February 26, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Sunshine

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Sunshine (2007)
Written by Alex Garland
Directed by Danny Boyle

I know it makes me sound old-fashioned to say this, like that Victorian literary critic that gets made fun of in Dead Poets Society, but I really do believe that most artistic projects can be judged based on the summation of its component parts; in the case of a novel, for example, by how well its characters are drawn, how smart a plot is devised, how realistic its dialogue is, how distinctive its author's style, and how well they all mix together in comparison to other projects from that period of history. And what's more, I think that these component parts to be examined change from one artistic medium to another, and that it's very important they change, because that's the very point of having different mediums to start with; that if you could judge a sculpture, for example, by the same criteria as a dance recital, philosophical essay or Flash animation, there'd be no reason for dance, philosophy or Flash to exist. For example, this sometimes comes as a surprise to the literary-heavy side of CCLaP's audience, but as someone who first came from a visual-arts background (I studied photography in school, not writing), I believe the pure formalist qualities of a visual image to be of primary importance when it comes to some mediums; that when you discuss things like photography and painting, for example, you can literally sometimes have pieces that succeed for no other reason than that they're "pretty," although like with everything else they're even more enjoyable when they do much more than this too.

Sunshine, the movie

And that brings us to the work of British filmmaker Danny Boyle, and of a complication that immediately arises when discussing his work; that although he is primarily known as a brilliant adapter of some awfully smart literary projects, ultimately his movies succeed because they are flawless visual objects, and in fact his critics say that they're much more that than they are anything else (like good movies, for example). It's the endless discussion about the visual arts that one always gets into when discussing the subject with erudite language-lovers; of whether the pure visual image alone is as important an aspect in the arts as the symbolic thing the project is "trying to say," and of which is more important if only one of the two is present in a modern film. Because let's lay our cards on the table right away, shall we? This could possibly be the best-looking science-fiction film in freaking history, combined with a script that's best described as "Philosophy Lite," which will alternately make you think of it as either an extra-smart movie for the masses or a dumbed-down flick for smarties. And as with almost all of Boyle's other films, it leaves you at the end wondering which of these criteria should really count for the most when eventually summing the experience up -- of whether the flabbergasting visuals deservedly carry you through to the end, or if the storyline ultimately fails before getting there.

Sunshine, the movie

Because make no mistake, one form or another of this discussion has arisen with just about every single film of Boyle's career -- starting all the way back with his 1994 controversial black-comedy feature debut Shallow Grave (the film that first got actor Ewan McGregor notice), then to his huge surprise success Trainspotting from 1996 (the one that made McGregor a star), on to the cultishly loved Leonardo DiCaprio debacle The Beach from 2000, all the way to his brilliant revamp of the zombie genre, 2002's 28 Days Later..., and even to his precociously delightful dark children's fable Millions in 2004. In all of these cases, basically the same question has arose from the audiences who pack themselves into theatres to see them; of whether we give Boyle's films too much collective credit for how good-looking they are, or whether they deserve to be known as great films precisely because they're so good-looking. Just what is the balance needed between a smart script, talented actors, and a forward-thinking cinematographer in order to make a "great" film, anyway?

Sunshine, the movie

And that's maybe where Boyle fans like myself would start, when defending him to the literary-heavy film critics of the world; that Boyle in fact usually starts out with pretty great scripts to begin with, and that this should be taken into account when looking at his overall ouevre. Because the fact is that Sunshine is a pretty smart script indeed, a "hard SF" tale penned by Alex Garland where a realistically plausible explanation behind all the fantastical things mentioned is a must in order for those things to make it into the film in the first place. In this case, for example, the story is set a mere 50 years in the future, where through complex circumstances our sun has become "poisoned" by anti-matter particles we barely understand; basically, it means that the sun is rapidly dying, millions of years before it's naturally supposed to, with for example the entire continent of Australia now permanently covered in snow and ice.

Sunshine, the movie

In a rush of desperation, then, the collective great minds of humanity have assembled a giant anti-matter bomb, led by the coincidentally heroin-chic handsome Celtic indie-guitarist-looking scientist Capa (Cillian Murphy), that they are in the middle of sending to the sun with a rag-tag ethnic rainbow of good-looking half-naked kinda sweaty astronauts, despite no one knowing if the bomb is really going to do any good or not. And, well, this is a number of years after sending a first spaceship that was supposed to have done the job themselves, to tell you the truth; just that the ship suddenly cut off all contact once it got close to the sun, with people on Earth never knowing what eventually happened, only that the mission failed. Did the first crew go crazy, getting that close to such an overpowering influence on the space/time/gravitational mesh of the universe itself? Was there a flaw with the ship that caused it to simply burn up before it could deliver its payload? Did they deliver the payload but it just didn't work?

Sunshine, the movie

That, frankly, is what makes this movie so successful as a sci-fi actioner, and is something that film students would be smart to study; that Garland and Boyle basically set up a situation here that is rushed and full of peril on its own, dependent on largely theoretical solutions that have never had a chance to be tested, being implemented by a frazzled crew of antisocial nerds who are having the kinds of electromagnetic pressures forced on them that no other human has ever endured. This infuses the story with chaos and conflict, as sure as a syringe full of alcohol being poked into a watermelon at a summer barbecue; it allows Boyle and Garland to very meticulously make everything with this crew slowly fall apart, one tiny little mistake at a time, always in a highly realistic way that makes you as an audience say, "Yep, yep, I could just see that happening, all right."

Sunshine, the movie

Now combine this, then, with yet another old-skool sci-fi element that's been getting this film a lot of notice from the world's fanboys, which is an examination of religion and metaphysics; because Boyle basically posits in Sunshine that the extreme gravitational and magnetic forces at play that close to the sun would basically drive humans crazy in an alarmingly short period of time, and that humans going crazy naturally means humans believing that they are receiving messages from God, witnessing apocalyptic omens and the like. It's manifested in a number of different ways throughout the film, most of which I'll let remain a surprise; I have to admit, though, especially since it's a subject dealt with almost from the beginning, how much I loved the ship psychologist's ongoing unhealthy relationship with prolonged exposure to the sun at that short distance, and how he comes to equate the blistering sun-showers with mystical visions from heaven itself.

I'm mostly a big slobbering fan of Boyle (I've seen five of his films now), but admit that his reliance on visual tricks can sometimes get in his way as an overall artist; that he can sometimes be too clever for his own good, especially in his earliest movies where he was simply struggling to make a name for himself. In Sunshine, though, he combines this outrageous vision with a smart genre-based script, a brilliant example of the three-act Hollywood thriller that never takes its audience's stupidity for granted, but rather assumes in each scene that you're smart enough to add two and two on your own. Yes, things can get a little hokey at times, I agree; given how many things can usually go wrong in a big-budget sci-fi actioner, though, and in this case how many things go right, I'm perfectly happy to deal with a little hokeyness along the way. If you're a fan of smart films that take place in outer space, and enjoy watching things that make your jaw drop literally to your stomach for a couple of hours, you should make very sure to add Sunshine to your queue list right away before everyone else hears about it and does it before you. Believe me, you'll be glad you did.

Out of 10:
Writing: 8.5
Acting: 8.6
Directing: 9.6
Cinematography: 10
Overall: 9.0, or 10 for science-fiction fans

Random notes:
--So why are the spacesuits gold in this movie? No scientific reason at all; it was done specifically so that Sunshine would be known in the future as "that movie with the gold spacesuits."

--Why so many Asians on the flight crew? Because of a political point Boyle wanted to make; that 50 years from now, he believes that China's space program will by then have become the world's most dominant.

--And by the way, after filming was complete on Sunshine, Boyle famously declared that it had cured him of his fear of taking on an effects-heavy blockbuster, but that it had been such a "spiritually exhausting" experience that he would most likely never revisit the subject of big-budget science-fiction again.

Best viewed: On a big giant screen back when it was originally playing in theatres. You schmuck.

Next on my queue list: Kill Bill. That's right, it's finally time; finally time for me to see this indie-indie-indie meta-meta-meta Tarantino-Tarantino-Tarantino karate-karate-karate film-film-film. Hmm.

Read even more about Sunshine: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:43 PM, February 26, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |