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July 20, 2007 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | July 20, 2007 |

Danny Boyle is one of the more underrated mainstream directors working today; he’s been able to spin films as different as pitch-black comedy (Trainspotting) to apocalyptic zombie thriller (28 Days Later) with genuinely good results (let us not speak of The Beach). His films integrate action and emotion to a surprising degree, often with an accompanying earned intellectual response. What really sells his pictures, however, is his visual energy; always an expressionist, Boyle launches images at the screen with unusual fervor, be they playful (Millions) or chilling, in a way that never fails to engage.

A science fiction yarn such as Sunshine gives Boyle plenty of room to use his talents, specifically for beautiful shots and frenetic action. Collaborating for the second time with screenwriter Alex Garland, Sunshine posits a scenario disturbingly reminiscent of Armageddon — a motley crew of astronauts set out in a last ditch effort to save Earth with nuclear weapons. But instead of taking (fucking) mini-guns to an asteroid, the crew of Icarus II plans to deliver a gargantuan nuclear payload to reignite the dying Sol and release Earth from a cataclysmic winter.

The story is certainly portentous, but never really conveys the weight of that premise: We’re shown only one fleeting image of an apocalyptic Earth and the back-stories of the crew never delve below the surface - left to carry the heavy plot are the actors and the visuals themselves, the latter being the most effective and the most interesting. The international cast (including the impressive Michelle Yeoh, Hiroyuki Sanada, and Cliff Curtis) seem like mere touching points for the action, with Cillian Murphy becoming the protagonist by default rather than interest.

Boyle does raise some interest points in his stellar quest concerning ethics and the limits of rational thought, and the sun, shown as a blistering orb of brutal immensity, makes for a useful metaphor for the unknowable infinity of the Universe; often this and his visual artistry make Sunshine seem like a slight hat-tip to Solaris. But if Boyle starts with Tarkovsky, he ends with Ridley Scott, finding a literal bogeyman more convenient and immediate than the philosophical musings and circumstances of the plot. When the Icarus II rendezvous with the ship of their failed predecessors, they dive into the creepy, blackened craft in search of a backup load and supplies, but there’s little doubt what they’ll find instead. One character even makes a remark to the effect of “Now’s where we’re picked off one by one by the alien” as if in sly concession to how predictable the story has become.

It’s a shame, too, that Boyle, a smart, engaging dissembler, has to change gears near film’s end, turning Sunshine from space drama to chiller (though an admittedly freaky chiller) in order to heighten the pace and bring the action to a maniacal climax. It’s almost as if his attention span wasn’t large enough to bring the heavier musings to any kind of fruition, or he didn’t have faith that his audience would want them, but Sunshine’s individual parts, particularly the mesmerizing visuals and score, aren’t enough to create a sum meaningful enough to match them.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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Sunshine / Phillip Stephens

Film | July 20, 2007 |

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