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Movie Review: Sublime and Unstable – Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

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At what point does a sublime experience turn into a traumatic one? A strange philosophical question that no postmodernist intellectual has advanced, as far as I’ve heard. It’s a question that we, as an audience, might ask of Danny Boyle’s new sci-fi thriller, Sunshine, and though (like many of the questions posed by/of the narrative) it’s never answered, it’s probably worth the journey across the threshold.

Boyle is famous for some of his other violent, psychological head-trips. From Trainspotting to 28 Days Later, Boyle seems obsessed with traumatic experiences that tax both our minds and our bodies. Sunshine is the story of such an extreme experience: in the shadow of the dying galaxy, a small crew of a ship called the Icarus II is charged with piloting an apocalyptic bomb into the sun in order to restart its fusion mechanisms.

Boyle flaunts his influences. At times, the film seems like a remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially during the first half, when the imagery is dominated by slow, balletic interstellar maneuvers and stunning lights and colors. This half of the film is also when the psychological elements are most developed, and it’s this first half that audiences should remember most fondly. This also may be when Boyle seems most an artist: the visuals are unique, sublime, and engaging, and the film looks like it might develop as a ghostly portrait of a crew, rather than as a horror sci-fi scramble.

After the first hour, there’s a key change in tone and pace, and Sunshine becomes less about psychological balance and nuance and more about tension and claustrophobia. The key scene, where the transition takes place, is the crew’s exploration of another ship, the Icarus I, and this scene is punctuated by one of the most ruthless little cinematic tricks available to the filmmaker (a trick popularized by Tyler Durden in Fight Club). This tense, ghostly stretch is where the film breaks down into certain accepted horror conventions.

To Sunshine’s credit, it never breaks into the excess that characterizes so much horror these days. Though it’s often compared to Event Horizon, Sunshine has nothing like the gore or torture that pervaded that film. Boyle’s use of an unstable, unfocused lens has been criticized, but it’s necessary to keep Sunshine from becoming a simple monster movie. The hazy camera work helps replace the revulsion of classic horror with the fear and claustrophobic confusion that you’d find in an extreme environment that’s breaking down around you.

To be fair to the critics, the antagonist was barely developed, and appeared less as a true villain than as another disaster that happened to befall the crew. The audience never feels his presence as a character, and this is one of the biggest weaknesses that can be ascribed to this intelligent, but slightly schizophrenic film.

In contrast, however, the rest of the crew of the Icarus II was surprisingly well-rendered. In a rare moment of filmmaking, there was no sudden twist that turned a hero into a villain. The audience is allowed and encouraged to side with the whole crew, and to hope for the resolution of their differences and the achievement of their goal… even when this means their ultimate demise.

In closing, we have here a movie in two parts: the first, a sublime, haunting trip through outer and inner space, convincing on both a cosmic and a personal level; the second, the breakdown of that early harmony, a panicked rising action where the psychological constitution of the characters is tested and reconsidered. I’d suggest going for the first half, and enjoying the second half as a corollary. I’m not going to speak for horror buffs, being largely unfamiliar with that demographic, but anyone with a passing interest in speculative fiction, psychological and cosmic suspense, or the power of imagery will find the film worth its inconsistencies.

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