Midnight Screening: Sunshine

This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …

It was only natural that Danny Boyle would direct a science fiction film, and probably no less a given that he would render hard science fiction through his peculiar and particular brand of frothy-icy, sensory style-as-substance. By 2007, he had taken on horror and family cinema, as well as the venerable mid-’90s drug-trip cottage genre, and arguably no genre breeds more fertile ground for a natural visualist than science fiction. Recasting the writer of his own 28 Days Later for a similarly mercurial screenplay, Boyle’s film follows a collection of American and Japanese astronauts in the near future on a quest to drop a payload of nuclear devices into the Sun, which is dying and presumably taking Earth along with it. The narrative twists to a point, but Sunshine is more an experiment in color and space as an avenue for human psychology than a narrative proper. Which is exactly the sort of science fiction that has been sent out into the wild and left waywardly wandering for the past several decades of cinema, and exactly why Boyle’s triumphant take on that mood of the genre is so refreshing.

Boyle’s film pontificates big ideas, but it doesn’t drown in them. Substance thrives on style, and we locate the greatest questions of all – what are the limits of humankind’s ego, chief among them – in quiet, brash bits of meditation and rage working as clashing complements. The film certainly has a drunken appreciation for the great wide empty hole of space, but Boyle asks, implicitly, whether mankind’s hubris is actually bigger still. The most haunting shot, though, reflects the wideness of space through the sparkling prism of the sunglasses of a man who hints at a death-drive to witness the sun in all its unfettered glory and oppressiveness. Here, the man meets his maker, and Boyle reminds us that, no matter how much heavy-lifting our human ego is capable of, space is an omnipresent prison of possibility and impossibility that can cut us down to size.

The cast of characters is varied, providing amiable turns for the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Chris Evans (back when he was merely that guy from Fantastic Four), and the irrepressible Cillian Murphy. All are effective, and some of the film’s best moments result from a simmering personal tension between characters – the nebbish Murphy and the brusque Evans, primarily – but the film isn’t heavy on character interaction. Garland, as he proved with his directorial debut Ex Machina, boasts a startling humility as a writer; he seems to prefer letting his director do the lion’s share of the work, even when, as in Ex Machina, he himself occupies that chair himself.

And great work Boyle does, right up to the film’s searing finale. It is no secret eight years later that the final third of Sunshine was something of a standoffish descent into genre cinema for many people, with Garland and Boyle almost turning the piece into a philosophical slasher film. Sunshine’s 2001: A Space Odyssey aspirations get away from it somewhere around the climax, but the flaring remnants of poetic truth in Boyle’s sublime visual sense, equal parts abstractly metaphorical and concretely aesthetic-first in approach, save the day still.

Toward the end, Boyle’s regal reds and hypnotically chilly blues coat rooms in a sinister, stalking color contrast that deconstructs the very idea of a space ship as a metaphysical hell. Throughout, Garland and Boyle mock the dubious nature of humanity’s unflagging belief that it can always band together to save itself. This finale, where the vast unknowability of space has put humankind in its place, turns the ship into something that resembles a gross malformation of the human id more than any kind of legitimately human construction. Here, the film denies us our very ability to build physical spaces to contain us and afford us safety. If Boyle does conclude with a warming gesture, proving himself the humanist we know him to be in the end, Sunshine is distinctly a statement of tough-love.

Score: 8.5/10

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