There are movies within this movie.
Early in Sunshine, the new Danny Boyle movie about astronauts on an earth-saving mission to the surface of the sun — following on the heels of an earlier, mysteriously failed attempt — one of the crew members visits an observation deck that gives him a well-framed view of the enormous, burning star his spaceship is approaching. His view of the retina-scorching spectacle is heavily filtered to protect his eyes; he suggests the onboard computer let a little more light in, dons a pair of shades, and absorbs the superheated spectacle. The molten textures and angry fire give way to a blazing whiteness that dilates and spreads into all corners of the theatrical frame, as though the photochemical shadows burned into celluloid were being eaten away, as if by acid, in the light of a purer expression of the very idea of image.
Because I’m an inveterate nerd, I immediately thought of the opening and closing sequences of Persona, in which an old-school arc-projection lamp is seen first flaring to life and then, later, extinguishing (to signal there’s no story left to tell). As usual, Bergman was after something spiritual with Persona — mainly a two-handed drama story of a mute actress and the nurse attending her, it eventually gains power by invoking full-throttle psychology, evoking and recasting pet Bergman themes (specifically, God’s Silence), and mischievously underscoring its own status as narrative artifact (by repeatedly drawing our attention to the fact that what we’re watching is light projected through a narrow mask of celluloid that reforms its image into representative shadows).
Yes, I think Sunshine has a little bit of Persona in it — as stylish as Boyle’s films are, they’re not quite as mannered as Bergman’s, but I felt that this time around he was calling my attention to the filmed image, comparing on some level my experience as a spectator in a darkened room to that of the astronauts, helpless and transfixed by the overpowering majesty of the single light source that illuminates our planet’s streets and cities like so many seats in a cosmic auditorium. And Sunshine is a film that’s full of screens — all of them in a wide aspect ratio that matches the film’s anamorphic proportions — from the image recorder that takes a video message from Capa (Cillian Murphy) meant for the folks back home to the tiny slits the spacesuited astronauts peer through in some of the film’s more desperate moments and, of course, that massive window through which our protagonists are allowed to gaze, carefully, upon the sun itself.
Now, I’m not completely nutty. I know that Sunshine is an amalgam of many things before it’s any kind of riff on Bergman, or a de facto remake of Dog Star Man. Screenwriter Alex Garland pillages Alien for the film’s drifting-in-space setting, including a computer you can talk to (Mother responded only with text on a screen, while this ship talks back); the visual-effects team seems to have been inspired in part by the spindly spaceship design of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and my feeling is the production design, at the very least, owes a debt to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, with its brightly lit but frighteningly sterile space-station corridors and the looming presence outside of a beautiful, vaguely malevolent entity that may bring you to enlightenment and drive you completely crazy at the same time. The tidy greenhouse on board feels like a miniaturization of the spacegoing nursery of Silent Running. And, oh yeah, it’s all probably a global-warming allegory, too.
Purely as a narrative, Sunshine holds together best in its first half. From a slow start, tension and momentum build as the flight closes in on the surface of the sun and complications, naturally, ensue. (You have to wonder why you’d design a spaceship that needs to fly to the sun in order to save your planet and then call it the Icarus.) But the tension is just a function of the story mechanics because the characters remain fairly bland — not much like the desperate, occasionally boisterous blue-collar crew of the Nostromo, these guys and gals are handsome, well-educated, competent ciphers. And because the characters don’t develop, Boyle is screwed in the second half, when our reaction to their specific sacrifices is dulled by the feeling that we don’t really know what drives any of these people anyway. The film’s gravest narrative misstep is a latter-reel development that moves it specifically, and arbitrarily, into horror-movie territory. Boyle may have had the spectral figures of Solaris in mind, but Sunshine‘s final gambit feels more like Event Horizon.
Fortunately, Sunshine functions a lot better in bigger-picture terms. For instance, its visual expressions of isolation and awestruck helplessness can be very moving, as in the juxtaposition of a tiny man in a spacesuit, hiding behind the spaceship’s heat-shielded, dish-shaped “payload,” which shadows him from the sun’s vast, fiery bulk. And, goodness, those special effects. Whether we’re watching the Icarus II traversing the cosmic deep, its various metal appendages twirling slowly against the black, or watching the sphere of Mercury drift laterally in its orbit across a frame dominated by blazing solar flares and sunspots, there’s never a moment that loses its apparent photographic integrity, and the film’s unrelenting use of reds, oranges and yellows and those piercing whites as the sun looms ever larger is almost tactile — it might play even better during the winter months. Despite its significant missteps, this is a must-see. (The music by Underworld is pretty great, too, especially at full volume.)
Spoilers begin here.
The climax of Sunshine moves into metaphysical territory, with Capa’s ultimate plunge into its fire treated as a philosophical or spiritual encounter (as such, it strongly recalls the ending of 2001). To get there, Capa has to defeat the captain of the original Icarus, who seems to have been driven mad by the act of gazing upon the sun’s surface. Or maybe he’s found God in the worst way — he aims to keep any meddling group of astronauts from interfering with the creator’s plan to extinguish human life. Because the film’s set-up so closely mirrors that of Alien, it may seem that the eventual unleashing of some kind of boogeyman in the halls of the Icarus II is inevitable, but it’s a miscalculation. (The Dogme 95 movement never amounted to much, but those crazy Scandinavians were right to warn serious filmmakers against embracing “superficial action.”) However, in a literary sense, it’s a decent metaphor for epiphany. If the sun really is the big arc lamp at the center of the galaxy, the storyteller that gives life to all things, then approaching it is like reaching out to touch the hand of God — an experience that, historically, has encouraged humankind to either save the world or mount an assault upon it. But it doesn’t work on screen, because, unlike Ridley Scott circa 1979, Boyle isn’t committed to the idea of a slasher movie, and thus his serial killer feels like a latex-crusted afterthought. It’s a cinematic vibe-buster. B