A Picture From The Movie

I don’t intend to make a habit of doing movie reviews on The Cow, but every now and then a movie experience comes along that just begs for a good slapping down, and I really can’t resist stepping up for the job. Director Danny Boyle’s science fiction indulgence Sunshine presents such an opportunity.

Just in case you hadn’t guessed from the acerbic tone, I really disliked this film. What makes me even more disinclined to cut it any slack is all the hare-brained praise it has garnered from reviewers so far.1 It is simply baffling that it has rated 88% over at Rotten Tomatoes, a barometer of movie reviews that is generally reasonably reliable.

I was in fact predisposed to like Sunshine – I thought Boyle’s Trainspotting was great and his 28 Days Later pretty credible too – but this film commits pretty much every crime it can in the genre, and then some. Truly, I prefer B-Grade efforts like Rocketship X-M and Zombies of the Stratosphere to this pretentious nonsense.

Shall we begin? A warning – if you intend to see the film stop reading here. I’m going to give stuff away. Not, in my opinion, that it makes any difference anyway, since the one ‘surprise’ of the plot is so stupid and laughable that one of my companions with whom I saw the film punched me in the arm because I made such a snort of disbelief when it happened (thanks for the bruise Dr. T.).

The basic premise of the piece is that the Sun, for unspecified reasons, is dying, and Earth has dispatched a bunch of idiots astronauts to fix the problem by dropping some kind of bomb into it to ‘kick start’ its nuclear engine.

I won’t quibble about the daftness of the physics of doing something like this – I’m happy to file that under Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Much better science fiction has worked with much flimsier material. And anyway, that’s not the film’s biggest problem by a long shot.

As our story begins, we join the intrepid (and, surprise, incredibly young and attractive) crew of the spaceship with its gargantuan nuclear payload – the ‘Icarus 2′ (Icarus, geddit? Flew too close to the sun and got his feathers burned. Clever, huh?) – some years into their journey, on their final approach to the sun. This is probably a wise dramatic decision, because joining them any earlier would have made for even greater screen boredom.

Almost immediately I knew I was going to hate the film, when the second-in-command lets loose with a whole bunch of pseudo-scientific claptrap about communications with Earth involving ‘packet data’ and ‘high frequency signals’ and other dumb technical talk written by someone who doesn’t know a Higgs particle from a hippopotamus.

If I’d been at home instead of at the cinema, I’d be yelling at the TV “Why are you telling your crew of supposedly above-average intellects stuff they would have learned in Astronaut Kindergarten?” Oh, that’s right, he’s not telling them, he’s telling us, but it’s something that could have been said like this:

“Soon, we’ll pass the point where messages from Earth won’t reach us in time for us to reply before we reach the Sun.”

Which they’d also know, but at least it sounds like he’s just reminding them of something, rather than treating them like morons. Okay, which they are, but that’s something we’ll get to in a bit.

Anyway, within minutes of the opening titles, after some risible scenes where the crew psychologist attempts to burn out his retinas in search of religious epiphany (this guy is a psychologist? These guys are in trouble…), the Icarus 2 has intercepted a distress call from… Icarus 1! Yes, Icarus 2 is the second2 attempt to drop a bomb into the sun! All contact with Icarus 1 had been lost some 7 years previously under mysterious circumstances, just before it was due to complete its mission (DING DING DING DING!! – that’s a warning bell for those asleep in the back row).

Prompted by the crew psychologist (I told you!) the members of the team convince themselves, for reasons that are dubious at best, that they should abandon their (presumably, but who knows?) carefully planned mission to save humankind (or ‘mankind’ as the film quite politically incorrectly gaffs) and instead make a detour to rendezvous with the mysterious Icarus 1.

Pretty much immediately, the loony decision to stray from the Plan to Save the Entire Human Race (I just want to make sure you understand where you’ll stand if a bunch of cowboys like these ever has this much responsibility) comes off the rails. The least attractive (and therefore the most unlikeable, expendable and likely-to-commit-suicide) member of the crew sets the Ship+MegaBomb on the wrong course due to an error in his calculations. Even though it’s not explicitly stated, you get the impression that he jotted these calculations on a napkin over breakfast. He certainly didn’t do them on the spaceship computer, because as soon as he plugs in the course and fires up the rockets, the computer recorrects for his blunder causing the ship to take catastrophic damage from the heat of the proximal nuclear furnace that is the Sun.

“I stuffed up!” He sobs. “Fuck fuck fuck. I stuffed up!”

Yep, you really did pal. That’ll teach you to completely ignore Astronaut Computer Programming 101 and scribble your orbital insertion figures on the blank corner of a Cornflakes packet. And then just hit the ‘Do It’ button without checking them with a single other person on the ship. Or the fancy-schmancy girly-voiced computer.3

Well, from this point you kinda know that the whole car-full of clowns is on a one-way ticket to flambé. And we’re only a fifth of the way in.

About now, the film starts with the first of its many efforts to distract the audience from the failings of the script by using fancy editing techniques and whooshy sound effects.

This is a personal affront to me because inevitably this is the kind of thing that a surprisingly large number of people seem to think is clever. In fact, it is nothing more than a cheap cinematic smoke-and-mirrors distraction. I have no doubt that many cinema-goers will walk away from this film thinking the sound was great simply because they noticed it.

Let me be clear: if you noticed it, it was because the film was failing somewhere else. In a truly great film, you don’t notice the sound (or the scenery, or the photography or the lead actress’s breasts). You just give yourself up to the experience. (Well, yes, OK, maybe the breasts).4

Of course, the damage that is done to the spacecraft by Unappealing Guy’s hasty joyriding means that we are going to get treated to the obligatory EVA sequence. Yep, that’s right, the problem is something that can only be fixed by suiting up and and taking a spanner to. Thence begins a series of events that would make the Keystone Cops look like better choices for crewing this mission.

Synopsizing:

•Two of the crew go outside.
•One of the pilots rotates the ship to give them as much ‘shade’ as possible.
•The computer takes exception to this by snatching back the controls and rotating it back again, but not before…
•The communications towers on the ship are scorched off…
•Some magnified bright sunlight is reflected into the ship’s oxygen-creating ‘garden’ causing it to burst irretrievably into flames…5
•Another of the crew decides the best way to put out the fire is to flood it with the remaining life-supporting oxygen… (Wha?)
•One more of the crew attempts to get into the resulting firestorm, dressed only in jeans and a t-shirt, to… well… who knows what she was thinking of doing.
•And the two suited crew have gone so far out on the ship’s hull that they can’t get back.

It is hard to know how these people could be more inept. I wouldn’t trust them to do my laundry, let alone get behind the wheel of a flying nuclear weapon.6

And they do all this in order to visit a probably derelict vehicle in order to possibly recover its maybe functional payload. Meanwhile, we can only suppose that the very chilly People of Earth are thanking their lucky stars that they chose good-looking astronauts rather than smart ones.

Writers: here’s where we remember that the genre Science Fiction has the word science in the name.

Well, I won’t rattle on in too much detail with the rest of the ludicrous story. From this point it all just becomes vacuous and laughable: the crew docks with the Icarus 1 (amazingly, they have a docking port that fits exactly with the older spacecraft, and surprisingly, given their incompetence so far, manage to perfectly execute this most difficult of space procedures on the first go); the derelict craft’s crew is dead, having immolated themselves for reasons unknown – their remains coat the entire spaceship’s interior (Psychologist: “Over 80% of all household dust is human skin…”).7

But not all of them are dead – the craziest, ugliest and most dangerous one has survived; he destroys the airlocks between the two vehicles, killing another of the Icarus 2 crew in a botched variation of the famous ‘2001 Airlock Manoeuvre’ and then manages, inexplicably, to get on to the surviving ship. Where he (of course) sets about picking off the crew gruesomely because he is, well, you know, unhinged by Communion with the Great Sun God and The Contemplation of the Hopeless Infinity of Space. Or some other such goofy quasi-religious buffoonery that ineluctably sets in when bad writers address ideas of any real weight (think of the end of The Black Hole or Brainstorm or Sphere. You get the picture).

Technically, the film then degenerates into huge slabs of jittery, overexposed blurry sequences of Nutso Flesh-Challenged Guy stalking the few surviving crew as the spacecraft is sucked inexorably into the sun. There are, through the last fifteen minutes of the show, lots of flashy filmic hijinks which add up to a great deal of sound and fury and signify exactly nothing. Some of my friends have praised the film for its technical chops, but for me, in a film of this nature that’s like saying Paris Hilton knows how to put on clothes and make-up – it goes with the territory and does little to change the fact that there is only a vapid non-entity underneath.

After all this aimless commotion8 I was bored and tired and well and truly rooting for the remaining crew of the Icarus to be quickly consumed in a Fiery Barbecue Spectacular. For their own sakes, as well as mine.

Why am I so harsh on this film? Because it is dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Even worse, it treats the audience as dumb too. It is devoid of any original ideas, opting instead to use a lot of fancy technique to wallpaper over its substantial shortcomings. Like some kind of celluloid vampire staggering in the glare of its own topic, it sucks material from a host of better films that have gone before, and succeeds only in being a parody of each of them. There is a tilt at the eco-message of Trumbull’s unaffected and important Silent Running. There are echoes of human solitude, grief and madness so beautifully examined in each of the Tarkovsky and Soderbergh versions of Solaris. There is an attempt to recreate the claustrophobia and paranoia of Ridley Scott’s Alien. Worst of all Sunshine has the arrogance to quote heavily from Kubrik’s masterpiece of the science fiction genre 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it has not one gram of the intellectual weight it would need to even come close to carrying off any of its stolen ideas.

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is seeking, by association with much more significant and powerful films, to hijack some gravity in an attempt to slingshot itself into a higher orbit. Instead it merely succeeds in plunging headlong and out of control into the heart of the sun.

Rating: 1 Fading Star out of 5 (and that only because I pity the obviously skilled production crew’s valiant efforts to try and save this wreck)

  1. Critics evidently notice that a film is science fiction and then set their their standards to ‘Ga-ga Level’ or something. I don’t know how else to explain the widespread nutty adulation of this turgid mess… []
  2. Interesting how they had the forethought to give Icarus 1 a number. Almost like they knew it was going to stuff up. I’m surprised that NASA doesn’t pre-emptively give all its space shuttles numbers like ‘Columbia 1′ and ‘Atlantis 1′ under the same logic. Script writers PAY ATTENTION: real science doesn’t do stupid things like this! []
  3. I swear, my mind started wandering about now, and all I could think about was how much this babe and HAL had in common, and whether they could have had some kind of happy future together if they hadn’t been sent to opposite ends of the solar system. []
  4. Not in this film though – there are none. But trust me, it could really use some. []
  5. If it was me designing a life-supporting Oxygen Garden for a spaceship, I think I might put in some kind of efficient fire-extinguishing system. Like, oh, being able to vent the ambient oxygen immediately into space in the event of a fire. But maybe I’m just overly safety-conscious… []
  6. I can almost hear the conversation in the planning stages of the mission back at Houston – You mean we’re going to trust these twits to fly this thing? Don’t worry – the computer takes care of everything! They’ll be fine. As long as they stick to the plan, it’ll all be swell! But what if they override the computer? Are you crazy? Why the heck would they do that? They have enough trouble working out how to do their laundry. []
  7. Oh heck. Let’s do some maths. Assuming these people are average weight, allow a healthy 80kg for each of the seven who went up in flames. That’s 560kg. A great deal of the human body is water, which of course will just vapourize, but for the sake of argument let’s be extremely generous and say half of it remains as solids in the form of dry powder: 280kg. A quick kitchen experiment shows me that about a hundred grams of flour will coat an area of a metre square to a depth of something less than a millimetre. So about 1kg then, for a depth of 1cm as shown in the movie (still with me?) 280kg would therefore cover about 280sq metres. My small inner-city terrace has, again being quite generous, about 300sq metres of wall space.The space-ship in the film is wa-a-a-a-y bigger than my house… Along with all my other very liberal allowances, this is, of course, also assuming that the entire available body mass of the dead astronauts was turned into airborne powder, which in the film is plainly not the case – most of the bodies are still intact in the room in which they torched themselves (presumably to allow the inevitable and yawn-inducing moment where someone nudges one of the corpses so it can collapse into a pile of crunchy dust…) And this film had a ‘scientific consultant’. I wonder how I can get a gig like that? []
  8. And trust me, if you think I’m being pedantic so far, I haven’t even begun to pick holes in the half-baked science of this effort… Consider the film’s ineffectual space-suits (the temperature in the shadow of the ship is sub sub zero, so the reflective and cumbersome suits are useless there, but they are also hopeless in the direct light of the sun… Wha? What use, exactly, do they have?); Or the fact that the transport-end of the spacecraft (the bit that’s not the payload) has, apparently, about four minutes to clear the scene when the nuclear kick-start of the Sun takes place. Four minutes! Considering that the bomb also appears to be the shield that prevents the main part of the ship from frying, it is just another measure of the dimwittednedness of the crew that they don’t realize that they are toast no matter what the outcome of the mission. []