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The bright stuff
A film review of SUNSHINE by Camus
"You should always take risks… You take that risk because you
have a vision that is different. And you must always take that risk."
Sunshine Director, Danny Boyle


It's hard to fault that kind of philosophy from an outsider film-maker. If you have that work ethic as an insider, odds are you've made your first and last big budget movie. Doing it the same way, three cherries held, time after time has eroded Hollywood's artistic licence and CG has largely shown up certain imaginations for the paltry things they are. Boyle hit a home run with Trainspotting and after a few unsatisfactory Hollywood dalliances, he took another risk and shot a low budget movie on digital video in a dreary dis-United Kingdom that made ten times its money back on its theatrical run alone. The terrific zippy-zombie movie, 28 Days Later has even spawned its own sequel. Boyle plays it both ways - he satisfies his own muse and still manages to please enough punters and execs to keep his directorial flag flying. But, naturally, the bigger budgets are attractive and taking risks with many more millions at stake, while being a subversive and loftier artistic ambition, can make, break or arrest a directorial career.

So then it's very odd to report that all the risks Boyle takes in this 'spaceship-tries-to-kickstart-the-sun' movie are stylistic ones, risks with no meat on their narrative bones; flash frames, freeze frames, colour grading at def-con-Tony-Scott level 12. The collars of the new suit may be daringly longer than usual but they are made of the same material. The story and milieu are tried and tested. It's 2057. An assortment of scientists, astronauts and a blue-eyed physicist (Cillian Murphy from Doyle's 28 Days Later) are en route to the sun to save the Earth by blowing up a whole lot of very big bombs inside the star, to reignite it. So far, so sf fan-boy.

Boyle has clearly soaked up his fair share of classics and the rag tag group all quietly riff off Alien's character dynamics. For reasons not stated (is this a risk?), very early on the hero has got into a fight with hero No. 2, Chris Evans, whose relationship with fire seems a defining career trait (he plays Johnny "Flame On!" Storm in The Fantastic Four). Now, help me out here. These eight folks are mankind's last hope - the crème de la crème who've had the ultimate in training and they are fist-fighting in their space ship's corridors? Isn't that, uh... (forgive me) kind of un-NASA-sary? The women blithely accept their male colleagues' nod to neanderthalism but do not stare open mouthed as I sort of expected them too. Maybe we're not that evolved after all.

Boyle plonks us straight in to the action and makes us work for some of the narrative. Very little is explained and he comes very close to breaking a golden rule that I used to think was very important. Knowing a little more about cinema outside of Spielberg and Cameron, I'm prepared to bend the rule a bit but perhaps not in Sunshine's case. This rule is "Sacrifice everything for clarity." If an audience does not follow what is going on (three times this movie sucker punched me I'm ashamed to say. It was either the movie or I'm not reading films the way I used to, maybe a little of both) then this can only fuel feelings of resentment and that sits very badly with movie appreciation. Let's not apply that rule to surrealists like Bunüel and his ant covered stigmata (who'd dare?) but Sunshine is pure Hollywood DNA (with a sheen of Britishness) and leaving your audience gawping "But wait a minute…" can never be good, could it? I adored the production design (the effects as expected are a treat) and I took a lot on faith but by the time a certain character turns up spouting on about God of all things, (I thought I was the one taking things on faith) the movie took a sharp right into a blinding alley from which it never really was able to reverse.

I don't want to give anything away but when you jettison rational science that has been your mainstay for 70 minutes, I think your audience has a right to get a bit piqued at the insertion of a new character with superhuman powers of survival and a very strong line in utter gobbledegook which has no rational narrative reason to exist. The internal logic has been blown into cold, airless space. Before you point at 2001 and say "Well, we all saw that Louis Quatorze furniture coming, didn't we, huh?" 2001's Bowman took a journey into extraterrestrial space so we were in effect, primed for anything. Again, is this the risk that Boyle means? Yes, there are philosophical elements that are intriguing but to just plonk a naked, raving human shish-kebab into the movie who's gone nuts staring at the sun - and is filmed so you never get a good look at him - just seems arbitrary in the most "Say, what?" sense. Is this capriciousness risky? Does non sense make artistic sense? OK, the God-bothering loony was out of the blue but it felt akin to having Tinkerbelle turn up in Dead Man's Shoes. There seemed to be no other reason for his existence than the mission needed someone to screw things up. Gravity aside, Sunshine seemed to be remarkably solid which made Mr. Crispy's presence all the more off-putting.

I admire Boyle's work and that includes his impressive TV career. Let's not forget he produced Alan Clarke's Elephant and directed the best Inspector Morse of all, Masonic Mysteries. But I cannot reconcile Boyle's passion for Sunshine when it shows no real narrative experimentation or event that you could not see coming 92 million miles off. That's the curse of the set up of 'space rescue missions'. The only thing that you could say about Armageddon in terms of surprise was just how testicle-tighteningly awful it was. Deep Impact was profoundly po-faced but all these movies play by the numbers. The "Oh, they must go out in space without a space suit!" sequence is handled superbly well in Boyle's movie but at the climax, characters move without any real sense of where they are going nor why. Yes, I want to work out some of it for myself but not basic mise-en-scene. I want the film-maker to tell me a story not for me to work out what's supposed to be assumed to have happened next. How can I come to care? How can I figure out what's happening? I couldn't even explain the final five minutes (the last minute no problem but even that had a "Huh?" aspect to it as in how could it be so banal after all that sunny surreality)?

Sunshine is a technical tour de force and an interesting work by a strong talent but seemingly hampered by some wayward and irrational script assertions and directorial ambitions to do Kubrickian things with form and not quite succeeding. Part of the handicap is that Kubrick could innovate in 1968 and in 2007, we have experimented with form up the MTV kazoo so originality is marginalised and not now judged by how many jump cuts or subliminal frames there are contained between the front and end credits. Someone known for his technical brilliance has figured that out and I for one will be in line for David Fincher's Zodiac.

In the meantime watch this space (but bring shades)…


UK 2007
107 mins
Danny Boyle
Andrew Macdonald
Michael Dougherty
Dan Harris
Bryan Singer
Alex Garland
Alwin H. Kuchler
Chris Gill
Karl Hyde
John Murphy
Rick Smith
production design
Mark Tildesley
Rose Byrne
Cliff Curtis
Chris Evans
Troy Garity
Cillian Murphy
Hiroyuki Sanada
Mark Strong
review posted
20 April 2007