Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Good Morning Sunshine, The Earth Says Hello...

It's quite often that I miss films in the theater. I may be looking forward to a movie and it may simply pass without my knowledge or ability to get a chance to see it, or it may simply be too far down my list of titles to see that by the time I get around to it, it's out of theaters. This happens often, and usually the only way to rectify that situation is to nab a rental copy and hope your home setup is good enough to watch movies on. This happened three years ago for me with Sunshine, the 2007 sci-fi film directed by Danny Boyle and written by Alex Garland about a group of astronauts and scientists sent on a mission to save the planet.

The problem is the sun, which by the year 2057 has diminished in it's brightness, leading to the Earth undergoing a new Ice Age. Icarus II is the second ship to attempt this dangerous mission, to deliver a "stellar bomb" to attempt to reignite the sun and return it to full brightness. The first Icarus failed it's mission seven years ago after losing contact with Earth, and if Icarus II fails there will be no further Icarus missions, as Icarus II has used up the Earth's supply of fusion materials. The team of eight includes physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), who is the only crew member who can properly operate the bomb; Kaneda (Hiroyuki Saneda), the ship's captain; hotheaded engineer Mace (Chris Evans); Harvey (Troy Garity), the ship's communications officer and second in command; biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), who maintains the ship's oxygen garden; Cassie (Rose Byrne), the pilot; Searle (Cliff Curtis), the doctor and psychological officer; and Trey (Benedict Wong), the navigator. They've been living together en route to their destination for about fifteen months, and are on the last leg of their journey. Nerves are starting to fray due to the insularity of the mission and solar radiation cutting off communication from home. However, the estimates of oxygen supply and food look good, and the people aboard are fairly confident that they have enough resources to return home once their mission is complete.

Then things begin to go horribly wrong.

And to think, in three years he's on Lost
One of the reasons I wanted to see this film was all the good names attached to it. Danny Boyle made one of my favorite zombie films 28 Days Later, and it would be just one more year until his triumphant Slumdog Millionaire made him a superstar. Alex Garland may have also penned the screenplay for The Beach, which is almost unforgivable, but he is a talented writer with interesting ideas, and I loved his books The Beach (for which the movie was based) and The Tesseract, and he also wrote the screenplay for 28 Days Later. Chris Evans, though I'd seen nothing by him at the time, was an up-and-coming star. Michelle Yeoh was a superstar both here and at home in Hong Kong. All you needed at this point was a believable (or at least theoretically possible) premise and scenarios to make the whole thing salable, and thankfully, that's what Boyle does in telling this story.

No, in this film she doesn't rounhouse kick anyone
The ensemble acting cast does a fantastic job of portraying the everyday lives of deep space astronauts, each with varied quirks and breaking points. Murphy, as the brainy scientist, plays up his relative social inexperience well, as he speaks on a more blunt and scientific level than most on the ship. Evans plays the more typical military type, and though that type of character has little imagination in fiction, Evans does good work with it. Yeoh and Saneda make good mentors, Saneda's captain willing to risk anything for the mission to succeed, and Yeoh cultivates a believable relationship with her work, the oxygen garden she builds almost like her own baby. Byrne and Wong are both good, though neither is given too terribly much to do. Wong's character does go through a believable mental breakdown (as do most of the characters, to some degree) but neither really steals the spotlight from the others. Garity makes a great transformation from strong second in command to mewling child when adversity hits, and Curtis is possibly the best performer of them, a psychologist who seems to have an unhealthy fascination with the brightness of the sun. With this well balanced cast, we really get attached to most of them and are upset when the bad things that eventually happen come to be.

Wow, just... wow.
The special effects here are also larger than life, as they would have to be in most outer space filmography. The design of Icarus II is intricately designed, and looks amazing against the setting of deep space. Sunlight and solar flares twinkle realistically, and explosions, decompression and scorching do a great job of showing the dangers inherent in space travel. That said, some of the best effects of the film are appreciably better on a small scale, as most of the scenes are set in the almost claustrophobic halls of the ship. Boyle was inspired by Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot in this way, and also has noted inspiration from other famous works, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and the original Solaris.

Unfortunately, that's where the good in Sunshine ends. The final act is an unbelievable and oddly mediocre change of pace for the film, like something out of Event Horizon instead of the film I thought Sunshine was. To say anything more would spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but it seems lie the change might have been made to reach out to a wider audience. Also, so much derivative material means there's precious little that Doyle or Garland thought up on their own, making this film somewhat less special than it could have been. There are parts you will see coming a mile away, people you will know to be killed long before it happens, and only sterling acting and amazing effects prevent these parts from being such trite rubbish as they threaten to be.

Murphy literally plans to touch the sky here
Ultimately, I liked Sunshine. I do wish I'd seen the film in theaters, especially since it was a bomb and didn't make back it's $40 million price tag due mostly to nearly nonexistent marketing here in the States. Seeing it finally three years later however let me appreciate it for what it is, however, not what it was supposed to be then. In the end it's an interesting take on the "saving the world" tale, with a great ensemble cast and enough gritty storytelling to make the shoddy ending bearable. If you haven't seen it yet, I definitely recommend it.


brian said...

I like the ending. A lot. This is one of the best sci fi movies of the last ten years and is the only one I've seen that seems to realistically portray someone dying in deep space.

Oh, and it's got one of the best scores I've ever heard.

steve said...

Great post for a great little movie! I assume your disappointment stems from the captain of the Icarus I - what WAS the deal there? I, for one, didn't see it coming - and I still don't understand it

Gianni said...

Okay, this comment is going to need a standard spoiler alert: Steve is right, I was not a fan of Icarus I's captain making himself a nuisance towards the end of the film, I think the role could have easily been handled by one of the crew suffering a nervous breakdown. However, Brian does make some good points and I didn't mention the score, so thank you for that.

I'd have to think back to what I think are the best scifi movies of the last decade, though I'm almost certain last year's Moon and District 9 would top the list. I'd like to think Sunshine would be on that list somewhere, though.

steve said...

Don't forget 'Fantastic Four 2'!!!

Opinioness of the World said...

The best sci-fi films of the past decade are 'District 9' and 'Moon' (I agree with you, Gianni!) along with 'AI: Artificial Intelligence' and 'Donnie Darko.' And in the sub sci-fi genres: '28 Days Later,' 'X-Men 2,' and 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.'

brian said...

Ok, I did some research and discovered the best science fiction films of the 2000s. Here's a list in no order. These are non-negotiable.

Hollow Man
Jason X
War of the Worlds
A Scanner Darkly
Children of Men
The Fountain
District 9

Honorable mention (until I watch them again):

The Road

I feel like this list gives us a fair balance of more cerebral-boring-type of sci-fi (Primer, Scanner Darkly, The Fountain, Moon) and also the kind where lots of shit gets destroyed-people get murdered type of sci-fi (War of the Worlds, Hollow Man, Jason X).

Now, some of these pictures listed are true gems because they give us the both of best worlds. Make us think while also destroying/murdering lots of shit/people (Knowing, Sunshine, Children of Men).