If your husband or wife was sick and the only cure cost more than you could afford, would you steal the cure to save her? Would you go as far as to kill the shop owner? These are the kinds of dilemmas that can haunt minds. That particular dilemma was invented by psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg to test moral development. Danny Boyle’s new film Sunshine is a film that Kohlberg would have loved. In the film the dilemmas are more extreme and the wrong choices could lead to the end of all humanity.
The film takes place in 2057, that’s three years after Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was supposed to take place. For some reason every science fiction film since 2001: A Space Odyssey has tried to set themselves way too soon to be believed, but that’s a superficial complaint. In this unfavorable future the sun is dying for some unspecified reason. The last hope for humanity was to send a space ship called The Icarus to deliver a nulear bomb the size of a mountain right into the sun’s corona, unfortunately The Icarus failed to deliver its payload and disappeared. Earth dedicated its final remaining resources into another ship, The Icarus II, manned by an elite group of astronauts; this is where the film begins without wasting more than four or five lines to explain all of this. Delivering natural exposition and explaining all this technology in a graceful way is one of the film’s great strengths.
The international crew is made up of both American and Chinese members, it is left to the viewer to guess why these are the two nations collaborating to save humanity. Communications Officer and First Mate Harvey (Troy Garity) discovers a distress beacon from the first Icarus ship which Navigation Officer Trey (Benedict Wong) calculates had almost reached its destination before stopping for unknown reasons. Before anyone even brings up the idea of a rescue mission, such a plan is immediately shot down by the ship’s engineer Mace (Chris Evans) who reminds them that nothing can be more important than their mission to save humanity. The ship’s psychiatrist, Searle (Cliff Curtis), proposes a counter argument; Searle suggests that because of the unknown variables in the mission’s ultimate goal, it would be worth picking up the Icarus I’s payload as a backup in case their own failed, essentially giving humanity two last hopes instead of one. The ship’s Captain, Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), decides to place the decision in the hands of the most qualified member to decide; the onboard physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), who personally designed the bomb the ship is carrying.
The decision Capa makes, aside from being an ethical quagmire when it comes to the Icarus I’s crew, will affect all of humanity but more importantly it will affect all of Sunshine. Boyle’s film is loaded with these kinds of tough decisions under extraordinary circumstances, and all the decision’s the characters make dramatically affect the outcome of the mission. Theses decision’s however do not exist in a vacuum, surprises do occur and everyday mistakes will also affect the mission every bit as much as these foreseeable dilemmas, yet these seemingly random occurrences have a way of blooming into their own complicated situations and lead inevitably to more complicated decisions.
All this talk of Kohlberg dilemmas and tough decisions shouldn’t lead one to believe this is an entirely intellectual work of science fiction, in fact for the most part the movie is an outright thriller, albeit one that thrills the viewer with images and ideas more so than action. The film avoids wearing high minded philosophy, spirituality and metaphysics on its sleeve. These elements made 2001: A Space Odyssey sublime but also made works like Solaris (both the 1972 and 2002 version) boring as hell, while falling completely flat in fiascos like Mission to Mars. However there are very interesting things said in the movie about technology, death, and even religion, it’s just that these elements are subtle and never brought to the surface. These messages are there for those who want to find them but never take over the movie. The thriller aspects also tend to hold back, it never becomes as thrilling as something like Alien, but that also keeps it from the silliness featured in the likes of Event Horizon or Supernova (a space movie seen by myself and hopefully no one else). For the most part Sunshine manages to walk the line between the thriller-oriented entries in this genre and the intellectual entries.
This two-sidedness would be problematic if both sides didn’t work as well as they do. As a thriller the film works, there are suspense scenes that will have you clenching your seat and spooky, atmospheric scenes that work as well as most scenes of these type have, particularly effective is a pseudo-subliminal effect involving flashlights. These thrills are supported by a well written and intelligent script by Alex Garland, author of the novel The Beach which many felt was butchered by Boyle’s film adaptation of the same name. Notice that, while the dilemma described above works great as an intellectual challenge, the scene also introduces the audience to the characters that populate the ship and introduces their clashing personalities.
One argument that could be levied against Sunshine is that the characters that populate it feel more like types than fully developed characters. This is true to a degree, the characters are all static for the most part and none of them would support a movie on their own. However this line of criticism would lead the viewer to miss the mountain for the trees. This is in fact a classic ensemble film, individual characters are not the important. What is important is the way they interact, the many, many conflicts that form between all of them. This type of ensemble writing wouldn’t work without an excellent ensemble cast to make these personality types come to life in unique ways, luckily Sunshine’s cast doesn’t let the screenplay down. All of the actors deliver solid, mostly un-flashy performances that work for the movie, none of them are delivering performances for the ages but none of them take the viewer out of the movie. Some of the characters and cast members not named above include the ship’s pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne) and the ship’s botanist (Michelle Yeoh).
The technology in the film will seem rather familiar to anyone familiar with movies like this. The ship looks a lot like the ships in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris and the ultimate goal of reigniting the sun is ultimately nothing more than a macguffin, albeit an excellent one that provides most of the film’s best visuals. For the most part the film manages to be familiar without being derivative. There’s a shot that tends to be featured in almost every post-2001:ASO space movie where a ship is introduced at one end before fully entering frame revealing the ship’s actual massive size. The most famous example of this is probably the opening shot of the original Star Wars where a star destroyer flies forward onto frame revealing itself to be a massive triangular vessel. The establishing shot of Icarus II continues this tradition while subverting it; in this opening shot (viewable at the beginning of the film’s excellent teaser trailer) the Icarus appears massive before the camera pans around it to reveal a tiny ship that happens to be attached to a massive nuclear bomb. This shot exemplifies how the film manages to surprise veterans of the genre while showing them things they’ve seen before.
Sunshine is a film that has polarized critics, and for reasons I can understand. There is a dramatic change in tone in the last fourth of the movie that many will interpret as a sellout. This switch is the result of a plot twist I will not reveal, needless to say this hits the viewer like a bag of rocks and leads to a more kinetic and action oriented direction in the finale. During this portion the film gets a little to close to Event Horizon/Supernova territory for comfort. This ending may be a disappointment to those hoping for a character driven end or a metaphysical situation of a 2001 nature. However, as seemingly different as this ending is, it completely succeeds at what it’s trying to be, a tense and exiting finale that does lead the movie to a logical ending.
Sunshine is not for everybody; in fact it’s not for many. The film will mostly appeal to established fans of science fiction , those who have never heard of Close Encounters of the Third Kind might want to see something lighter. Still the movie is not inaccessible, anyone who is looking for an intelligent thriller may find something to enjoy. It’s a movie viewers will likely leave not sure what to think; their true opinion will likely be formed after careful consideration of the film. What’s undeniable is that the movie shoots for the moon, some will think it hits its target head on, some will think it misses but will likely find it floating among the stars. After thinking careful consideration I’m willing to join the former camp with only a few reservations.
**** out of four