We have now reached week 3 of our 50 Mondays of Science Fiction films and we return to space with Danny Boyles bold Sunshine. Shall we?
A spaceship named Icarus II has been sent to reignite the Sun that is dying at a faster rate than expected using the last of Earths resources. As the crew reach Mercury they find the stationary Icarus I. Do they risk the mission and the lives of everyone back home to try and have two chances? Is the risk worth the reward?
Typically with an Alex Garland screenplay the characters are written to feel real, the decisions and discussions feel as if they are real and that they would resonably happen. There are no stereotypical characters who make cliché decisions, unless it is something that would happen in our reality. Almost every situation seems like if it was made due to the evidence to back it up. These are scientists and although there is an under current of angst between the group, it feels as you would expect with a group of people travelling for so long together. The first two acts are sublime and up there with the best in a science fiction film.
Visually, Sunshine is dazzling and thanks to an exceptional cast, you can see that Boyle was able to focus more on making the film look as brutally brilliant as possible. Boyle’s tendency to jump from genre to genre means that Sunshine would be a risk, and it most certainly was and a costly one financially. But it is beautiful and has rightfully since grown a strong support in the home release market.
Sunshine also boasts one of the best casts in recent years for a science fiction film. Leading the team is captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) who has to make the decision to risk it all for a second payload and boy is Sanada’s performance heart-breaking. First Officer Harvey (Troy Garity) plays the role of the audience throughout the film. Play it safe, get the job done and get home. A simple character on page but played tremendously by Garity). This leads us to the engineer of the payload to ignite the Sun, Capa (Cillian Murphy) who is given a rather thankless task of being as close to a protagonist as we get despite his distant nature. This is a hard character to feel for yet his performance, which was influenced by Professor Brian Cox (who was a consultant for the film) is very much on point.
Pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne) is the heart of the crew and thus our film. When the crew have to vote on a grim decision she falters, the non scientist/engineer who shows her emotions on her sleeve. This was actually quite an underrated performance from Byrne and in truth like the entire cast. Imagine the star power of putting all of these actors in a film now, it would be massive! Botanist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) is not given an awful lot to do, but what she does with such little material is very impressive. Engineer Mace (Chris Evans) plays the emotional hot-headed side very well and doesn’t push it when in other films you could easily see his character becoming a parody of itself. Psychologist Searle (Cliff Curtis) plays a character walks that fine line of being the true person giving assistance and needing it himself. I will always feel there was a missed opportunity in the film with his character. Trey (Benedict Wong) is utterly devastating and his performance is as real as it could be. I realise I have spent a fair bit of time talking about the cast, but it is important to note how much they improve the film as if any of the roles are miscast then the film falters badly.
For an hour Sunshine has you hooked, they reveal why certain decisions should not be made, and the costs of human error in scenarios with such high stakes. The aftershocks of each decision are really felt, Trey is utterly decimated emotionally by an error, you imagine this would be a real reaction. Whereas usually in films (specifically science-fiction) the characters move on after the death of a crew or team member too quickly. Alien did this well when Kane dies, you can feel the team is rocked by it, some try to think sensibly, some are overcome with revenge. A range of emotions is needed and thanks to Garlands writing and the exceptional cast we feel it. This is something that for me helped Sunshine step out from the other films of its ilk at the time. It felt authentic. Well, for the majority of the film…
Where Sunshine falters is the final act, it has always been the final act that causes the most issues even on rewatches. It turns into a science fiction horror and while it is still gripping, it just feels out of place for the first hour that we have witnessed and really jolts the viewer by being so different to what had happened beforehand. The miraculous survival of a character in a film that is fairly hard on its science facts is a stretch too far for it. Add this is with his reasons for his actions during the film and you get the idea that Garland and Boyle were just a little stuck on how to get to their ending. They obviously needed something dramatic, but instead, it could have perhaps been with one of the crew instead of an outside force as this would have kept it more central to this specific team.
Despite this, Sunshine is still a gripping film with all of the audience able to become easily attached to the crew. The visuals are outstanding, it is really just a shame that Sunshine grossed so little because of how great the weather was during that summer. The irony will never be lost I am sure. A film that set itself up to be remarkable, but just couldn’t stick the landing.
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