Don’t let its title fool you. Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is actually a dark, claustrophobic and creepy film that takes great delight in showing all the horrible ways space travel can kill you or drive you insane. The story revolves around a team of astronauts, including narrator/protagonist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, of 28 Days Later fame) who are sent to restart the sun with a Manhattan-sized nuclear payload, which is slowly dying because of…well…um…science and stuff. Yeah, we all know that’s not how the sun is really going to go, but it’s just a thing you have to accept, the same way you have to accept in Spider-Man that a spider bite can give Tobey Macguire the power to throw trucks at dudes made of sand.
There are a lot of spectacular death scenes in the film. One of the best has to be Chris Evans (the guy who played the human torch) freezing to death mere miles from the sun, in pitch darkness. That’s irony for you. I suppose they all deserve it for naming their ship the Icarus II (a not-so-subtle reference to the mythological kid who died because he flew too close to the sun). Believe it or not, they are only the SECOND crew to attempt the mission. The first ship, the Icarus I, failed for unknown reasons. Wow. The Icarus I failed and they still stuck with the name Icarus II. That’s determination for you.
I rarely rave about the visual effects in films. Generally, when I see the words ‘visually stunning’ or any variation thereof in a review, I immediately become skeptical. Such words are usually a euphemism for ‘mindless effects flick.’
But I have to say Sunshine is one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve ever seen. Not only does it boast some pretty awesome effects, it uses them more skillfully than almost any other movie I know. Danny Boyle plays with color in this film, alternating between long periods of cold, blue colors, and shorter scenes filled with the warm red and gold of the sun. The contrast makes the sun seem all the more beautiful when it does appear, and leaves you longing for more.
If you look closely at Sunshine, you’ll discover a nest of nagging little plot holes. Characters constantly beef about how they’re running out of oxygen when they have a BOMB THE SIZE OF MANHATTAN filled with Oxygen at the end of the ship. Seriously? That’s not enough air for 7 people? How much do they breathe? The whole oxygen problem starts when reflected sunlight passes through a window in the oxygen garden and lights it on fire. It’s not clear whose bright idea it was to install a window in the oxygen garden (seriously, it’s like the only place with windows on the whole ship) when for most of the movie there’s absolutely nothing to see out there (the ship’s massive solar shield cuts off most sunlight). I guess someone really wanted to look at the black void of space while they planted carrots.
I’d advise everyone not to examine the science of this movie too closely. It’s not really about that. It’s more about the suspense, about watching the teamwork and heroic sacrifice of the crew members and rooting for them to complete their mission against all odds.
Most of the criticism leveled against Sunshine has to do with a plot twist that occurs about forty minutes before the end of the movie. It turns out that Pinbacker (Mark Strong, barely visible beneath heavy scar makeup and weird camera tricks), the captain of the Icarus I, has turned into a psycho whose dearest ambition is to the the last man alive so he can have private chats with God. He sneaks on board the Icarus II when Capa and co. go to investigate the Icarus I’s distress beacon (NEVER investigate distress beacons if you’re in a sci-fi movie) and starts messing things up. People have accused Sunshine of abruptly turning into a slasher/horror film in its third act.
True, but the slasher film it turns into is still great fun to watch. As a villain, Pinbacker is both frightening and fascinating. And it’s not as though the movie didn’t not-so-subtly foreshadow this twist for the first hour and fifteen minutes. Granted, it might have been fun if Danny Boyle and Alex Garland (the screenwriter) had decided to do Sunshine as a psychological horror film and have us watch as the crew members were forced to deal with horrible moral dilemmas in order to complete their mission. I admit I felt a little cheated when the whole ‘not enough oxygen for all seven crewmembers’ issue was resolved for them by Pinbacker. It would have been more interesting had the crew had to decide for themselves who got to live, and who had to die. In some ways, avoiding the issue entirely feels like a cop-out.
But is it enough to ruin the movie? Not at all. Because the heroism of Capa and Mace (Chris Evans) comes out full force in the last thirty minutes, and it is breathtaking.
The one thing that brings it down a notch in my mind is its nonsensical climax. Capa arrives in the payload and finds Cassie (another crew member), who has been chased there by Pinbacker. For some reason, even though he had twenty minutes to kill her, she is just sitting there on the ground in the middle of the payload. Capa runs up to her, when Pinbacker, who I guess was hiding…somewhere… appears and grabs Capa by the neck.
Do you see a hiding place? Because I don’t…
A brief and pointless scuffle ensues. Pinbacker defeated (in the most vomit-inducing manner possible) Cassie just sort of lies there for no real reason and tells Capa to finish the mission on his own. That’s the last we see of her.
Sunshine is similar to I Am Legend in one respect at least– its original climax was thematically superior than the ending that made it to theaters. No doubt it seemed more marketable to end with a fight scene in the payload, even if said fight scene was poorly planned out and made no sense. It’s certainly the more traditional ending, but sometimes traditional is just another way of saying contrived.
Unlike I Am Legend, though, Sunshine rebounds with a great closing scene and ends on a high note. The last five minutes are some of the best in the entire film.