Saturday, April 28, 2007
As a genre, Science-fiction has contributed to the cinema in a host of, often, quite inspirational ways. It is a complex and demanding genre, especially given that it deals with a vast range of psychological aspects, all underwritten by the great wonder and fascination we have for the mysteries of The Universe that lie beyond our Earth-bound human comprehension. In order for it to succeed, it must plug into our imaginations and our curiosity, our belief and our hope. In this increasingly cynical day and age, it's a significant task.
Ultimately, like so much of the real dramatic and cinematic torque in the world of Science-fiction, it all comes down to Fear, Faith, Fate, and Trust ... great big emotional states and frames of mind which underpin the truly great work in the genre (think Scott, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg).
In Sunshine, the year is 2057 and the sun is dying. Earth's (and our) last hope lies with a spacecraft, Icarus II, and her crew of eight who are sent on a mission to deliver a nuclear device into the core of the sun which, when detonated, will re-ignite it.
In the accompanying propaganda, the film makers admit to having taken some creative licence in resolving the issues relating, particularly, to the science. It's an odd apology, especially given that the word that follows the word 'science' in the case of this particular genre is 'fiction'. Unlike most genres (with the possible exception of some Horror films), Science-fiction offers the film makers unrestricted parameters within (and without) which to challenge and delight our well-reasoned understanding of all that is possible. In skilled hands, our notions of impossibility are discarded ... and we enter a world where dreams make sense, objects float, time is immeasurable by Earth-bound reason and standards, doors open and close with a hiss, and the atmospheric pressure outside will crush you in nano-seconds. In the world of Science-fiction, an audience's desire for an indefatigable raft of creative possibilities is the currency. Sense and meaning are exchanged for adventure and vision. Reality ceases to matter. It is the single greatest attraction the genre offers, and it is the standard by which we measure its effectiveness.
The screenplay for Sunshine is by Alex Garland - a writer in whom I have a great deal of interest. His novel The Beach was a rip-snorting, popularist, page-turner. A Gen X Lord of the flies. I was a back-packer once, and Garland faithfully (and most entertainingly) drew on the spirit of this particular mode of exploration: no care, no responsibility ... "I'm only this young and this carefree once so I'm going to do whatever I fucking well want". We've all met them: noisy, brattish, rude, obstreperous and inconsiderate. His dissection of the cult of commune was equally razor-sharp, and his study of the politics of power and how it impacts on our primal instinct for joy, carelessness and irresponsibility in our lives was quite brilliantly observed.
His novel The Tesseract was a marvellous, if not especially memorable, read. Cryptic and obscure, it was an intense study in the 'something evil this way comes' narrative. The way Garland's striking force intersected, interrupted and divided the characters in his book was thrilling and inventive. He discarded chronology and went for a splintering of time and place which he admirably sustained. Sure, it stumbled occasionally, but it is a compelling work from a young writer determined to take risks. A loud and original voice - a British version of (his mentor) Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho). It was only a matter of time before he ended up writing science-fiction.
Garland's great skill (albeit still in development) is his disregard for conventional narrative. His is an ode to the unknown ... the questions as opposed to the answers - and his script for Sunshine is at its best when he is true to form. It's when the film demands the answers that we end up in a place beyond repair - textually and cinematically. There are flashes of his brilliance, especially in the wordless apology scene which is certainly the script's highpoint, but the way in which the script disintegrates into derivation (play name the source), conceit (a cynical reference to Ridley Scott's Alien about twenty minutes before the film makes several doomed attempts to mimic it), a stereotypical body-count cliché (with none of the Horror genre's nerve-shattering tension), and a messy and needlessly chaotic denoument is ultimately disappointing.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting with Irvine Welsh's novel adapted for the screen by John Hodge, The Beach for which Hodge adapted Garland's novel, and 28 days later for which Garland wrote the screenplay) provides the film with an skillfully assured pace but Boyle is not yet quite as adept at handling the dynamics of an ensemble as he is with the journeys of one or two key players. His camera is, at times, quite obtrusive - which only lends weight to the sense of almost pedestrian contrivance as opposed to the (un)natural order and consequence of events as they unravel. The majority of his points of view ultimately rest uneasily as mute observer, resulting in a chronic lack of engagement with the action. It's all happening and we're there ... it just doesn't mean anything.
The performances by a stellar cast of young over-achievers (including Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, and Jane Fonda's son Troy Garity), are similarly un(in)formed ... the over-riding sense being that they're going through their paces without a greater understanding of why. The roles (and the casting of them) owe a debt to Ridley Scott and Alien that is impossible to ignore. Apart from the fact that, early on, the ensemble appear in a 'dining room' identically lit from within the 'table' (as famously resolved by Alien's Cinematographer Derek Vanlint and Director Ridley Scott), the concept of ordinary people doing extraordinary tasks served Alien in ways that Boyle and his cast and crew can only try and hope to emulate. Byrnes' 'Cassie' is no Ripley, that's for sure ... and from that point onward, the casting and playing, almost inevitably, falter.
Production Designer Mark Tildesley (The Constant Gardener) delivers a stunning design for the spacecraft - the highlight of the film. Devotees of the genre will be captivated by the craft's design concept and will find the way the first ten minutes of the film unfolds quite mesmerising. Cinematographer Alwin H Kuchler (One day in September) has a ball with the exposure to life-threatening light (heat) and life-saving shade (cool) inherent in our crew's proximity to the sun.
The editing, by Chris Gill (28 days later), keeps the film moving briskly and really only suffers as a result of structural weak points in the action (which I am unable to write about in any detail here because they will reveal the plot). The original music (Karl Hyde, John Murphy and Rick Smith) is instantly forgettable.
Interestingly, having been released in the UK and Oceania, the film is not due for release in North America until September this year - presumably to ensure it qualifies for Academy Award® consideration. I am looking forward to the project where Boyle and Garland unite - true to their distinctive and unique forms and gifts.
Sunshine isn't it.
Sunshine is in general release.
Director Danny Boyle; Screenplay Alex Garland; Cast Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Mark Strong and Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis; Co-producer Bernard Bellew; Producer Andrew Macdonald; Original Music by: Karl Hyde, John Murphy, Rick Smith; Cinematography by Alwin H Kuchler; Film Editing by Chris Gill; Casting by Donna Isaacson, Gail Stevens; Production Design by Mark Tildesley; Art Direction by Gary Freeman, Stephen Morahan. Denis Schnegg and David Warren (Senior Art Director); Distributed by 20th Century Fox.