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#493 - Sunshine
Danny Boyle, 2007

When the sun starts to die out and threaten the human race with extinction, an expedition is launched to deliver a massive nuclear bomb to the sun in the hope of restarting it.

I really liked Sunshine when I first saw it. Boyle, who has often attempted to channel a Ridley Scott-like versatility when it comes to working in as many genres as possible, had crafted a sleeper hit that drew on a range of sci-fi influences in telling its tale of a world-saving voyage to the heart of the solar system that is suddenly plagued on all sides by a number of internal and external problems. Of course, my opinion of Boyle and his films has started to wane a bit in recent years - watching Trance earlier this year was a major disappointment, and while I feel like revisiting pretty much every film of his I've already seen, the conviction generally isn't very strong. Even so, I had fond enough memories of Sunshine to try giving it a second shot to see how well it has held up.

For the most part, Sunshine holds up as a reasonably compelling space film. It keeps the setting nice and isolated with a handful of very good actors making for a solid ensemble that rise above their seemingly archetypal roles both onboard the ship and inside the narrative. Cliff Curtis gives what's probably the film's best performance as the ship's psychologist who is ironically starting to develop an unhealthy obsession with staring at the sun, while Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans develop a believable rivalry as a nuclear physicist and spaceship engineer respectively. Michelle Yeoh and Hiroyuki Sanada also bring considerable weight to their roles, especially the latter as the ship's captain. Rounding out the main cast are Rose Byrne, Benedict Wong, and Troy Garity, who admittedly don't get all that much material to work with compared to the others but they do well enough with what they've got. As a group, the actors believably sell both camaraderie and tension between one another, especially when various technical difficulties threaten to set them against one another.

As far as the plot goes, Sunshine manages to be fairly compelling even though much of its conflict is human-versus-nature as opposed to human-versus-human. The ever-looming sun sends out flares that threaten to damage the ship, there is no hope of rescue from Earth, even the most essential team members must be able to risk their lives for the mission and so forth. This is enough to sustain things for the bulk of the film, though Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland seem to realise that there's only so much conflict that can be generated by having the crew encounter various setbacks involving environmental hazards and abandoned vessels. This gives rise to the film's somewhat controversial third act:

WARNING: "Sunshine" spoilers below
Basically, what happens is that the ship's crew locate the first ship that was sent out to do the mission but never completed it or reported back. After exploring the empty ship and finding the crew dead, the surviving members head back to their own damaged ship to complete the mission only to find that the captain of the first ship (Mark Strong) has not only survived for several years - with severe burns all over his body, no less - but had deliberately sabotaged the mission after going insane. As a result, he then tries to stop the mission so as to wipe out the human race and be the last man alive. This has understandably raised some criticism for taking an otherwise fairly creative and well-developed sci-fi thriller and sending it into trite slasher territory for want of a better ending. This is only made worse by the fact that Boyle tries to disguise this rather unoriginal and diabolical turn of events by adding blur effects to the villain every time he appears in a shot, without which it would presumably look like the crew was being terrorised by a naked Freddy Krueger and therefore even more ridiculous. It honestly feels like Boyle is demonstrating the same kind of pretension that led to him insisting that 28 Days Later... wasn't a zombie movie.

While I can definitely understand why such a development feels like a bit of an anticlimax to what had up to that point been a generally solid and organically developed film, I also concede that I'm not sure where else the film could have gone from there and that it was at least decently foreshadowed rather than a completely nonsensical twist designed to give the film an exciting ending. As such, I tolerate the third act more so than flat-out dislike it, though that's probably because even then the rest of the film still pays off. Boyle's capacity for generally good visuals and striking art direction are definitely evident here with the ship being built on technology from the not-too-distant future. The production design is evocative of the best spaceship films while still being distinct enough on its own merits, while the effects used to generate space, the ship, and the sun itself are all of sufficiently high quality without drawing significant attention to themselves. The score mixes electronic styles with standard orchestras to create a solid accompaniment to the scenes, especially several scenes where characters are directly threatened by the sun's incredible heat. Sunshine may have its problems and it certainly isn't exactly the most epic venture committed to film, but it doesn't need to be as it ends up being a fairly solid contender for what could have been one of the best sci-fi films of the past decade but is merely just a really good one.