Unexpectedly free on a Friday night, I rang Spence and we saw Sunshine (IMDB) at the Neptune last night. Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), the film’s narrative concerns a second and final attempt to reignite the dying hearth of Sol via nuclear injection.
I think the film is actually most concerned with three non-narrative filmic objectives. I’ll enumerate them in descending order of ambition.
The primary objective and possible inspiration appears to have been making a bleak, nihilist film about light and the exploration of light as religious metaphor and as the underlying, unifying basis of filmmaking itself. In this view, the narrative’s concern with reigniting the sun can be seen as an attempt to reignite the sources of western religion and/or the sources of western genre film making. The nihilism, however, undercuts the film’s apparent call for a rebirth of film.
Second, Boyle looks to have a goal of re-envisioning effects as the basis of sci-fi film and sublimating the effects shot to the camera effect. The film deploys effects shots to good order and suitably showed me things new to my eye. Two in particular stay with me. First, an image of a doomed spacewalker literally washed away in a solar wave, light imagined as a tsunami of flame which erases the suited figure, hanging in space. Second, a transit of Mercury viewed, apparently, from inside 36 million miles distance to the sun.
There are numerous exterior effects shots of both solar spark plug ships, even, improbably, a revisitation of the open-airlock sequence from 2001 which appears to have been the direct result of a classic studio-boardroom one-upsmanship meeting, and which may be notable in the history of sci-fi for it’s careful depiction of the consequences of improper tailoring.
Despite this, the film’s visual heart is in some seriously over-the-top optical effects, including single-frame drop-ins, crazy lens-stretches, focus pulls, camera rotations, lens-flare overlays, and so many shots that erode the image via quick cuts, overlaid imagery, and the like that one loses count of the moments when one is looking at a wholly abstract film image, no form, only light and color.
Finally, and in the end distractingly for me, the film is literally packed with direct references to a specific canon of science-fiction films, more or less beginning with the twin monoliths of 2001 and the originial Solaris, but also clearly nodding in direct sequences, plot elements, or dialog toward Darkstar, Silent Running, Blade Runner (listen for the Vangelis endtitle theme), Alien (in this case, excerpting several lines of dialog, possibly a crew-hat, and what must be the statutorily-required crew-dines-at-an-illuminated-table-surface scene), and the entire stalker-in-space subgenre that Alien accidentally summoned into being (The Abyss, The Sphere, etc.).
The density of reference can be justified within the framework of the film’s apparent call for a rebirth of sci-fi filmmaking. After all, a baroque period customarily precedes a scourging change of stylistic seasons. What’s odd about this film is that the baroque referentiality which might justify the film’s call for scourging and rebirth are not, to me, exemplified by the films it quotes with such reverence. Instead, the film’s impetus for rebirth seems to be exemplified by itself.
Granted, while we live in an age in which the well-funded, thematically ambitious men-in-space scifi film is far from the rarity it was when 2001 first hove into view. It’s also true that recent examples of the genre have had a mixed track record and tended to the obvious rather than the visionary, popcorn movies or clumsy franchise sequels instead of protean visions of transcendence or squalor.
What’s odd, in the end, about Sunshine is that it is, in fact, clearly out of the league of that herd of starships and space cowboys. Yet, by studiously displaying its unassailable heritage it gives its own game away. One wonders to what extent the retread elements in the script and plot emerged as a result of studio-mandated rework and which were there from the beginning. It seems to me the film’s visual splendor and direct interest in light-as-metaphor should have been enough to create a truly unique, intellectually and spiritually challenging SF film as successful as its antecedents. Instead, unfortunately, it falls prey to the referentiality which may have inspired it.
Despite this, I’d recommend the experience to any lover of the canon the film addresses itself to. There’s some serious eye-candy here.