I’m gonna wait another week or so before I make the Oscars Movie pilgrimage. I need to see Wrestler, Rev Road, Reader and Frost/Nixon. As much as I like Fincher, Ben Button isn’t really tugging on my shirtsleeve.
But, of course, also on the list is Slumdog Millionaire. The larger fact, of course, is that Danny Boyle is simply one of the smartest mainstream filmmakers working today. Doesn’t it seem like he’s been around for years and years? ‘Shallow Grave’, ‘Trainspotting’, ‘A Life Less Ordinary’, ‘The Beach’, ’28 Days Later’, ‘Millions’, then ‘Sunshine’, then ‘Slumdog’. That’s it. Eight films. Lots of other TV work in England, some charming short films, but full-length, wide release? Eight. And 3 and 4 were generally considered failures. Are the others really that good? And my short answer is, in their way, Yes. Even 4 is at least an admirable failure – 3’s just a mess. And you don’t have to search much to find ardent ‘Beach’-loathers.
But this isn’t the Danny Boyle Project (the Russ conclusion is imminent!). Suffice to say you won’t find many more genuinely entertaining films to rent than ‘Millions’, and you could do much worse for science fiction than the intriguing and involving Sunshine.
The sun, in the near future, is dying, and the effects on the Earth are easy to imagine. The Icarus II has been sent to detonate a gigantic stellar bomb on the sun’s surface, essentially using the star to create a new star. Boyle doesn’t waste any time on How Bad Things Are For Everyone On Earth. The film starts on the immensely cool ship and stays on the immensely cool ship – the mission and its crew. In that order. Which raises some interesting plot issues, but also sets some nice conceptual boundaries for the filmmakers. Space and The Sun, and the immense scale thereof, are the primary subjects. The light, the heat, the dark, the cold, the silence – all of these specifics wind their ways into the look, feel and story in two or three different places each. And most of the time space feels like a positive place to be if you’re smart about it. Being in space is amazing. And The Mission is crucial. If they don’t do this, everybody dies. There’s no debate. Everything else is expendable – a reality acknowledged by the whole crew, but theory, of course, has an annoying way of turning to practice.
The people, while fully characterized and convincingly portrayed by really good actors, are nonetheless Boyle’s secondary consideration. This isn’t to say he squanders them, or takes them for granted, or can’t be bothered with them. It’s just that I think he decided early on that another crew of astronauts, military officers and scientists on a ship in space for years and years just didn’t require a ton of origin-story exposition or heart-tugging subplots, Again. No ‘Ever since I was a kid I dreamt…’ or ‘This one mission I was on this portentous thing happened…’ or ‘When this thing is over I’m gonna…’. They’re just pretty normal people with professional jobs. Boyle’s thorough in establishing, with his actors, the basics of who they are, what they do and where their individual strengths and weaknesses lie. And then he lets us fill in the rest across the threads of the story, keeping us in the present moment and giving us credit instead of spoonfeeding our highs and lows to us. (Curtis Hanson is another director who’s very generous about this – ‘L.A. Confidential’, ‘8-Mile’, ‘Wonder Boys’, ‘In Her Shoes’).
It’s not that anything that can go wrong will. What happens here is a series of well-intentioned decisions, initially based on seemingly good news (they find Icarus I, lost on the same mission ten years ago, intact), that start to distract our intrepids from The Thing Itself. If we just shift a little bit… whoops, that was bad, but Hey, we’re at ninety percent. Now we’ll just make it better – Hey, what happened there? Are you kidding? Oh,man… Each problem is solved ingeniously, but always at a cost. Each setback makes each crew member a little more survivalist, or supportive, or single-minded.
And then Boyle (and writer Alex Garland) throw us a curve, and introduce an outside element of sorts. The circumstances up until now have been so insular that it’s hard not to feel like this is a distraction, or a gimmick. For me, it fit, but I imagine not everyone will agree.
I found ‘Sunshine’ to be interesting and entertaining, as much for what it didn’t bother with as for what it did smartly. But I must admit, originality is not a hallmark here. I wasn’t bored with the familiar elements because they always led to fresher ideas and events. But it’s easy to point at that ‘Outland’ image here, that ‘Solaris’ feel in these scenes, those ‘Event Horizon’ plot points there. Here’s Kubrick, here’s Ridley Scott, here’s Doug Trumbull. It’s also pretty easy to pick apart after the fact – for instance, why go to Icarus I at all? Icarus II is good to go, tested and checked out. And how did that outside element get in in the first place? And appear in so many places with impunity? But Boyle and Garland have structured it so well that these are grist for the beer-after-the-movie conversations rather than distractions from within.
I should also express my delight that Chris Evans is really good here. I only knew him for his thankless and insufferable turns as Johnny Storm in the ‘Fantastic Four’ movies. Don’t be fooled by those travesties – the kid can act after all. Also good – the spectral Cillian Murphy, the dishy yet earthy Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh cast delightfully against type, and an unrecognizable Mark Strong as the aforementioned outside element. Strong almost single-handedly walked off with ‘Body Of Lies’, and if this guy’s workload stays consistent, he’ll be Oscar-bait in no time. Oddly enough, he was also in Istvan Szabo’s film ‘Sunshine’ in 1999 – an entirely different film with The Same Name! (It’s excellent as well.)
But I digress. I hereby declare ‘Sunshine’ to be a good time at the movies. It seems easy to pass on, but you’ll be glad you didn’t. Recommended.