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Monday 23 July 2007

Have Spacesuit, Will Dazzle,
but I Don't Care If the Sun Don't Shine:
A Review of Sunshine

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by Alex Garland

Starring: Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Cillian Murphy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh

In a 2000 article entitled "The True Frontier: Confronting and Avoiding the Realities of Space in American Science Fiction Films," I proposed a distinction between "space" films and "spacesuit" films, the latter distinguished by the fact that characters at some point don spacesuits and directly confront the harsh environment of outer space or lifeless planets. Such films, I argued, more accurately portrayed the dangers of space exploration than space films — most prominently exemplified by the Star Trek series and Star Wars films — in which characters (with rare exceptions) only travel through space wearing street clothes, staying within the comfortable confines of a spaceship until they land on worlds invariably similar to Earth. Unfortunately, in striving to be realistic, spacesuit films (more frequently termed "documentary-style" space films) also tend to be less dramatic and less entertaining than space films; thus, while there were some noteworthy spacesuit films in the 1950s and 1960s — including Destination Moon (1950), Project Moonbase (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1968), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)they have now largely been supplanted by the more popular space films.

In creating Sunshine, screenwriter Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle were manifestly aware of the tradition of the spacesuit film, and manifestly determined to produce a distinguished addition to that tradition. And in some respects, they have succeeded. Sunshine is probably the most involving and exciting spacesuit film ever made, and even if you don't understand exactly what is going on (which, as will be discussed, may occur all too frequently), you'll keep watching attentively, eager to see what happens next. Even my reluctant companion, my wife Lynne, who usually prefers Hugh Grant films and other chick-flick confections, confessed that the film managed to hold her interest (though she does wish there had been a romantic subplot). The film provides a feast of stunning visual effects, dominated by recurring iconic images of the huge, scorching sun. Despite the inescapable absurdity of the film's premise — the Sun is somehow dying, requiring an expedition of brave astronauts to travel to its surface and reignite it — everyone involved strives to take the story seriously, and one could say that the film at times seems thoughtful, even eloquent.

Still, the film also strikingly summarizes the reasons why spacesuit films went out of fashion. For, if you are determined to avoid rubber-skinned aliens, killer robots, and other colorful improbabilities, there are only a limited number of ways to provide a story about space travel with moments of drama. You might introduce some sort of equipment failure which would oblige astronauts to go out on to the surface of the ship to effect repairs (as in Destination Moon); you might place a conniving saboteur on board (as in Project Moonbase); you might have a crewmember develop the crazed belief that his mission is a violation of God's will, which leads him to become a saboteur (as in Conquest of Space); you might have an astronaut make a simple mistake which imperils his spacecraft (as in Riders to the Stars); you might place a space traveler in a situation where his oxygen is severely limited, so that he seems destined to die (as in Robinson Crusoe on Mars); or you might set up some sort of situation which requires astronauts to briefly expose themselves to the vacuum of space in order to reach a safe haven (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey). To begin exploring some of the problems in Sunshine, suffice it to say that each and every single one of these devices prominently figures in the film, often in ways that will make audience members see the developments as either blatant borrowings or cynical contrivances.

With only these sorts of options to exploit, it is little wonder that the makers of spacesuit films eventually threw up their hands and decided to invite the aliens in after all. A film to present as a turning point is It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which might have been framed as a sequel to Conquest of Space in which, to enliven the otherwise sure-to-be-dull story of the astronauts' return from Mars, a homicidal Martian monster is added to the crew. Less violently, other later spacesuit films like Robinson Crusoe on Mars and 2001: A Space Odyssey augmented their realistic sequences with alien presences. And this is also the temptation which Sunshine ultimately succumbs to, as a monster, much like the menace in It! The Terror from Beyond Space, is finally brought on board the spacecraft to hunt down and attack the surviving astronauts (and no, the filmmakers do not earn points because the monster turns out to be a horribly disfigured human instead of an alien). Let no one speak of plagiarism, then, but certainly Sunshine has been magnificently researched, so much so that it could be shown in a science fiction film class as a documentary of the history of the subgenre, perhaps retitled The Decline and Fall of the Spacesuit Film.

Still, if the makers of Sunshine seem in one respect immersed in the history of the spacesuit film, they have also critically ignored one of its defining characteristics, and that is a commitment to not only depict, but to explain, the realities of space travel. The films by George Pal and Ivan Tors that defined the form always included scenes with long speeches providing scientific and technical information relevant to the plot; the filmmakers didn't need to be told that these scenes were dull, but they believed they were important. In contrast to its predecessors, however, Sunshine is determined to provide only minimal explanations, literally a line of dialogue here and a line of dialogue there. Well schooled in what everyone believes contemporary audiences want, Garland and Boyle emphasize action and spectacle instead of speechifying. This leads to two problems. First, Mark R. Kelly's blog has provided a thorough and marvelous list of the film's innumerable scientific and logical idiocies, to which I might add only one item: if the crucially important task of the mission is to launch a sun-reigniting payload into the Sun, why was only one crew member (Capa, played by Cillian Murphy) trained to do the job? But, as Mark also intimates at one point, all of these issues could have been addressed with just a few lines of added dialogue — "Say, Alex, could you put in a little speech about why it was absolutely necessary to make the ship the size of several football fields?" I mean, it's one thing to observe unexplained nonsense in summertime fluff like Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), but in a film that is clearly striving to be a thinking person's science fiction film, the absence of explanations disconcertingly suggests a recurring failure to do any thinking.

In addition, if audience members are only sort-of understanding what's going on during most of the film, they may eventually be unable to understand anything at all. And for many, this is exactly what will occur in the last thirty minutes of the film. This is what they will observe: the surviving crew members are all engaged in tasks which surely are desperately important to the success of the mission, but they won't know what they are doing or why it's important; there are random scenes of explosions and apparent damage to the ship, suggesting that the spacecraft is on its last legs; there is a figure resembling Freddie Krueger from the Nightmare on Elm Street films who occasionally shows up and tries to kill someone. It's all very exciting, but after the film, they'll have to consult the Wikipedia article on the film to really know what was going on. And again, all the filmmakers needed was the courage to slow down the action just a little bit with some expository dialogue; for example, it might have seemed dramatic to have the ship's computer (voiced by Chipo Chung) say that the new crewmember is "Unknown," but it would have been more logical — and more helpful to the audience — to have that observant and knowledgeable thinking machine identify the man and describe exactly what he was doing.

Now, when I complain that this film seems at times too derivative and at times too unclear, the filmmakers might respond that I am missing the larger issues they wished to focus on, namely, the awe and mystery that the our immense and powerful Sun must inspire, and the sheer audacity of any human effort to alter the nature of such an imposing presence. They might even intimate that, in minimizing their explanations, they were deliberately paying homage to classic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (the original 1972 film, not the 2002 remake) which also left viewers with many unanswered questions. But 2001 and Solaris were respectively about an alien artifact and an alien world, objects which inevitably inspire a sense of wonder; Sunshine is about the Sun, an object that humans have known about since the beginning of their history, and one they have long taken for granted as a familiar friend, sometimes depicted as a circular smiling face or a sphere being carried across the sky in a chariot by a benevolent god. Further, while there are still some things about the Sun that we don't understand, twentieth-century science explained to everyone's satisfaction how it was created, how it generates energy, and how it will eventually become first a red giant and then a white dwarf. Maybe people should regard the Sun as something to inspire awe and mystery, but they don't, and repeated scenes of an immense glowing Sun, being obsessively stared at and admired by the ship's crew, will do little to change their attitude.

Rather, if Sunshine was to be a film about the Sun, it should have acknowledged and incorporated humanity's long history of observing and thinking about the Sun. Perhaps there could have been snippets from a documentary showing images of the Sun from various cultures throughout Earth's history; perhaps one of the astronauts staring at the Sun could have suddenly imagined it as a big smiling face; perhaps a few bars of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" could have reminded viewers that the Sun has traditionally been regarded as an icon of hope and the possibility of recovery and rebirth, underlining the irony in discovering that it might now become the cause of humanity's extinction.

And that impending extinction, strangely enough, is another key aspect of the story which is harmfully neglected. True, we are repeatedly told that the Earth is getting colder and colder, and that people are suffering terribly as the Sun nears its death; but since this is a film, after all, isn't this something we should be shown as well? To be sure, there was no need to double the length of the film to incorporate a mini-remake of The Day After Tomorrow (2004), but the space voyage might have been occasionally interrupted by images of a freezing Earth, to underline the importance of the mission — perhaps the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben could be observed partially buried by a glacier, or a few bundled-up people could huddle around a campfire on a Hawaiian beach, with icicles dangling from a nearby palm tree. Perhaps Capa's sister and family, only glimpsed at the end, could have been employed as recurring characters, with brief scenes of their ever-grimmer lives interspersed with the space drama. Perhaps the film could have had a prologue in which a Heywood R. Floyd-like investigator surveys the damaging effects of the cooling trend, confirms that its cause is the dying Sun, and inspires plans for a daring attempt to rectify the situation.

I make these suggestions with no conviction that any of them would have been successful; however, they serve to illustrate a problem which the filmmakers failed to recognize. In a typical drama, the main characters are a person in need of rescue, and a person who does the rescuing; the latter figure is usually called the hero, but audiences must get to know and care about that other person, so that the hero's actions seem to merit their attention and respect. In this case, Boyle and Garland may have figured that, hey, everybody is a member of the human race, and if we just tell people that our heroes are rescuing the entire human race, they will instantly admire them and fervently wish for their success. But this is only an appeal to the intellect, not the emotions; in Sunshine, "the human race" (actually, Garland keeps using the politically incorrect term "mankind") is only an abstraction, and without being able to see any shivering humans in distress, viewers cannot really muster much concern for these astronauts or their efforts. Again and again, the characters keep announcing that they aren't really important — only the mission is important — but audiences watching this film may be unable to regard either these characters or their mission as really important. This was undoubtedly why I found it unexpectedly difficult to care about any of the characters or to relate to their personal struggles (though I always paid attention to Michelle Yeoh, playing Corazon, simply because she was by far the best actor in the ensemble). In sum, the strategy that worked so well for Alex Garland in 28 Days Later (2003) — to illustrate a broader human tragedy by focusing on a small group of characters involved in and affected by that tragedy — does not work in this film, for the simple reason that, here, the small group of characters are millions of miles away in outer space, and the broader human tragedy is taking place on the planet Earth, out of sight and out of mind.

In the end, however, while failure is not attractive, it is often a necessary result of grand ambitions, which remain admirable even if they are unlikely to be fulfilled. Attempting to reignite a dying star was an audacious undertaking, which worked out well this time, and while the need for this particular task will always be unlikely, the human race in the future may have to attempt some equally imposing feat of cosmic engineering, and the film correctly rejects the notion that such endeavors are improper or impious. Attempting to make a film as good as 2001: A Space Odyssey was also an audacious undertaking, which did not work out particularly well this time, but I hope that Boyle and Garland, or another team of filmmakers, will someday try to do it again. For, at a time when space travel seems more difficult than was ever anticipated, and also a time when so many people continue to regard space travel as an essential pursuit, we clearly need more spacesuit films, ranging from the mundane perspective of Destination Moon to the cosmic vision of 2001: A Space Odyssey, to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of this grand human ambition, even though such films resist stereotypical patterns and pose daunting problems to filmmakers seeking commercial success. Making such films, in other words, requires courage, a quality admirably displayed by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, and a quality lamentably hard to find in the contemporary film industry.

© 2007 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.