The last five years have been very kind to Danny Boyle. Since 2008 he has enjoyed a wave of critical acclaim, with the Oscar success of Slumdog Millionaire, nominations for 127 Hours, and the rapturous reception for his opening and closing ceremonies for the London Olympics. His most recent film, Trance, sees Boyle kicking back just a little bit, to indulge himself and enjoy his success.
Lest we forget, however, that film is an unstable and unpredictable business; there is no road map to booming box office or Oscar glory. Slumdog Millionaire was originally going to go straight-to-video, only seeing the light of day after a last-minute deal with Fox Searchlight. The year before, Boyle delivered Sunshine, a thought-provoking science fiction film with a great cast - that promptly underperformed after being released on the hottest day of the year. Six years on, the film still has its problems, but it remains an impressive cinematic experience.
Even if nothing else about it worked, Sunshine is a visually arresting film containing moments of beauty and splendour. The film is shot by Alwin H. Kuchler, who worked on Michael Winterbottom on The Claim and Code 46. He makes very conscious choices with the colour palette to juxtapose the interior of Icarus II with the loneliness of space. Inside the ship the screen is dominated by greens and blues that put us at ease, so that when we cut to the bright yellow sun, it feels like it is invading us. It's a very effective ploy of both making the crews' behaviour seem natural and conveying the devastating power of a dying star.
Other aspects of the production design are equally arresting. So many sci-fi films have space suits that feel like direct copies of NASA suits, often out of a desire for realism and direct comparison with our society. The suits in Sunshine, nicknamed 'Kenny suits' after their resemblance to the South Park character, are far more unusual and bespoke; they are showcased for their advanced technology, but also their shortcomings, with characters falling over due to their weight. The design of the Icarus spacecraft is a similar case of verisimilitude; we think we recognise details from Silent Running or Event Horizon, but it still feels like an original design.
Not only does Sunshine look good, it is also effectively directed. Boyle uses subliminal imagery in the form of quick cuts when the crew enters the Icarus I, putting us on edge and forcing us to second-guess ourselves. More effective, however, is the rendition of Pinbacker, who serves as the hyper-stylised intruder to this gritty vision of space.
Boyle shot Mark Strong's scenes with two lenses simultaneously, on in and one out of focus, and then overlaid the images in post-production. The resulting blurry effect puts us in an area of panic, withholding the villain in plain sight and making him more frightening. Even as we see him right in front of us, we get only the merest hint of his face or the extent of his burns. As a result he increases in power and takes on a more mythical, demonic quality, being much more Hellraiser than Hallowe'en.
There is a very conscious effort on Boyle's part to situate Sunshine in the pantheon of classic science fiction. While it is a product of its time in its budget, effects and directorial style, the works it draws upon are all at the smarter, bleaker, more introspective end of the sci-fi genre. There are big hints of Alien in the blue-collar surroundings and the various hierarchies that spring up within the crew. Pinbacker's character is a direct nod to John Carpenter's Dark Star, which subsequent led to Alien. If you were feeling facetious, you could speculate that this character is what Sergeant Pinback could have become had he survived past the end credits.
Like Alien and Event Horizon after it, the plot of Sunshine centres around the terrifying consequences of answering a distress call, though the monster in this case is a lot less Freudian or rooted in body horror. The airlock sequence is a straightforward nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey, while the scenes in the oxygen garden are clearly inspired by Silent Running, with Michelle Yeoh standing in for Bruce Dern.
There are also thematic nods to Solaris in the crew's memories of Earth, and their troubling dreams of their families back home. And in its final reel the film does embrace or invoke many conventions of the slasher movie sub-genre. But where a lesser film would channel these without bringing anything new to the table, Sunshine raises a number of interesting ideas of its own. Not all of them are explored fully or resolved to a satisfying degree, but until its final act it is very much a thinking person's sci-fi film.
One such theme that keeps cropping up is finding or perceiving beauty in acts of great destruction. This is most evident in Pinbacker, who believes that allowing the human race to die out is part of God's plan. But the other characters reflect this idea too, albeit in ways that are far more equivocal. Capa reflects on the Sun as something that simultaneously kills and brings life; he is drawn to understanding how something can inspire such awe in the face of possible malice.
The film also explores the ethics of suicide and despair, something borne out in both Trey's fate and that of the human race. Capa's confidence in the mission and its eventual success is contrasted with the reluctance of the crew and the extremism of Pinbacker. Both take the failure of Icarus I to mean that death is increasingly the only option, differing merely on how and when they wish to die.
Within this there is a discussion of the interests of the many versus those of the few. After a near-miss that leads to Kaneda's death and Trey's suicidal tendencies, the crew speculate about how best to conserve the oxygen. In doing so the films raises a number of interesting questions. Does prioritising the needs of the many actually erode our humanity - for instance, agreeing to kill Trey to have enough oxygen to deliver the payload? If so, are we losing the very thing that the payload is designed to preserve? Is there any point surviving if we have no morals or ideals to survive for?
The film also delves into theology, using both the mission and the villain as focal points for a discussion of God's nature. The Sun symbolises God, something or someone that can simultaneously be viewed as a benevolent creator or a needlessly vindictive tormentor. Boyle described Pinbacker as the embodiment of fundamentalism; where Capa uses the circumstances to shape his ideas through scientific observation, Pinbacker forces his ideas onto the circumstances and will not be dissuaded from his calling.
But much like Life of Pi last year, this is the point where Sunshine starts losing its grip. Both films are feasts for the senses which feel amazing when you watch them, but both are intellectually and theologically undernourished. There are lots of interesting jumping-on points, but none of them are fully seized upon. There is a difference between developing a sense of ambiguity and idly raising ideas in the hope of seeming profound, and Sunshine settles for the latter just a little too much.
The film's scientific inaccuracies have been widely documented, and for the most part the objections are valid: you couldn't 'restart' a sun with a bomb the size of Manhattan. But this is not a problem for the most part, since the science is a backdrop for an examination of themes and morals pertaining to the human condition. It becomes a problem in the final section, when the film shifts into horror territory and common sense is suspended in order to kill the cast and blow things up. The film suffers from the same basic problem as Event Horizon: it builds to great heights, and then takes the easy way out.
Sunshine is an engrossing and visually arresting film which delivers on enough of its substance to make it worth the trip. While it doesn't fulfil on all of its ideas or end in a way that's entirely satisfying, it is a well-directed slice of sci-fi melancholy which will burn its way into your memory. If nothing else it proves it is still possible to make sci-fi films about ideas - even if it took more than 8 minutes for audiences to catch on.