Sunshine – Very Nearly A Classic

Sitting through an awful cinematic experience can make one angry in the knowledge that the 90 minutes or so spent staring dumbfounded at the screen will never return to be lived more wisely. However, perhaps more depressing than suffering through a very bad film is enduring the disappointment of those that promise much but lose their way – films that could have been classics but for some bad decisions occurring somewhere in the production process.

Audiences go happily to these films, and are drawn in by the early signs of quality craftsmanship, only to find themselves watching in horror the film maker’s good work is unraveled in the final act. This effect can be seen in films such as Ai, Brazil and almost anything from Michel Gondry, and the results are at best disappointing, and at worst, in popular culture terms, forgettable.

It is worth restating that such films are not necessarily bad, merely that they do not deliver what they promise. This, of course, happens by degrees, where Brazil is eminently watchable but muddled and ineffective with its satire, while Ai undermines its darkly cutting social observations with an inexplicably sentimental final sequence which makes a repeat viewing impossible. But perhaps one of the best examples of a potential classic gone awry is Danny Boyle’s little remembered 2007 sci-fi suspense, Sunshine.

Its All in the Mind: Sunshine – What Went Right

Set at the inevitable point in the future when the sun begins to die, Sunshine concerns the crew of the space ship Icarus II, whose mission is to revitalize the fading star with a massive nuclear bomb (the ‘payload’) which will ensure the Earth’s survival. They follow in the wake of Icarus I, which failed to complete the same task, disappearing without a trace.

In essence, the narrative, as mentioned in website, is one of mankind’s fight with nature, and while the plot is fantastical, the seriousness of the telling gives realism and gravity to the drama. The atmosphere of the film, aided by muted colors and economical dialogue, is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and like that film, much of the tension comes from the viewer’s imagination rather than from action or gratuitous violence on screen.

Disasters soon befall the crew, as technical failures, power struggles and ineffective decision making lead to a threatened mission, loss of essential supplies, and multiple deaths. Each event puts more pressure on the crew and their already unstable relationships, leading to greater tension and more mishaps. The better part of Sunshine is effective for it contains true horror. The misfortunes of the crew each have plausible physical causes, but there are no obvious reasons why they should occur, save for the fundamental flaws of mankind. That it to say, there are no aliens or enemy ships or parallel dimensions – nothing that could be called an external threat.

Without these standard sci-fi dangers, it seems the struggle against nature is simply one that the human race is destined to lose. By presenting extinction as an inevitability, the crew’s actions, driven as they are by greed and fear, are rendered both petty and futile. Whether they place the bomb or not, the human race will ultimately disappear. In Sunshine, mortality is the enemy that cannot be beaten, and it doesn’t get much more terrifying than that. The result of this subtext should have been a tense, engaging, classic piece of cinema. However…

There Be Monsters Here – What Went Wrong

The thinned-down crew discover Icarus I, silently orbiting the sun. Tensions rise further as they consider whether to deviate from their course to investigate the failed mission and claim a second ‘payload’ or to complete their task and head for home. The decision to dock with the stricken vessel leads to the discovery of its dead crew and indications that their unaccounted-for captain had gone insane. It is at this point that audiences may let out a collective groan of concern. An exploding air-lock leaves one crew member stranded on the dead vessel, to die in the blazing heat of the sun, and another to float to his demise in the icy emptiness of space. These sequences are dramatically effective, but now questions start to arise. Why did the air-lock fail? Why can’t they find the captain?

The remaining crew makes it back to Icarus II to find insufficient food and oxygen, and a mysterious stranger aboard. The concern in the audience now bubbles over into full blown narrative despair as an army of sci-fi movie cliches comes galloping into view. Who could the stranger be? Yes, it’s the missing captain. Yes, he sabotaged Icarus I and caused the exploding air-lock. And it seems that living so close to the sun has turned him into some kind of radioactive monster. It is now that Sunshine moves into action-adventure mode – cue the mad captain hunting down Icarus II’s remaining crew, fisticuffs on the big bomb and the ultimate sacrifice as the ship plunges into the sun. And with the mission accomplished, Earth lives to see another day.

It Nearly Made It

Sunshine could have been incredibly good. But, instead of embracing the horror of the human condition, the film makers felt the need to introduce a monster. While monster movies can be effective, of which Alien is prime example, they work because they commit to that concept and instil the creature with significance. Sunshine, in contrast, seems to decide to be a monster movie in the last act, and the mad captain consequently makes no impact.

Ultimately, it is difficult to engage with that creation because it is difficult to relate to it. But the entire human race must face mortality and deal with the painful truth that people are the real monsters. Had Sunshine continued that theme to the end, it may have been a modern classic. As it is, the film is beautiful, well acted and atmospheric, but most tellingly, it is also forgotten. Let us not forget the classics and feel the difference these movies have.

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