The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, January 19, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Sunshine

Originally published 8/8/07
Full review behind the jump


: Danny Boyle
: Alex Garland
: Andrew MacDonald
: Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Mark Strong

I think where people will misjudge
Sunshine is to speak of it as a science-fiction film. But in this latest from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), outer space in the future is merely the setting. In every way that matters, Sunshine is actually a deeply Christian film, and let me explain why.

Since the Sun is what provides us with heat and energy and light and atmosphere and nourishment, you can make a reasonable case that the Sun is a kind of God to us. And if every complex element on the Periodic Table can only be forged in the heat of supernovas, then we are all the stars’ children. As the late Carl Sagan once said: “
If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” So if the world is threatened by the loss of the Sun’s power – the loss of God’s gifts to us – it must be the sons of God that make a sacrifice for our salvation. And the sacrifice will not be a light one.

That is the underlying mechanism of
Sunshine, and what gives it a force and awe that carries it over the bumps of a plot that turns out to be about less than meets the eye. While its situational conflicts reach a disappointing ceiling of ingenuity, emotionally it chooses to be about the limits of humanity: what we can be pushed to physically and psychologically; how the unbearable weight of a mission to save one’s whole species can grind on the emotions, and how no one can be unscathed when they’ve looked on the face of God. That is what lifts the film above matters of the flesh to be about something more eternal.

The story concerns the crew of the Icarus II on a mission to “re-ignite” the sun, which has faded enough to plunge the Earth into permanent winter. The ship, a long spire hiding in the shadow of an enormous mirrored shield, is strapped to a city-sized nuclear bomb made up of (I like this detail) all the fissible material left on Earth. If humanity survives, they might be better off without fissible things around. The first Icarus disappeared seven years before and nobody knows why. There will be no Icarus III.

The crew reminds me a lot of that from Ridley Scott’s original Alien, in that they are sweaty, and impatient with each other, and have been in isolation long enough that discipline has given way to a frayed pragmatism. Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) understands that when he gives an order the crew will respond like children told to clean their room, so he has adapted to become a reason-wielding consensus builder. His crew is international, and played by actors who are familiar but not household names – the filmmakers have a canny sense for putting interesting faces into counterintuitive roles. Michelle Yeoh, most famous to the West for action roles in Tomorrow Never Dies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, here keeps her deadly legs stowed, playing a horticulturalist. She maintains the greenhouse, loves her precious plants, and sees her fellow humans’ survival through the intractable filter of available oxygen and the number of lungs breathing it. It’s a complex yet eminently-believable reversal of empathy and calculation, and Yeoh pulls it off perfectly. Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor who has made chameleon-like use of his dark complexion over the years to play cops and drug dealers and Middle Eastern sheikhs, is the ship’s psychologist, who is studying the impact of their proximity to the Sun and does not seem aware that he is turning into the canary in the coal mine. It is largely his job to convey to the audience the heat of the furnace they are in, the sheer naïve scale of their small bodies and hopes cast against this ball of holy fire so immense that nothing else seems to exist anymore.

And in what emerges as the central role, Irish actor Cillian Murphy (whom Boyle plucked from obscurity to star in 28 Days Later but is most known as Scarecrow from Batman Begins) plays Capa, the physicist; the one who can work the bomb. These are characters in a situation where the normal value of an individual human life has been drastically redefined by the perspective of what’s at stake. But even within the confines of their doom, where one life is so cheap, they understand that the life of the one who works the bomb is a little less cheap. Murphy is blessed with the ability to enthrall an audience from the moment he’s on screen – his divine features and bottomless eyes seem to wear all and hide nothing. If no one ever thinks to cast him as a tormented Jesus reluctantly meeting his destiny, at least he had the chance to play this role, which is a reasonable approximation.

is more than the zero-g disaster flick a casual reading of its summary might suggest. Crises that emerge are not capricious outside threats but the tragically-inevitable foul-ups caused by our own imperfections. We must do the job though we are not worthy. Special effects are appropriately state-of-the-art and yet the movie resists the temptation to be impressed by them. Like all the works of man they pale in significance with that glowing Sun; most of the movie’s most memorable images are those that simply regard what the characters are up against.

It encompasses all ranges of suffering; fire and ice, assaults on mind and body, fast merciless deaths and slow unimaginable ones. Visually it moves from the stately to the frenetic with the confidence of the world-class filmmaker Boyle has become; at its best moments it plays like an audacious punk mash-up, the paranoia from John Carpenter’s re-make of The Thing injected into 2001: A Space Odyssey with transcendent results.

It may feel unfamiliar at first, since it does not smirk or condescend or fall prey to the usual gestures of the Michael Bay generation of filmmaking, but that’s not an obstacle for long. The type of storytelling Sunshine draws its power from has been around a couple thousand years longer.


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