Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sunshine (Boyle, 2007)

Problems don’t get a whole lot bigger than this. In Danny Boyle’s tense, skillfully made space film, Sunshine, the sun is dying and a crew of eight astronauts is hurtling towards the center of the solar system with the nuclear equivalent of jumper cables. Their task is to deliver a payload that will create a star within the star and bring the earth’s temperature back up where it belongs so that Al Gore can return to the lecture tour. Naturally, all sorts of scientific questions about the plausibility of such a mission are bound to leap into our minds. However, the point of Sunshine is not whether or not the mission will ultimately have precisely the desired effect. The point is that faced with the threat of extinction, the mission represents the last, best effort of the human race. Like De Palma’s Mission to Mars, Boyle’s film excels at offering us evidence of humankind’s ingenuity juxtaposed against cold, hard evidence of our fragility.

That such a journey is even ponderable is in itself rather extraordinary. The crew flying the Icarus II is equipped with technology that exceeds the capabilities of our own time, but not by much. An on-board Earth simulator allows one man, filled with the tension of being away from home for years, to refocus and recalibrate. An abundant greenhouse is filled with plants that provide a small bit of aesthetic beauty, as well as assist with the oxygen flow. Their navigational system is controlled by a computer system that allows for intuitive voice-activated interfacing that is essentially no different from having a conversation. Without resorting to easily defined ‘types’, Boyle’s characters (apart from a couple notable exceptions) also represent the high point of human education, rationality and courage. Some possess the ability to make extraordinary scientific and mathematical calculations. Others are notable for their ability to use logic under intense pressure and place themselves in danger understanding what ultimately is at stake.

At one point, the characters joke that they should not split up because they don’t want to be picked off one by one by a malicious alien. The gag works because it is a direct commentary on the type of film that Sunshine is not – well, not exactly. In addition to the mere difficulty of traversing a vast distance through space, the crew must also contend with a force representative of a certain kind of apocalyptic thought that is a very real threat to human well being in the real world. While there may be some who feel that the final section of Sunshine descends into something more base and ordinary, it seems to me that this is where the film asserts a rather pointed message regarding the battle between scientific accomplishment and religious faith. The idea of manipulating the sun is extraordinary. It may also be seen by some as hubristic. If the caretaker of the universe wants to shut down operations, then who are we to argue? The glorious spiritual conclusion of Sunshine is derived from the notion that we are, in fact, our own caretakers and the tiny part of the universe we inhabit, flawed though it may be, is more precious than the imagined paradises of mythology. This metaphorical struggle elevates Sunshine beyond the scope of a conventional thriller while at the same time intensifying the desperate acts of the Icarus crew.



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