The problem with experimental films is that sometimes they fail. Sunshine is just such a film. Directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Alex Garland, this has a wonderful pedigree – these are the same guys, after all, who brought us 28 Days Later – and really should work. But it doesn’t.
This isn’t to say the film is a complete failure. In fact, not only is it quite beautiful to look at, for the first half it’s very good. Like a lot of modern films though, it falls apart in the conclusion, mostly, I think because Boyle and Garland don’t trust their audience.
The story of the film is simple: In the not too distant future, our sun is dying and a crew of eight people have been sent to “re-start” it by igniting a bomb (known as “the payload”) deep inside. This is the second attempt, since the first, seven years earlier, vanished without a trace. This is also Earth’s “last, best hope,” since we used up every last bit of natural resources to build this second Icarus (the name of the ship) so if the mission fails, everyone dies. So the stakes are pretty high here. A few days out from dropping off the payload and high-tailing it for home, the crew of Icarus 2 discovers the original Icarus in orbit around the sun. When they decide to alter course and grab the second payload (two bombs are better than one, always), that’s when the trouble starts – not only for the crew, but for the film as well.
Up until this point, the film has been a slow build. We see some of the tensions boiling under the surface, tensions which it seems perfectly reasonable to have after spending 16 months together in an enclosed space. It feels like the film is going to be a character study, similar to the philosophical science fiction epic Solaris or even Boyle’s own breakthrough hit Shallow Grave. Instead when the crew of Icarus 2 boards Icarus, things start to go screwy. A mistake in the calculations to change orbit leads to external damage which leads to dangerous activities outside the ship in order to fix them. So far so good. The tension is getting ratcheted up and, I’ll tell you, Boyle does an amazing job of showing his viewers just how claustrophobic a space suit can be.
Then a second mistake happens and all of a sudden we’ve left the realm of psychological drama and have entered the milieu of random monster movie. Life threatening catastrophic events begin happening for no apparent reason other than they need to in order to increase the danger and tension. By the time the monster finally does show up, in a scene pulled in spirit from When a Stranger Calls, frankly, I’m getting bored. Why? This changes the whole dynamic of the film. Instead of dealing with internal conflict amongst the characters, they now have an external force to fight against, allowing them to put aside personal angst and come together for the betterment of humanity. This goes against grain of where the story had been heading and feels weak.
As I said earlier, though, it’s not a complete failure and I will still rush out and see whatever these two guys do next because at least they’re taking chances. They raise interesting questions about sacrifice, hope and duty and if they trusted their audience to stick with them through the psychological, instead of, as a friend put it, throwing boulders in the road, I think they would have created art.
(Originally published at FirstShowing.net)