by Jay Seaver
"Sunshine" is a real treat - a great big special-effects laden adventure movie that at no point asks the audience to turn its brain off. That doesn't make it inaccessible - to the contrary, it means that there are more ways for the audience to enjoy it.We start off in media res, with the dubiously-named spaceship Icarus II already a year and a half into its journey to the Sun's south pole, where they will launch a bomb the size of Manhattan into the heart of our nearest star, hoping to give it a needed jump-start. Already, nevers are becoming a bit frayed - Dr. Searle (Cliff Curtis), the man in charge of the the crew's physical and mental health, is addicted to viewing the sun with as little filtering as possible, and trying to get Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) to join in; physicist/payload specialist Capa (Cillian Murphy) and computer tech Mace (Chris Evans) have just come to blows, likely in part over one of the only two women in the crew, pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne). The other woman is Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), in charge of the ship's oxygen garden; also on board are communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity) and navigator Trey (Benedict Wong). Aside from needing to blow off a little steam, the mission is going well, at least until they receive a signal from Icarus I, which disappeared seven years earlier. Mace insists they continue with the mission as planned; Capa says attempting to recover the ship's payload is worth the risk. Agreeing that two last hopes are better than one, Kaneda follows Capa's advice. And, of course, all hell breaks loose.
"A great hit of the hard stuff."
Director Danny Boyle and Writer Alex Garland (who previously teamed on 28 Days Later) throw us into a very cool environment right off; the first shot of the film appears to be the sun but is actually the massive set of heat shields/solar panels that covers the ship; when we look behind that, we see a rotating skeleton that reminds us more of the present-day International Space Station than the sleek, fighter-jet-modeled ships that frequently populate the movies. It's one of my favorite movie spaceships ever. Garland, Boyle, and the art department sweat more details than the average sci-fi film, things like approaching the sun at a pole rather than head-on, although they are smart enough to not dump a whole lot of science adviser Dr. Brian Cox told them into the script; they just paid heed. Sure, sometimes the pseudo-gravity doesn't seem to be lined up with thrust or spin, but we always get the feeling that this is an environment with rules and limits.
It's also got wonders. An early sequence has Mercury transiting the sun, and Boyle keeps the effect relatively simple, just a fast-moving silhouette, showing it to us from the crew's perspective so that we can share their awe. Soon after, the movie gets down to business, and the lavish visuals start to service tension as much as delight, but even when the cold equations are killing the cast, there's a savage beauty to it.
The filmmakers do, of course, start reducing headcount, and once they start, the tension skyrockets. The middle part of the film is all about this - space is a dangerous place with no margin for error, and one little mistake that anybody could make starts a chain reaction of problems. There's a few scenes in here that would make the John W. Campbell proud - for instance, when a spacewalk to repair the ship's heat shield turns dangerous. We understand the danger, but we're still taken in by the sheer spectacle, all without things setting off alarms about the belief suspension levels being inadequate. Once that happens, Boyle and company never really let up - things keep getting worse, with just enough breathing time between episodes for the audience to start to wonder how things could get worse.
The last act is, admittedly, problematic. On the one hand, even though the filmmakers have done a fine job of setting up how months in a confined space with the same people on a mission so vital it beggars comprehension can get to people (check out Searle's increasingly nasty sunburn for a constant reminder); on the other, they've done so well at making the hostile environment so compelling that people having to fight other people seems almost too conventional Boyle handles it well, making it almost as tense as what came before, but there is a definite feeling of disconnection. He misdirected us a bit too well earlier; looking back, there were all sorts of signs that it could come to this, but we were too distracted with cooler things.
I haven't spoken much about the cast; the trouble with this type of movie is that the characters are, of necessity, too competent and focused on the mission to give the cast easy hooks upon which to hang a performance. Cillian Murphy's physicist still seems a little jittery away from terra firma, and Cliff Curtis does a good job of adding creepy to mostly harmless, but Hiroyuki Sanada's slightly aloof Captain Kaneda is more likely to be the norm. Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, and Troy Garity make their characters individual and likable, but even under extreme conditions, they're mostly going to stay professional. Chris Evans gets to have a little more fun - he gets the play the prick. You know, the guy who doesn't care about anything but the mission, speaks his mind regardless of whose feelings get hurt. It's a fun role, and he has a good time with it.I love this movie, although I freely admit that it may not be a great movie. It is, however, a very good one, which hits things that I have a particular fondness for. We don't get many hard science fiction films, though, and I'm thrilled to have one this good come along.
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originally posted: 07/26/07 13:27:51