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One has to wonder how much more successful British auteur Danny Boyle would be if he weren't such a genre hoping maverick. There's no denying his directorial acumen, and several of the films he's helmed (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions) are truly great expressions of the motion picture medium. But he's a hard artist to pin down, someone who'll work in suspense one moment, high brow comedy the next. So it's not surprising to see his name (along with 28 Days collaborator Alex Garland) on the recent sci-fi epic Sunshine. What is astonishing is how adept they both are at an otherwise complex and potentially problematic format - and how thought provoking and inspiring the final film is.
The sun is dying. Without some manner of mission to 'restart' it, Earth and everything on it will be plunged into an endless ice age from which nothing can survive. The Icarus II, a spaceship equiped with a nuclear device meant to reinvigorate the star, is following in the footsteps of a previously failed flight. The crew and its precious cargo disappeared near its solar target, and the follow-up group is uneasy about this trip. They fear the same fate as those who went before. As tensions flare and questions emerge, the Icarus II comes across its sister transport - abandoned and lifeless. Still carrying its payload, the question of what happened onboard looms large in the minds of those now facing its harrowing, haunted shell. Unfortunately, the answers will test every individual's personal mantle, and duty to the people of the planet in general.
Like a flawless post-modern companion piece to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sunshine is a sensational speculative experience. It resonates with themes that are as profound as they are prescient, and asks the big questions hoping the viewer can answer them inside their own philosophical sweep. Dealing with one of the most powerful themes in all of cinema - the scope of human duty - and delivering it in a high tech, up to date manner, we have thinking man's futurism at its most agreeable and accessible. Sunshine clearly proposes the following query - how far would you go to save the Earth. Not just your family and friends, loved ones and associates. Not just the people in your town or the residents of your state. No, Boyle and Garland want to put the fate of every last man, woman, and child in the hands of a few complex personalities, and see what happens when failure becomes a viable consequence. The answer is not just surprising, it's awe-inspiring. It argues for a movie much deeper than your standard space opera. In fact, this is more of a character study with cosmic consequences vs. a western retrofitted to a galaxy far, far away.
Serious science fiction has taken such a blow in the last few years, thanks in part to the Will Smith-ing of every thoughtful conceit, that when Sunshine shows up and proposes these issues, it can be a bit off-putting at first. We're just not used to seeing multifaceted ideas bandied about, nor are we asked to witness the inconclusive behavioral traits of others and measure our own tolerances against same. Post-modern sci-fi is oriented around the spectacle, not thoughtful conjecture, and Boyle buys into some of this. There are two huge set piece scenes - one involving a misplaced shield, the other dealing with the last act determination to succeed - that argue for the effectiveness of action in space. But without some manner of cogent context, without a way of making the histrionics bigger than who wins or who loses, these moments become minor blips in an overall cinematic scheme. When married to the notion of total destruction, when viewed as the last desperate act of a planet pleading for help however, these battles become epic. Even better, since we see the strength and determination behind each event, the universality of the dilemma hits us square in the face.
All aspects of the production are first rate. The acting is electric, Cillian Murphy especially good as the soft spoken creator of the 'star bomb". He holds the film together with his calm, considered placement of duty - and destiny - before self. Equally effective are Fantastic Four's Chris Evans (as a macho maverick with heart), Michelle Yeoh (as the ship's food supervisor and conscience), and Hiroyuki Sanada (as the crew's lead by example Captain). Even when the plot goes pear shaped near the end, turning esoteric and existential, Boyle and Garland take so much time creating these perplexed players that we instantly excuse - and even accept - the raging irrationality. The movie eventually makes sense, but it takes a couple of viewings to get a handle on the entire "playing God" paradigm. Gorgeous to look at, even more stunning to listen to (the soundtrack by Underworld is unbelievably great), Sunshine represents another brilliant canvas in Danny Boyle's considerable creative gallery. In an era that likes its speculation big, loud, lumbering, and loaded with cartoonish CGI, this is thought provoking, heartbreaking stuff.
Presented by Fox in every critic's favorite "Screening Only" review copy format (complete with random logo placement), it's hard to comment on the image here. When viewed in theaters this past summer, Sunshine looked spectacular. The transfer offered is less than impressive, but then again, it's not final product. One hopes the eventual 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic image surpasses the slightly compressed version experienced for this review. One imagines this will look stunning on the eventual Blu-Ray release.
Though information indicates that this screener provides all the necessary sonic situations of the final Fox packaging, this critic will again reserve judgment. The Dolby Digital 5.1 offered was good, but not great. There was limited use of the back channels, some minor distortion, and occasional problems with hearing the dialogue. The home theater set-up was thoroughly checked, so it must be the test disc DVD.
Luckily, all the proposed added content is present and accounted for - though, once again, relying on this review for your retail decision will be a clear case of caveat emptor. There's an informative and very detail oriented commentary from Boyle, an equally insightful discussion from the University of Manchester's Dr. Brian Cox, a collection of deleted scenes (with optional discussions from the director), a series of web production diaries, two short films, and the theatrical trailer. All of the bonus features are first rate. Boyle is an excellent guide through the film, and Cox delivers some interesting scientific takes on the material. The deleted scenes may help those still confused by the film, and the web diaries are the kind of informal, behind the scenes glimpses the new technology loves to champion. The odd element out here is the shorts. Boyle defends their inclusion (he has no involvement in either) as a way of spreading the wealth to filmmakers who may not otherwise get their work seen. Thankfully, both "Dad's Dead" and "Molehills" are wonderful - evocative and creative. They provide a pleasant surprise to an already overflowing collection of content.
It may take time for the brilliance of Boyle's Sunshine to sink it. Like Kubrick's masterpiece before, there are simply too many meaningful ideas offered to completely contemplate in one sitting. Age can also play a part in one's appreciation, along with sphere of sci-fi influence. If you want every intergalactic drama to be filled with laser battles and imaginary creatures, you'll be stunningly bored by this broad-minded experiment. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating (and possibly more, had final product specs been provided), this is also one of 2007's best films. It's also another artifact in Danny Boyle's baffling career arc. And where is the hard to peg filmmaker headed next? Why, Bollywood comedy, if you must ask. IMDb lists his next project as Slumdog Landlord, about a young man who goes on the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire to win the girl he loves. For any other director, that would be an aesthetic shift so mighty the resulting whiplash would derail their ability to create. Not this Jack of All Cinematic Trades. Such jarring juxtapositions are part of his production creed. And with results like Sunshine as proof, who are we to argue?
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