Sunshine (9/10)

The guy who helmed the revamp of the zombie genre 28 Days Later is back and still in top form in Sunshine, the most dazzling and awe-inspiring movie I’ve seen this year and one that, like the zombie predecessor, ingeniously takes all the conventions and rules of the genre from similar space adventure movies (Solaris, Alien, Apollo 13, Armageddon) and transforms them into a whole that cannot be described as anything other than hauntingly beautiful.

Our sun is dying, sending the Earth into an Ice Age, and humanity’s last hope rests with the Icarus II, a ship that contains a bomb whose mass is equivalent to “about the size of Manhattan.” Their mission? To travel to the sun to drop the bomb straight down into the dying star. As the name of their ship implies, there has already been an Icarus I, who made the exact same attempt, but did not succeed, and were never heard from again. The movie begins about 14 months into the Icarus II’s mission, when cabin fever is starting to run high and the crew begins to grate on each other’s nerves. Sure, this may sound like the typical “a bunch of people trapped in a confined space go crazy” scenario, but it’s more than that because aside from a mistake or two, the crew keeps their level heads and they actually remain reasonable throughout, and their insanity feels real because the claustrophobia is felt by the audience too. Through frequent sweeping camera shots of the ship as it approaches the sun, we feel the intense pressure of space pressing down upon us and the crew, so them breaking out into a fight once in awhile is completely believable.

Psycho and physiological time bombs are planted early on, so that developments later don’t seem tacked on as cheap or unnecessary. Most every development in the movie is a believable occurrence, giving us the feel that this kind of thing actually could happen. When a crew member openly admits that he made a mistake, it only further infuses the celluloid with the gripping realism that makes Sunshine so powerful. The best way to treat genre movies has never been to turn the characters into archetypes, never to film and script with a wink at the camera every second, but more to treat everything that’s happening as completely real. Never falter once, never doubt that everything the characters you’ve created are real, actual people, and your movie will succeed. This is why “The Descent” was such a paralyzing masterpiece, because the women were strong individuals whose character shone even in the darkness of the cave. Of course, this can be taken over the top. Sometimes characters are so intensely involved in the reality of their situation that it comes off as nothing more than cheap camp. Yes, I’m looking at you, Jim Carrey. In Sunshine, both Danny Boyle and the entire cast gives us stellar (no pun intended) performances from beginning to end. They strike the perfect balance of seriousness and self-awareness. And because of this perfect balance, never does this film come off as if all the characters act like typical horror-everything-that-can-go-wrong-will people. They are smart, sure, and savvy, and the goof-ups are always believable, never really tacked on. The entire cast, from the always captivating Cillian Murphy, to the reliably brilliant Michelle Yeoh, even the human torch from the cheesy Fantastic Four, Chris Evans, gives us believable and strikingly amazing performances. In the final forty or fifty minutes of the movie, as everything begins to go wrong, these people hold their humanity strikingly well and their pain and psychological trauma is only that much more heartbreaking.

The special effects in this movie are also nothing to sniff at. The sheer awesome power of the sun pulses through every frame, frying and vaporizing my expectations to mere ashes. I came into this movie expecting a sci-fi spectacle of grand proportions, but nothing could have prepared me for how well-done and accomplished the special effects are. A less talented director would have unimaginatively treated the sun as a mere destination point, but with Boyle at the wheel, it becomes a mighty God of a thing, with a will, purpose, and fiery determination. A couple of the characters even have a special kind of awe and respect for the sun that mirrored my own awe and respect for the movie itself. Because of the ingenious way of how the sun is set up, it never comes off as a cheap effect or a “oh great here’s another shot of the sun.” Boyle lovingly sets up every frame and majestically sweeps his camera through space to capture the intense and fiery beauty of the dying star. A couple of special effects shots almost had me crying because they were so vast and spectacular, even frightening. Boyle doesn’t make the mistake of setting up the sun in a too personal way. There is never even a question that this sun will kill you without a second thought, which only makes the solar waves pounding toward two of the crew members on top of the space ship more terrifying and exhilarating. These words on this internet page can’t even come close to describing the wonder and awe to behold that are the special effects, and they only get more wonderful and spectacular as the film goes along.

I don’t want to give away too much, but in the last twenty minutes, Sunshine goes down a path that many may not expect, and that probably won’t sit well with some, but I, for one, immensely enjoyed how Danny Boyle took that risk, and I think it paid off. And generally, I do give the benefit of the doubt to directors who do this. It’s why I liked Spider-Man 3 more than most people, simply because Sam Raimi could have easily coasted to a star finish, he pushed the envelope in a great way. I would have been disappointed with Sunshine, not given it as high a rating, if it didn’t finish off with that extra whammy that still has me reeling. I need to see that movie again. One thing that Sunshine did seem to lack was the kind of powerful human oomph that lay behind his great 28 Days Later. Boyle touches on the depravity of humanity and raises some interesting moral questions, but they aren’t as competently explored as in his zombie movie. I honestly find this a minor quibble, though, as the film makes up for it in literally every possible way. The music for this movie is also wonderfully appropriate. It carries you along on this solitary doomed mission through space, effortlessly haunting the screen with echoing notes of creepiness, solitude, horror, awe, and wonder. Each pitch is perfect, each note is breathtaking, each melody is haunting.

The best movies I’ve seen this summer are Ratatouille and The Bourne Ultimatum, and Sunshine has now been added to that list, maybe even surpassing the Bourne flick. It’s just such a magnificent space opera of epic proportions that even though it may contain elements that we’ve seen in movies for the past twenty years, that doesn’t meant that it’s not good. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, Boyle has done with space epics what he did with zombie films – taken everything that we know and love (and maybe sometimes hate) about the genre, and morphed it into a beautifully woven tapestry that captures the real core essence of all the previous films while transforming it into something entirely new. Sunshine dazzles with its spectacular brilliance, real-life characters, haunting atmosphere, and creepy music, and its pure vision will have you wanting to see it again and again.

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