Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dwindling Sun an Apt Metaphor for Boyle's "Sunshine"

Director Danny Boyle has made a career out of surprising his audience. From the brilliant twist-ending in his 1994 debut “Shallow Grave” (before twist-endings were hip!), through his darkly comic and heartwarming view of heroin addicts in 1996’s “Trainspotting,” to the last-minute villain switch in 2002’s brilliant zombie flick “28 Days Later,” an audience always has to stay on their toes when Boyle is behind the camera. Heck, every scene of 1997’s Ewan McGregor/Cameron Diaz raucous rom-com (spoof?) “A Life Less Ordinary” seems to exist solely to undermine our expectations, and to terrific effect. Boyle’s films excel when they are at their least predictable, but with “Sunshine,” Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland prove there may be a limit to such gamesmanship. It pains me to say that, as “Sunshine” could have been Boyle’s second masterpiece (this is being written by a guy who saw Trainspotting seven times in the theater). Instead we’re left with two-thirds of a great movie that abruptly descends into slasher-flick fluff.

“Sunshine” wants to tell the story of a mission in space to save the Sun. It seems the Sun is fizzling out, threatening all life on Earth. An 8-person crew aboard the spaceship Icarus II is sent to drop an enormous nuclear weapon into the middle of the Sun in the hopes of sparking a re-ignition. Boyle and Gardner are plainly walking in the footsteps of Kubrick’s “2001” and Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” in this part of the film, as serene shots of the exterior of the spaceship are mixed with light character development and plot exhibition: the mission is explained to the audience, changed by the crew, and then severely fouled-up by a couple simple mistakes.

This whole part of the film works beautifully, moving at a thoughtful pace while slowly increasing the tension and the stakes, and adding layer-upon-layer of moral complexity and ambiguity. As with the best sci-fi, the actions and choices of individual characters become a representation of the whole scientific endeavor, with brave people reduced to insignificance by the immensity of an untamable nature but struggling valiantly on for the benefit of mankind. Though some of the plot elements (noble sacrifices, team dissention) feel recycled, they are always worked into the story effectively so as to avoid feeling trite or, even worse, like parody.

Then the crew reaches the Icarus I, the ship sent on the same mission 7 years ago which disappeared close to its completion, and all hell breaks loose, both for the characters and in the screenplay. Suddenly the efforts of these noble figures in the face of an already impossible mission are not enough, and an unexpected third-act villain is introduced. The film quickly shifts from its previously serenely eerie pace to a frenetic mish-mash of quick cuts, muddled camera tricks, pointless gross-outs, and slasher flick clichés. We may have been watching “2001” a second ago but all of a sudden we’re watching “Cube,” and the film falls apart because of it.

It’s difficult to know why Boyle and Garland felt it necessary to veer so suddenly into this new direction. Were they trying (and failing) to offer the already rich moral complexities a human foil? Was the prospect of eight people flying into the Sun to save humanity just not dramatic enough? Did they write themselves into a corner and this was the only way they found to escape? Or, most terrifying at all, did somebody remember three drafts of the script into that, while thoughtful philosophical sci-fi doesn’t sell, slasher movies do?

Whatever the reasons, the film remains a spectacular failure. Boyle has always had an impressive and daring visual sense and he pulls no punches here, using creative in-camera and editing tricks and stunning special effects to create an engrossing world and allow us access into the characters’ mental states. The design of the space shuttle is unique and believable, and as the Sun looms ever closer you can feel the heat radiating off the screen. It’s worth a rental for the images alone, though I would advise the reader to skip the end once things get stabby.

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