Like most reviewers of Sunshine, I will start by going over Danny Boyle’s track record. It’s brilliant, but patchy: he made arguably the defining British film of the ’90s, Trainspotting, but followed it with an uninspired romance in A Life Less Ordinary; he also reinvented the zombie genre with 28 Days Later…, but that came after his and Garland’s horribly disappointing adaptation of The Beach. And don’t you dare get me started on Millions. Still, he’s clearly strong enough to give just about anything a decent go, which is why I was willing to see Sunshine on opening night. When he’s on, few are as good.
Cutting right to the chase, he isn’t really ‘on’ here either. In fact, I was frequently reminded of other films, some better, some worse. The plot has a much clearer narrative than 2001 (better), but aims for the same level of wonder and enlightenment. That it never quite reaches that level has a lot to do with how much the narrative owes to Event Horizon (far, far worse), what with monsters coming out of nowhere to conjure up ludicrous, yawn-inducing suspense. Like Paul W. S. Anderson & co, Boyle & Garland don’t heed 2001’s lesson that dialogue isn’t really necessary, especially if everything the characters say is purely expository. Explaining those plot elements two or even three times, however, is something every sci-fi filmmaker should know to avoid without having seen Kubrick’s legendary document, but these guys fall into it just like the studio execs were hoping they would. By the time they realise their mistake, the movie’s nearly over and we don’t really care about the characters enough to empathize with their plight.
Doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting, though. Boyle has an extremely well-honed sense of visual style, and doesn’t mind taking risks with it. He has no problem presenting extended shots of almost white brightness, the characters barely visible through the sun’s vicious rays. I mean, what kind of filmmaker happily masks the millions spent on actors and sets behind intense sprays of white light? One who knows how to create a world that looks real, that’s who. He also uses a few old tricks to very special effect – when the crew first enter the remnants of Icarus 1, the quick flashes of smiling faces on screen sent shivers down my spine.
Good though the visuals are, the film’s trump card is its sound design. A surprisingly worthwhile Underworld score provides an otherworldly, occasionally sinister undercurrent to the array of ship sounds (which contain few of the distracting bleeps and boops of space cinema). Brief sound cues like the Icarus 1’s distress signal are instantly memorable. When the film was over, I still had the music and aural atmosphere running through my head, much more profoundly than any of the remarkable images on show.
How can you go wrong with a cast that includes Murphy, Byrne, Yeoh, Sanada and Wong? By lumping them with that previously mentioned expository dialogue, which gives them very little to work with. They are reduced to a selection of (very) attractive people with practically no character. A quick look at the film’s marketing campaign shows comprehensive, fascinating back stories for every character. Why weren’t these mentioned in the film? If they had, then I would’ve given a shit whether these guys could complete their mission, and in turn I might’ve got on board with the movie’s chief aim as a psychological study. Pity the script didn’t see fit to make them as interesting as they are beautiful. And wow, are they beautiful – every last one of them
Just like the whole movie. Everything looks great, and sounds great, but somehow they lost their way and left at that. Some people might find deeper illumination here, but in defence of my position, I must restate my general mantra: get the audience to care about the characters, and you’ve got a good movie. Fail to do so, and no amount of superficial brilliance will stop most of the audience forgetting the movie in a couple of days. Sunshine is so incredibly good technically that I would be hypocritical in writing it off, given my penchant for Tarantino and Children of Men, but chalk it up as a miss. Will I go and see Boyle’s next one, though? Probably.