There’s a children’s chorus by May Butler that was popular about 30 years ago, but heard less often in churches these days. It starts off ...
Looking upwards every day,
Sunshine on our faces;
Pressing onward every day
Toward heavenly places.
Mixing a review of the film Sunshine and religion seems quite appropriate given elements of the storyline in Danny Boyle’s new work.
“Our sun is dying.Mankind faces extinction.”
The opening dialog feels like the start of an epic poem, and sets Sunshine up to be a more arty, contemplative piece than just a sci-fi action adventure disaster movie. It’s something of a cross between Deep Impact, Armageddon, 2001 Odyssey and Solaris. A strange mix.
The set up is that the previous ICARUS mission failed (seven years ago). We join the crew near the end of their journey. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. ICARUS II. Their purpose: “to create a star within a star”, to restart the sun. If they’re successful, eight minutes after they set of the bomb, Earth will be flooded with new light. So it’s a last chance mission to save humanity from a cold, dark death.
Visually the film’s palette consists of bright white, black, orange, slate grey, and tiny optimistic shoots of green. The screen alternates between total darkness, blinding light, and slabs of white on dark backgrounds. Clever face-reflected-in-glass shots. Whenever the ship’s crew aren’t quite sure what’s going on, the action blurs ... and it probably saved a fortune on prosthetics and detailed CGI in the last fifteen minutes of the film! And the soundtrack is a test for your local cinema’s bass bins - it’s all very deeeeeep.
For a ship that was being constructed as the second last ditch attempt to preserve life on earth, ICARUS II has a remarkable build quality. I’d have expected a less than perfect finish. No point painting everything uniformly. Would the crew have minded if a few corners had been cut. Time was of the essence? Or do heroes deserve better?
And before I forget: why do spaceships need external flashing lights? The ICARUS II has floodlit sections all over. It’s a complete waste of energy. There’s no one out there to bump into them as they sail through space towards the sun. Maybe it’s just in case someone on a passing comet wants to film the ship.
There are a couple of sets that form focal points of the film. There are repeated visits to the observation room, where the crew(s) can watch the sun through a filtered window. The fascination with the sun, an encouragement, a depressant, its life-giving light, its all consuming fire. The crew are sun worshippers. From early on in the film, the religious imagery is painted thick.
Getting there and back means that the ICARUS II needs to produce its own oxygen for the crew. Hurtling towards the sun, with only a massive gold shield (fashioned from all the remaining gold on Earth), photosynthesis is the answer, with the leafy oxygen farm. (It looks like the Eden project, unsurprisingly since that’s where it was filmed!)
Deep down, Sunshine is a disaster movie. One questionable decision leads to another. A litany of mistakes, each making the consequences of the next mistake all the greater. Like one bad throw of the dice causing you to slide down a Snakes and Ladders board. So close to the goal, and then so far away from where you were headed.
Yet in the middle of the bitterness, there are some crew willing to lead, and willing to make sacrifices. And in the middle of the darkness, there are green shoots of hope. One of the crew succinctly sums up the mission’s success criteria in his last message sent to family at home before the ICARUS II enters the radio dead zone near the sun.
“So if you wake up one morning and it’s a particularly beautiful day, you’ll know we made it.”
Dilemmas are faced. Yet they know that getting the bomb to the sun is more important than curiosity or saving lives. The crew are torn.
The closer they get to the sun, the more obsessed they become with it. It dominates their waking and their sleeping. Fascinated by the viewing gallery. Disturbed by fiery nightmares. The religious metaphor continues with morbidity as well as hope as they perhaps approach the end of their lives.
The final stages of the film are where it branches out from traditional middle-of-the-road sci-fi, and joins the Solaris appreciation society. In some ways, it saves having to sit through a disappointing ending with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat (or vice versa). But it mars the integrity of the film, introducing new elements to the film at such a late stage. And then in the final seconds, the action switches from space to Earth for the first time in the closing scene: a snowy field, that lacks the normal bright blinding whiteness.
Some parts of Sunshine are really worth seeing. It's a tremendous achievement for a relatively small investment. But it's not going to be a classic sci-fi that's talked about in twenty years time.
And before I forget, the trailers for 28 Weeks Later, Zodiac and Next (more fully, “Next, from the author of Minority Report”!) all look promising. Though sometimes, as in the case of Sunshine, the trailers are better than the actual film.