A ship. A crew. A signal.
As Danny Boyle pointed out in his Q&A session at BFI SouthBank, following an early screening of his new film, Sunshine, this is pretty much the plot for many a classic sci-fi movie. With Sunshine Boyle takes the established formula and tries to add his own individual stamp. I'm not entirely sure he's succeeded!
The director has experimented with many genres, and has career highlights that include Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Millions so I was keen to see what his take on Science Fiction would be. With a cast list that includes Cillian Murphy and Chris Evans, quite a bit of pre-release buzz, and a film that's been three years in the making the signs were pretty good.
Unfortunately, I think Boyles influences - Space 2001, Solaris, and Alien were name-checked by Danny, but you should add Das Bootand Event Horizon to the list - are all too obvious, particularly Kubrick's masterwerk, and don't really feel that he added much new to the genre other than a bit of a 2007 spit and polish. There were times (too many!) where I felt I was just watching an update of that movie, with admittedly much more lavish visuals, but with the same glacial pace of narrative and a deliberate obliqueness of the storyline that had me mouthing the 'p' word (pretentious) at several points, particularly in the latter stages. The problem for me is that you're never quite sure whats real and what's actually a character's imagination working overtime, and that makes things very confusing very quickly. This is not a film for those who like everything wrapped up neatly with a bow.
The basic story is that the sun is no longer providing the energy and light that mankind needs to survive. A crew of eight are sent out on the Icarus II to send a bomb into the heart of the Sun to reignite it. It all sounds very Armageddon, but make no mistake - this is not a comic-book, popcorn movie by any stretch of the imagination. 'More NASA than Star Wars' is how Boyle describes it.
There's a lot to like - the visuals are stunning (for once the NFT had a seriously good print - hoorah!) and the music, as one has come to expect from Boyle, works extremely well. In fact sound design, some amazing sets, incredible CGI and very clever directorial flourishes are all great. I just wish that there had been a bit more 'meat' at the heart of the story, and a bit more credibility about what turns out to be 'the monster in the dark' that all such films employ. That being said, it's a thought-provoking film, and not one that's easy to forget. With each film he's made Boyle has shown he is rarely predictable, and yet again he's produced something entirely different from his previous work. I'm sure the film will have a strong band of cult followers.
The question and answer session after the film showed Boyle to be quite self-effacing, explaining several times he didn't have a clue when it came to CGI, that his writer (Alex Garland who also worked with the director on his previous 28 Days Later) was as much director as writer, that his heads of department came up with the ideas that many attributed to him etc etc. His explanation of the meaning of the end ('What's real? What's imagined?' asked the interviewer, verbalising what most of us had been secretly thinking) did at least clear up a few points (the action which seems to take about two minutes is apparently a billionth of a second, but perceived from the central character's perspective). And it was interesting to hear that although he hasn't really been directly involved in the sequel to 28 Days Later (28 Weeks Later. Natch!) he supports the film and enjoyed it. 'But it's violent. I was shocked at how violent it is', he said, before going on to admit that he'd actually done some work on second unit for the film one weekend, as a break from the mammoth job of editing Sunshine. He seemed particularly full of praise for the way the new film portrays London, saying that the Ecuadorian cameraman's take on London was 'amazing' and something only a foreign pair of eyes could have come up with.
Boyle was joined, half way through the interview, by actor Cillian Murphy, who talked a little about his research for the role, and the amount of science and learning Boyle put them through, with zero gravity trips, scuba diving and the eight cast members all having to live together for two weeks in a student bed-sit before filming commenced.
Sunshine opens, both here and in the States, next month. If you're going to see it, make sure you see it on the big screen - it's hard to imagine it having anything like the same effect on a small screen or TV. If you hated 2001 you should probably give it a miss, but if that film is amongst your favourites then Sunshine is absolutely not to be missed!