Popcorn Taxi: Sunshine

In space, nothing good ever happens. Really, I don’t know why you’d bother.

Science fiction from Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. That simple description of Sunshine may be enough to sell it to quite a few people.

Some wonder why more SF doesn’t get made and, beyond the fact of the high budgets expected to make them look good, there is a simple explanation: space is bleak. Sunshine gives hope, but ultimately all is an endless vacuum.

Trailer Warning: Don’t watch the trailer for this movie, as it apparently spoils many of the pertinent plot elements.

In 2057, the sun is dying. Icarus II, a ship piloted by eight astronauts, travels to the star so that it may explode a giant nuclear bomb and thus reignite the sun’s dying embers. When Icarus II receives a distress beacon from the failed Icarus mission, the plan deviates and things begin to go horribly wrong.

Sunshine is at first glance an exercise in monumental hubris. The name of the ship guarantees that the mission will not go smoothly, as any number of evil corporations named “Babel Project” from SF that have come before can attest to. This is freakishly lazy mythologising on the part of screenwriter Alex Garland, but it is both standard practice in this genre and, sadly, lots of people probably won’t even pick up on it.

We’re expected to take on face value that the sun will be on the brink of extinction in fifty years, and this is not taxing on suspension of disbelief. Every time the script could lean towards technobabble, it couches everything not in condescending terms but in the perfectly understandable concept that the sun is freakin’ hot. I doubt that audiences will have reason to be confused by Sunshine.
If you can accept that people need oxygen to breathe, there will be no problem on that front; if you can not accept that moments of hope can be snatched away from you quickly and violently, you may have some trouble with Sunshine. I like SF, probably more than the next fellow, but Sunshine isn’t the sort of movie I normally go for. I felt the tension all throughout the movie and was almost fully expecting to have somehow been plunged into the sun’s core myself by the end.

Boyle is almost sadistic in his direction. In moments of tension and isolation, solar bursts of peoples’ faces flash across the screen for less than a second. The first time it happened I wondered if I had seen it or just imagined it; it happened again too many times to discount, but far apart enough to creep the heck out of me.
A lot of the reason that I was on edge is because the movie makes no promises as to any given character’s mortality. As Boyle said in the interview, having an international cast that does not consist of megastars means that you’ve no idea of the order their characters are going to die in.

The protagonist is Cillian Murphy, putting on one of his many accents and again establishing himself as a versatile actor. Last time I saw him was in The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Ireland in danger of becoming a “Catholic backwater” in the 1910s and 20s is a significantly different setting to a claustrophobic mid 21st century ship in space.
The whole cast gets to run a gauntlet of emotions, and Chris Evans impresses in a way that he was never able to in The Fantastic Four and the teen movies that he has to his name. He plays to his strengths, which means that he gets to play Mace as an arrogant prick, but this time, his arrogance has support in reason. Evans should try an arrogance born of nobility and correctness more often; it suits him.

This was one of the more interesting Popcorn Taxi sessions, as Danny Boyle is clearly enamoured of film and can easily translate this to an audience. On a tight budget as these films go, Boyle was able to make a film that doesn’t compromise its aesthetic. He said that he has experienced weightlessness, but that people would not believe it were it to be portrayed realistically on screen.
Sunshine bombed in test screenings because the CG was not complete; people went into the screenings understanding perfectly that they would have to imagine the Icarus II, yet the most common feedback was “the spaceship was rubbish!”
Fox Searchlight, fortunately enough, understood that.
This seems to be the opposite of the case of Serenity, easily the best SF Western Zombie movie of the last several years. It probably wasn’t the greatest idea to test the movie almost exclusively through the lens of its most obsessive fans, but I wouldn’t have wanted the movie any other way. Perhaps test audiences aren’t the most reliable methods in this workaday world.

Boyle did not reference Firefly or Serenity, but he did mention that he was going to helm Alien: Resurrection at the stage when it was Whedon’s script. It’s interesting to note that he blamed any problems with that film on the extensive workshopping by Fox due, he says, to the restrictions placed on sequels. Sunshine is actually the effort of Fox Searchlight, who are practically respectable and hardly Draconian.

The dull patch of the Q&A came from a woman who complained about gender role stereotypes in the film – Michelle Yeoh as the ship’s “gardener”, for instance, and a woman with children being seen on Earth (how dare a woman be portrayed as a mother?!) – and that Boyle could have challenged these ideas. Boyle asserted that Yeoh had first pick of the roles, because in space scripts are written non gender or race specific, and she chose to be the botanist. He also contended that Rose Byrne’s character was actually the ship’s pilot. It pains me to think that people can read sexism into everything, but the women in this story are not victimised, sexualised nor dumbed down.

Sunshine is what it is: great and terrible. It’s not my standard issue cup of tea, but a movie has to take you out of your comfort zone sometimes and wager “so, who’s going to die first?”

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