In the pantheon of great science fiction, there are only a few truly great films. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris, Ridley Scott's Alien and Blade Runner: these are the types of films that define the genre and they are the benchmarks against which all sci-fi films, especially those with a philosophical bent, are measured. Executed well, a science fiction film can nearly transcend the medium; executed poorly, a science fiction film can fail spectacularly. Danny Boyle's Sunshine does neither and falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes: it's not a brilliant flick but neither is it a disastrous one. Those like myself who were expecting Boyle to deliver another groundbreaking film of Trainspotting or 28 Days Later-like proportions will likely be disappointed by Sunshine since, unlike what he did in those films, Boyle does not really bring anything new or all that compelling to the board here other than a few interesting visuals. That said, Sunshine is an enjoyable and often exhilarating film that, if you are willing to suspend an almost unreasonable amount of disbelief and just go along with it, can prove quite entertaining.
The premise of Sunshine is simple enough and at first blush seems too ridiculous even for hardened sci-fi veterans. The sun is cooling; the earth is freezing; humanity's last hope is a crew of eight sent to deploy a "stellar bomb" into the sun, which will apparently somehow solve the problem. While it may sound like a ridiculously bad disaster movie, it is somewhat more intelligent than might be expected. The exposition is handled in the film's first few minutes, allowing Boyle to settle back and craft what turns out to be, at least until the action heavy final act, an effective if somewhat conventional isolation drama. The crew faces all of the expected challenges: equipment failure, human error, interpersonal conflicts, morally ambiguous life and death decisions and, of course, an almost obligatory intercepted transmission. All of these elements are woven together by Boyle to form a tight, well-structured narrative that at the very least resonates on all the right emotional levels. Even in the most extreme situations, the choices that the characters make feel like the right ones and not like mere plot contrivances.
However, while it is reasonably intelligent and quite a lot of fun, Sunshine fails to be what it really wants to be. Boyle, probably too conscious of the great films that have boldly gone before him, has attempted to make the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Philosophically minded sci-fi is a tricky bag. What made 2001 so effective was its brilliant marriage of realistic technology and pure visual poetry. Even though he tries very hard to achieve it, Boyle never manages to arrive at this marriage like Kubrick did: inevitably, both the science and the poetry of the film interfere with each other. The poetry of Boyle's images is crushed beneath our unwillingness to believe what we are seeing and the images just don't make much sense from a rational point of view. For instance, in the final act there are several visual distortions and some editing techniques that are, as far as I can tell, supposed to be taken as representations both of madness and of the spatial and temporal implications of approaching the sun and its gravity. However, aside from some moments of real visual beauty, what is happening on screen is never quite clear - is this really happening or is this a metaphorical representation of a distorted mental state? This uneasy combination of science and poetry means that Sunshine often feels a bit conflicted and that it ultimately fails to overwhelm like good science fiction should. It packs punch but lacks elegance.
Sunshine is not a bad film. It is very competently directed, very well acted and it looks very good. It just isn't a great film. I really like Danny Boyle - Trainspotting is probably one of my favourite movies and I thought 28 Days Later was a brilliant reinvention of the zombie genre. Like 28 Days Later, Sunshine is at its best when it is played like a parable about human nature. Perhaps if Danny Boyle had foregone scientific plausibility entirely and attempted to make a work of pure poetry, like Darren Aronosky's under appreciated film The Fountain, he might have made a better film. As it is, Sunshine is entertaining and interesting flick that, though it aspires to it, falls short of true greatness.
experto crede: a casual recommendation