fi "Australia", the Baz Luhrmann opus inundated with melodrama that I find to be heaven-sent for an hour and forty-five minutes before falling flat on its face. "Australia" benefits from actually having a perfect end and just choosing to ignore it. "Sunshine", on the other hand, is more problematic because its gravest problem cannot simply be wiped away or forgotten. In theory, this means it is deserving of a negative - or, at least, a less than good - review. Right?

Except I can't do it. I won't do it. You can go months anymore without seeing true greatness at the movies and when you do see it you must honor it, even if it, well, soars too close to the sun and comes crashing down.


SJHoneywell said...

This sums up my feelings on this film almost exactly. The first half of it is as good as any science fiction film going. It's also staggeringly beautiful.

The third act kills it. I don't lose the thread until the two ships become uncoupled. At that moment, the film goes from being a tense, cerebral science fiction film to essentially a haunted house film/slasher. I remember the first time I watched this and got to that point. I just shook my head for about five minutes.

Still, you're right. While it is terribly flawed, the first 2/3 is so good that I appreciate what it is even if it muffs the landing.

Alex Withrow said...

Interesting review here. I enjoy when a reviewer is able to admit that they dig a movie, while hating certain aspects about, AND in the end, ultimately looking at it in a positive light.

I rewatched this a few months ago and found myself having a very similar reaction as you. Loved it the first time I saw it years ago, now its faults are rather clear. Regardless, I still find myself recommending it.

Good work.

Nick Prigge said...

Steve: "I just shook my head for about five minutes." Well put. That's exactly how I felt. That was as angry as I had been with a film in a long time. So many bad movies just leave me indifferent, but when you're on the cusp of perfection......oh, it still wrecks me to consider.

Alex: Thanks, man! I will always be honest about my opinions. That much is certain. And what you say makes me almost hesitant about revisiting it in the future. Maybe I just want this feeling to linger.

Derek Armstrong said...

It's interesting that you also mention Australia, because I saw Sunshine while in Australia. We were at the movie theater and had just come of Hot Fuzz, when we saw people lining up for another screening across the way. Turns out it was Sunshine, also (like Hot Fuzz) not yet open in the U.S., and lo and behold, the director was present for a Q&A afterward. We had to go, even though we had already watched a movie that day. As a matter of fact, we ended up sitting a row behind the aforementioned Ms. Byrne.

Like everyone who has commented so far, we were under the movie's spell at first. But the reason the spell was broken was quite different. After about three reels, the fourth reel came on and the movie became about the weirdest sci-fi trip I had ever seen. Boyle had gone from a straightforward narrative to something even more abstract than 2001. After about five minutes of this, I saw people start to stream down the aisles. I thought "Yeah, it's a little weird, but don't walk out on the damn thing." When I then saw one of the main characters die in reverse order, I started to get that something was wrong.

The reel that came after the third reel was not, in fact, the fourth reel -- it was something like the eighth, and it was playing in reverse. This was why I saw the people hurriedly walking out -- they were notifying the theater staff that something was wrong. So the film stopped for about 45 minutes as we all sat there talking and they tried to fix it. When it resumed, a reel had been missed and we were now on the fifth, determined to cut our losses and move forward. After the fifth reel played, though, they stopped the movie altogether, as it became clear that the next reel was also out of sequence and that at this point we just had to give up.

Then, Danny Boyle came out to talk to us about a movie we hadn't actually seen.

And THEN, months later, when it finally came out in the U.S. and we finally got to finish our screening, only THEN did we find out about the terrible third act.

So yeah, I don't think there's any way this movie is ever going to be untainted for me, even with everything it does right.

Nick Prigge said...

Damn, that's a crazy story. You were so close to having an INCREDIBLE story only to have it go horribly wrong. It seems kind of shocking at an event where the director himself is present that that sort of mistake would happen.

I've had reel switches happen twice. Once with "Open Water" (and I often suspect my blah attitude toward that movie was because of the reel mix-up, which means I should re-watch it) and "The Island." "The Island" was the best because even when it jumped a reel it went from one car chase directly to ANOTHER car chase. And then we saw the two Ewan McGregors and realized something was wrong.

But I think that sums up Michael Bay perfectly. Mess up reels and it still segues right into a car chase.