A ship. A crew. And a signal.

September 1, 2010

Sunshine (2007)  is startlingly beautiful, original in execution and lastingly haunting. It’s hard sci fi along the lines of Alien or 2001 and well worthy of being in a class with both; an instant personal classic!  The plot, to borrow dialogue from the movie, boils down to this.

Trey: “I think I gotta look this over pretty carefully.  Very carefully.  But if I had to make a guess right now I think we could adjust our trajectory.  We could fly straight to them.”

Mace: “But we’re not gonna do that.”

Mace: “Just to make it absolutely clear, there’s no way we’re gonna do that.”

Mace: “Do I have to spell it out for you?  We have a payload to deliver to the heart of our nearest star.  We’re delivering that payload ’cause that star is dying.  And if it dies, we die.  Everything dies.”

Mace: “So that is our mission.  There is nothing, literally nothing more important than completing our mission!  End of story.”

Everyone does a stellar (oh wow, pun not intended) job with this movie.  The soundtrack is a team effort between classical composer John Murphy and the band Underworld which works out brilliantly and is quite haunting.  The filming is beautiful, the story dramatic and they even make a real effort to work out the science.  The actors all deliver wonderful performances although, for reasons which will be obvious when you’ve seen it, I’m most impressed with the work of Chris Evans, Rose Byrne and Cillian Murphy.  Its hard to know what to say about a movie as based on suspense and surprise as this one without giving away the whole game so I’ll fall back a bit on what the director and critics have said about it.

Classic hard Sci-fi in the making

Danny Boyle (the director) says that this genre is defined by three elements that are introduced to the audience in sequence: “it boils down to three things: a ship, a crew and a signal.”  Boyle says this in the commentary (Yes I listened to the commentary.  It was fascinating.) but here I’m quoting from an interview with MTV.  Read the whole thing here.

Basically, that’s what you have in this kind of sci-fi. Not in fantasy sci-fi, like “Star Wars,” where you can go to any planet and find creatures or whatever. But when it’s based on a certain amount of realism, and on space exploration as we know it, then it comes down to: there’s a ship and a crew and a signal that changes everything.

I was consistently impressed with how perfectly Sunshine fit its genre and yet the ways in which it breaks with tradition.  So many elements of this are classic sci fi archetypes and yet they are handled in some very unexpected ways.  Specifically the penultimate climax in which (spoiler warning) Chris Evans goes off and fixes broken machinery while Rose Byrne handles the psychotic violent saboteur. I really didn’t see that coming at all and it made me respect the movie so much.

The Intrepid Crew

The crew is really the strong point of the movie.  With eight great actors floating through space in a tin can, the story necessarily centers on the people for its drama.  Things go wrong but what keeps you watching is the way that the people choose to respond to them.  There isn’t even a lot of dialogue but the actors’ glances, glares and long searching looks speak volumes for them. The laconic dialogue highlights the immense challenge in their basic mission – with a years long time scale – even before it all starts to go wrong.  (Oh is that a spoiler?  Things eventually go wrong.  Consider yourself spoiled.)

Cassie: “Kanda, Searle.  Report to the Flight deck.”

Searle: “What’s up?’

Cassie: “We have an excess of manliness breaking out in the Comm center.”

To me, all the reticence speaks to the immense challenge of living in that kind of privacy and sensory deprivation environment for so long.  There are intense relationships between the characters but again the movie is too classy to spell things out for you.  It takes a while to divine who is close to whom and where the tensions lie. We’re never even told the roles and job descriptions of the crew members – it becomes clear through context as the plot goes on.  Emotional relationships are unclear – but never vague.  Sunshine does a wonderful job of implying all sorts of specific back stories but not revealing them to you – it leaves the viewer wanting more and (in my case) thinking over the story for weeks afterward.  In fact the movie’s website did actually publish character bios which explain a lot of valuable things about them … and raise a number of further questions!

Go ahead.  Look at the sun.

The cinematography is really beautiful.  The glowing pulsing oranges are all reserved for the exterior shots with the sun and the interior of the space ship is all done in artificial lights in a melancholy blue palate.  The movie is filled with unflattering closeups of the actors looking washed out and haggard but somehow that only makes you identify more closely.  This isn’t a blockbuster style beautiful-people-kicking-ass type movie – its feels very human.  There are a lot of lens flares and distortions and the actors are often framed oddly against the technical machinery of the ship but all serves to feel more real.

This image of Cassie reading at the pilots console is typical.  The fact that she’s reading a dogeared novel ON A SPACESHIP is only one of many reasons I love her and the whole movie.  They never tell us what she’s reading either.

I’ll conclude with Roger Ebert’s final analysis of the film:

Younger boys won’t like it because the only thing that’s possibly going to blow up real good is the sun. But science-fiction fans will like it, and also brainiacs, and those who sometimes look at the sky and think, man, there’s a lot going on up there, and we can’t even define precisely what a soliton is.

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One Response to “A ship. A crew. And a signal.”


  1. […] possible I’ve said all I need to say about this movie here.  But actually I simply can’t emphasize enough how much I love it, how much I quote from it […]


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