Saturday, September 1, 2007
SUNSHINE (2007) ......9/10
“A MISSION OF OMISSION”
“Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload; a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose; to create a star within a star. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus Two.”
Boyle’s key decision in SUNSHINE, among its many welcome genre deviations, is omission. After its brief but explicative opening narration, SUNSHINE thrusts the mostly ignorant audience into a mission in progress. We are without any grounding scenes of life on earth or the launching of the mission, suspending us in a telling isolation. In its beginning seconds Boyle, with economical brevity, gives you all you really need to know in order to appreciably enter this film, which is precious little. Hitchcock, master of so many things, executed the tactic of omission beautifully, and none better than in his cold war thriller TOPAZ (1969). There are two standout scenes in TOPAZ during which key characters concoct espionage scenarios in plain view of the audience but vocally cut off; one time they are behind a glass door, the other from across the street. This decision iterates three basic points. The first is to remind the audience that the imagination is a central component of the filmic experience. Secondly it is a means to avoid narrative redundancy (to be told what will happen and then have it happen). Lastly it shows how little information we need in order to connect dots, how few stars we need in order to recognize a constellation. Those things discussed in muted fashion in TOPAZ are extraneous. It is understood that we will inevitably be shown, in action, what they are concocting in silence through the natural situational unfolding. Likewise and throughout, SUNSHINE avoids the typical, weighted scenes of scientific jargon justifying all the technology and processes used within the universe of the film as well as minimizing coverage of actions based on technology (such as the docking of Icarus I to Icarus II being captured in two or three brief shots) in favor of more authentically occurring dialogue and a maximizing of the linchpin of human attitudes, action, and interaction. If and when things are explained, it occurs as a natural product of each situation and is done so to an appropriate extent with unpretentious delicacy, often diegetically visually (as with the oxygen garden) rather than expositionally. We learn a considerable amount of information simply in the process of SUNSHINE’s fatalistic unfolding. Notably, while the arch of the film is distinctly causal (all subsequent dilemmas and failures stemming from the initial receiving of Icarus I's distress beakon and the decision, after a risk assessment, to rondezvous with the ship and salvage its payload), SUNSHINE is alternately sustained by an equivalent arch of ideas, quietude, and human spontaneity.
SUNSHINE offers such faith in intuition as a credit to the audience and as a measure of confidence in storytelling. In lue of excessive expositional dialogue, the films chief concerns are (separately and relationally) psychological, existential, spiritual, environmental (space, the ship), and sensual (light, dark, sound, movement) all of which are articulated through the authenticity of human experiences and reactions, heightened moral and practical dilemmas, analytical editing/cinematography, and a brilliantly empathic musical score (which manages to be as delicate, solemn, and explosive as the sun itself).
Though unlike anything he’s done before (that is to say, as different as every film Boyle has ever made is from the other) there is a quirk in storytelling that threads a number of his works together; Tainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions. He has a tendency to execute a third act that seems marginally detached from the preceding. A second viewing always seems to sew them back together for me, but never seamlessly. The third act dilemma of SUNSHINE is seen by many critics as especially problematic. At least it draws the most fire. Unlike the popular criticism, I found SUNSHINE’s third act, though self-confused of its tenets, is as much a twist as it is a matter of the films logical progression, mostly in terms of the polarization of didactics within the narrative (leaving physicist Capa the pragmatist and Pinbecker the dogmatist as two ideological stand-ins at war).
Pinbecker is the captain of the first Icarus. He has survived seven years in orbit of the sun after murdering his entire crew and sabotaging the original mission based on an existential/theological fugue. Pinbecker slips onboard Icarus II and continues his ‘latter days’ agenda with the new crew after they dock with the dormant Icarus I in order to assess and possibly utilize its payload as a back-up. Pinbecker is a vehicle, in one sense, for the idea of fanaticism, and the dangerous reversion of the mind towards narrow fundamentalism in a world that beacons, if not demands broadness of scope (an all too timely topic). All of this resulted from the original Icarus missions’ year and a half staring contest with the Sun (God itself for countless cultures, the source of life energy, the primordial origin, etc). The ensuing seven years of quietism Pinbecker spent “talking to god” on a dead ship didn’t act as remedy either. His ideological reversion serves as the counterpoint to Capa's prevailing scientific pragmatism (that is not to say that he is without a personal kind of spirituality). Capa invented the bomb...a bomb made by man that will be used to "fix god" and disrupt the perfect primordial order as Pinbecker sees it. In broader terms it is the greatest ultimatum btw/ science and religion, between the apex of 'the natural' (the source energy for life on earth) and the apex of the 'unnatural' (technology designed by man), and between the openness of spirituality and the confinement of dogmatism. SUSHINE tells the story of the absolute summit of man’s science and industry, coupled with the unity of man’s societies’ efforts based on desperate survivalism (noted as the international cast) reaching out to touch god (the sun).
The culminating frenetic texture of the third act, contrasted with the more moderate pacing of the first two, manages to equate itself with the increasingly psychotic reality of flying into the sun on a Manhattan sized bomb. We are visually arrested by erratic movement, heightened claustrophobia, blurred vision, disorientation of characters and location, and a tactile quality of separation (crewmembers are dispersed or dead, and Icarus II is at the furthest distance yet traveled from earth). Granted, the shift towards a reputed “horror genre” dynamic, with Pinbecker stalking the crew in darkness is jarring, and feels at first like the filmmakers might have fumbled the reins of the narrative, or that it is an aside seeking justification through severity. But it is forgivable in lue of its resultant flaring of style, tension, creative sensory disruption, and its philosophical implication. SUNSHINE doesn’t merely degenerate into a “slasher film,” but effectively transplants a horror schema (which Boyle has shown he excels in) for its own devices, distinguishing itself by being neither arbitrary in its action nor self-egrandizing in its gratuity. Rather than merely a "reason to show blood" it stands as message of universality, a reminder to the audience, on a small scale, of the price of the missions failure. Blood becomes a simple and effective element to emphasize our humanity and fragility in such a far removed and fantastical situation.
In the end it seems more that SUNSHINE’s perogative is that of ideas, textures, and sensations taking the precedence over explicative science, and doing so with stellar results. The film even admits to an extent that the spoken science is going to take a back seat (though the tactile products of science and technology within/without the ship are their own evidence). Remember, Icarus says to Capa in the Earth Room, "…any further calculations beyond this point are not useful for speculation"..."because everything about the payload delivery is completely theoretical. Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable…" . For me this dialogue is a resonant truth of the film and a matter to consider in its experience. It rung also as a gesture to put science and religion on a similar plane, if you will. The existence of God is not something that can be empirically proven or discussed, therefor much of the driving science of the film, which is itself theoretical, is given an equivalent conjectural and undiscussed nature. If anything it inspired me, and apparently Roger Ebert, to conduct research independently, finding out anything I could about the theoretical science used for the film and related material. If SUNSHINE had divulged everything on its own, or made the typical plea for approval by flaunting its science like a diploma in a doctors office, the learning curve would have ended with the credits, and the audience would have left a complacent mass, pretending they understand solar physics and quantum mechanics. Personally, I’d rather a film instill the desire to discover than do the discovering for me. To lead me to water and let me drink of my own accord.
As a sentimental aside, the next morning after seeing SUNSHINE, I awoke to catch the sun just as it was cresting the horizon. It was an impossible red and hung in a baffling clarity. I could look right at it without a wince. I smiled and realized that I hadn't even thought about the sun in ages. I took it for granted as one does the ground or air. Since then I stop and give it a moment once in a while. Just a few seconds of attention or thought. I don't know what consequence it all has, but it took a film to remind me that the reason I exist at all is because of that big bright spot in the sky that blinds me when I'm driving to work. It almost has an identity for me now.
SUNSHINE, a genre cluster, an existential hotbed, and a platform for some of the most affecting and revelational imagery in recent cinema, stands as a milestone for its filmmakers, for mindful but accesible science fiction, and for film in 2007.