Devotees of written science fiction tend to prize originality, but on the big screen, science fiction is all about splicing together familiar elements. In fact, many of the genre’s best works are original mainly in what they choose to borrow. Star Wars mixed tropes from Greek mythology, American westerns, and cheesy 50s adventure serials; The Matrix was built out of cyberpunk, anime, and dorm-room philosophy bull sessions; Aliens was just a war movie with eight-foot tall slimy bugs as the baddies. It’s a cut-and-paste genre, and there’s nothing wrong with leaning on one’s influences.
The danger, however, is that, instead of locking together like instruments in an orchestra, the various bits will stand apart, playing separate tunes — which is just what happens in the sci-fi thriller Sunshine. Director Danny Boyle slaps together a hodgepodge of parts and pieces from other films, but the influences never quite coalesce. Instead of a slick genre mash-up, Boyle has crafted an ungainly contraption that does a few things well but ends up less than the sum of its parts.
The setup has plenty of promise: Fifty years into the future, a spaceship crew is sent on a multiyear mission to the heart of the solar system in order to reignite a dying sun. An environmental catastrophe, a last-ditch mission to save mankind, a crew with a couple of hot-tempered scientist-hotties — surely there’s a sleek Hollywood entertainment in there somewhere, right? Not so much. Boyle wants Sunshine to be 2001, or at least Alien — something brooding, brainy, scientifically accurate, and self-serious. That might be alright, except that half way through he decides that it also needs to be Hellraiser, or maybe just Nightmare on Elm Street in space — which would more or less make it another trashy space-horror flick like Event Horizon. Tired of all the allusions yet? It’s no better in the theater. Boyle’s deference to cinematic history is almost Tarantino-esque, except that he doesn’t have anything approaching Tarantino’s focus or wit.
In a post-screening Q&A, Boyle spoke in reverent terms of Solaris, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian science-fiction classic, claiming it as both an inspiration for Sunshine and one of his favorite films of all time. And it does seem as if Boyle hoped Sunshine would act as something like a modernized update of Tarkovsky — a metaphysical, even spiritual science fiction film. It isn’t even close, and even if it was better, it would still likely be little more than a dim spot of light next to Steven Soderbergh’s elegant Solaris remake from just a few years ago. And, at least for Boyle’s studio, Fox Searchlight, perhaps it’s better that way. Solaris was an eerie, ruminative three-hour opus, a humming sci-fi dreamscape that captured on film the essence of what it’s like to read dense Russian philosophy. In other words, it was destined to be a cult classic, but, as Soderbergh’s remake showed, it’s not the sort of thing any film with aspirations to box office success should seek to clone.
Not, however, that Sunshine is all that much of an easier sell. What to tell audiences? If you were honest, you’d say that it’s alternately a claustrophobic thriller, a technically accurate spaceflight picture, and, oh yeah, a freaked-out existential horror flick — and the pieces match up about as badly as you might expect. Individually, Boyle handles each of the elements well, but because they’re lashed together so haphazardly, and the connections between the pieces are so superficial, he never really gets to develop any of the disparate pieces.
Visually, the film ranges from stunning to strange. The ship, a long, spindly cylinder built out of rotating segments, would look all-too-familiar except for the enormous solar shield that arcs out in front of it. Inside the ship, there are the usual pipe-lined corridors and cramped rooms — typical naval-style hardware — but there’s also a lush greenhouse facility and, most impressively, a sun room where the crew can bask in the light and heat of the solar rays, up close and personal. But then there are the truly bizarre spacesuits, fat, glowing, and gold — they look as if the costume designer took bulky 1940s dive suits and layered them with shiny gold sequins peeled off of a disco ball. The suits aren’t quite so outrageous as to be campy, but they’re certainly weird.
Of course, that’s true of most of the proceedings. The characters are supposed to be brilliant spacemen and scientists, but their decision-making powers leave much to be desired, and the ship’s computer turns out to be conveniently incapable of making certain types of calculations that might’ve proved valuable to the crew. There’s also an odd ongoing subplot about a character fixated to the point of addiction on the heat and light of the ship’s sun room, and while the sun-blasts filling the room certainly look neat — they take on an almost liquid presence, like a sun-sea — the spiritual undertones in these scenes come off as a little loopy. When the horror elements kick in during the film’s final act, and a Satanic, body-burnt sun-maniac starts stomping around the ship, the film immediately becomes both dumber and more entertaining; who ever thought you’d transform into a crisp-as-toast monster just from catching a few space rays? Don’t see this movie before going to the tanning booth.
The lack of cohesion is disappointing because Boyle has crossed genres before with much better results. 28 Days Later remains the best of the revisionist zombie pictures, a harrowing, heart-pumping blend of classic zombie tropes and apocalyptic horror. And Trainspotting, despite being somewhat overrated, managed a rather potent combination of wacky youth adventure with hallucinogenic drug antics. Though there are rays of light in Sunshine, it’s a journey that’s successful only in pieces. In trying to retool various sci-fi subgenres into something eloquent and epic, Boyle’s been blinded by the glare of his ambitions, driven sun-mad by his project — meaning that for all but the most diehard sci-fi fans, it’s probably not worth staring at for too long either.
– Peter Suderman blogs at theamericanscene.com.