There is much to be admired in the Danny Boyle/Alex Garland sci-fi spectacle Sunshine, but when it got to the end I was a little disappointed. It looks gorgeous throughout and the awesome opening sequence is a real scene-setter. I often say we can expect flawless effects as a basic minimum now and Sunshine does its bit here to perfection – very nicely realised, if a little reminiscent of The Core in the closing minutes…
The performances are all capable, even if the characters are a little clichéd: there’s the Arrogant Jock type (Americanism, not Scot); the Soft-Hearted Crew’s Baby type; the Minor Officer Who Can’t Handle The Pressure type; three more or less Taciturn Orientals Who Might Flip To Ragingly Over-Emotional Under The Right Conditions, er, types; and of course, the Fish Out Of Water But Brilliant Scientist type, who is our hero. Then there is the criminally under-used, and therefore most interesting, Knife’s-Edge Psychologist Who Really Ought To Have Been The Baddie – instead of The Actual Baddie, who is tied in to most of my displeasure.
I understand that director Boyle and writer Garland are both “committed” atheists. Whether that means they are better at it than normal ones I don’t know, but apparently they themselves have noted that this drama comes to hinge on a “spiritual” aspect in spite of themselves. Now I have no problem with this in general. It is true of all drama that the human response drives the story, and with sci-fi it is particularly important that it not just be a load of wow technology with no core the audience can relate to.
While Sunshine begins with a sort of general spiritual issue, by the end it has degenerated into Judeo-Christian God Worship – AGAIN. Sun-God Worship too in this case, but so what? I’m just bored with it, and coming from two “committed” atheists it simply strikes me as a lazy alternative to deep thinking. Or, and lets bare in mind for a moment the previously-trod ground we are on here, maybe it’s just a lack of originality.
They start off with glimpses of something new, solar bathing as a kind of new age-y, sensory deprivation/overload experience – to me this is interesting, it shows one of the ways the stresses of the situation are effecting the crew’s judgement – but to flip from this straight to “My God Of The Sun Says I’M The Only One Who Gets To Witness His Divine Blah Blah Blah” – to me that says precisely nothing. It is lunatics spouting crap like that that secures me in my comfortable atheism – I can’t imagine that is why they have chosen this path, but if you are going to do this you should show us the deterioration of an apparently rational science-head to this pitiful state, not just spring a nutter on us.
The story is set up perfectly well to show this – our Interesting Psychologist type is ripe for a descent into madness, so we should be wondering, which member of these formerly rational minds is going to fracture first and why? Instead, we get sidetracked onto a non-rescue mission purely in order to allow a New Psycho Villain type to jump ship and take the emotional blame, complete with self-appointed Divine Authority, super-human strength and bad sunburn, but no blindness, no lethal tumours after six years of near-sun-bathing, no logic. It’s lazy and stupid – and a total let down for what was even at this quite late point an otherwise well crafted bit of entertainment.
So what does it steal? The distress call from Alien – but without an alien. The disobedient computer from, well, all over the place but mainly 2001: A Space Odyssey – but without sentience, or any plot based on the acquisition of sentience, so… just a talking machine then. The precious, please no don’t let THEM burn gardens from Silent Running – but no cute robots or eco-message. The physically disfigured super-villain from Event Horizon – only without the justification through character and story, or anything but the flimsiest last-gasp possibility of there actually being a supernatural aspect to the plot, to justify said villain’s super-human attributes.
Ah, but what does it bring of it’s own? A basic premise, fair enough, although one firmly embedded in the Disaster Aversion genre. Undeniably stunning visuals. And the faint possibility that Boyle and Garland aren’t atheists at all but actually believe that God is a big blue ball of light in the centre of the sun – in which case, ahaha, yes: they should be committed (atheists or otherwise).
Now, finally, the ultimate purpose of any and all texts, be they literary, cinematic, or whatever: What does it say? What is this film’s message? Why have I spent a period of my life in observation of this subject? Don’t wait for an answer, I’m asking myself these questions. I haven’t really got the slightest idea of what the film tries to teach me about the human condition, because it’s all plot. Plot, plot, plot, finish. There’s no unlocking of human hearts going on here, at least not in any way that is coordinated to Mean Something by the end. Yes, Sunshine is way better than Armageddon for example, sparing us the Noble Hero Slo-Mo Walk and so on is a blessing; but awful as it was at least in Armageddon the characters learn and grow in an identifiable way, even if it is all shitty cliché.
In Sunshine we learn… we learn that… the sun is hot, and necessary, because without it we’d all die, so if it’s going to go out we’d better fix the problem while we have the chance. I don’t think we learn anything else, although not learning it is an exciting if not entirely satisfying experience.
Once again it comes down to this: no-one does it as well as Kubrick did it, 25 million years ago now. The reason Kubrick did it so well isn’t just the use of ground-breaking technology, but of ground breaking story – and 2001: ASO remains the filmic equivalent of Voyager I: all alone and very very far ahead of the competition.