Plot: What’s it about?
I have found reviews of Danny Boyle’s latest film “Sunshine” that do not mention “2001: A Space Odyssey” to be surprisingly rare. The most peculiar thing about this phenomenon is how over half of these reviews still manage to degenerate into negative rants against a film so loaded with squandered potential. For most people who don’t already love it, it’s the final thirty minutes that ruins the experience with “Sunshine”. While I can certainly see how some might fault the film for making a crazy left turn in the final act, let’s all take an objective moment to reflect on just how wildly off the rails “2001” went in its ending sequence. That Kubrick classic certainly didn’t have an ending that was particularly satisfying to any but the most hardened Clarke devotee. It couldn’t even boast a resolution that even attempted for one moment to make sense to the vast majority who would originally see it. I challenge most common moviegoers today to argue that they would have understood – let alone liked – “2001” if it had been released today. And yet it’s an unqualified and, typically, unquestioned masterpiece. I’ve taken it upon myself to question it here because others have taken it upon themselves to question “Sunshine”, a singularly great science fiction film. Everything gels in this film on some subconscious level, from the flow of the score with the visuals to the breathtaking effects that – for perhaps the first time in modern, post-model science fiction – feel less like CGI than practical images. “Sunshine” is my personal pick for the best film of 2007.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that “Sunshine” was the best film of last year. I’m saying it’s my personal pick for the best film of last year. There’s a big distinction there. But it’s not a cop-out, either. I simply know undeniably that this is not a movie for everyone. It is not, for example, a film for those growing up in the mindless, effortless, desensitized generation of film-making. This is a film with an intentional (read slow) pace and a conviction about itself that most films just don’t have anymore. To many people, science fiction that takes itself too seriously almost invariably equates to a very boring two hours. To me, it’s exhilarating. The plot of astronauts traveling somewhere into space to save the Earth from impending disaster is almost as old as the sci-fi genre itself and, as many others have pointed out before me, “Sunshine” is just full of one disaster movie cliche after another. The crew of the ship falls rather neatly into categories we’re all comfortably familiar with, the science of the mission is sketchy at best, and a few character motivations and decisions can be questioned here and there. And the big twist ending upon which everything inevitably hinges has now effectively become its own joke in Hollywood, twists having become so common that even not having one is considered a twist of its own. Many critics hated this film for coming so close to greatness only to allow itself to be compromised by a near-methodical adherence to convention. With all due respect, these people have entirely missed the point.
“Sunshine” isn’t a great film because it redefines the genre in which its world resides, and it isn’t great because it avoids cliches. I’m not sure where it’s written that we can’t have great films anymore that don’t reinvent the wheel every few years. In a very tangible way, the expectation of that reinvention has in and of itself become its own kind of post-modern cliche. It’s that expectation that has turned our precious twist ending into the rule and not the exception. “Sunshine”, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from the cliches in favor of conjuring up a contrived take on a classic story. And it understands at every turn why those conventions are there in the first place: because, for the most part, they’re what work for the genre. Look at “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” or “Star Wars”, for example. Those films stood on the shoulders of virtually every action serial cliche in existence, but they did it so masterfully that no one cared in the end. The true test of a film’s greatness should be how well it tells its story and how adeptly it can step into all the things we know are coming from a genre picture while not feeling like it’s all been done before. And on that level, “Sunshine” is a tremendous success. I could give you the canned plot synopsis that populates virtually every other review I’ve seen and you would never watch the film. That’s because when you look at this movie as a series of individual moments, it’s just not all that exciting. Sure, there are dangers that manifest themselves and events that you may or may not see coming, but then that’s just what you’d expect going in, isn’t it? So why do I love this film so much if it’s so derivative? Because it somehow still works beautifully, and does so on a deeper level than the one I peruse with my critical eye.
One could hardly argue that “2001” was a visceral experience, even for its time. It was slow and ponderous. But gloriously so. It may well still be the most realistic space film to date for its refusal to make the bleakness of interplanetary travel into something warm, fuzzy, and easily commercialized (sorry, George). Now, to be fair, “Sunshine” takes far more liberties with science fact than its Kubrickian ancestor, and its straightforward plot is nowhere nearly as claustrophobic as even the roomy Discovery. And yet somehow there is a common thread involved that’s far less tangible. Both films share a building sense of dread, even when you know where the story is going. It’s almost palatable. You know from experience where the plot is likely headed and yet it’s almost sickening to watch it unfold. But you can’t look away. Both consistently treat their world with intelligence and respect. They may not make too much logical sense, especially in their final acts, but both are faithful to their own, respective rules. But the one similarity that no one points out is something that I think not only “Sunshine” and “2001” have in common, but nearly all great sci-fi movies have: sterility. It’s an admittedly odd adjective to bestow on a film you’re trumpeting, but “Sunshine” feels a bit cold and unattainable. The characters aren’t ever fleshed out so well that you stop wanting to discover more about who they are. Some die before you learn all that you wanted to know. It bothers me sometimes when films are criticized for being light on character development when further exposition would only hurt the true point of the mystery of humanity: that you never truly know anyone. Every person contributes, every nuance is memorable, and it’s the fact that you’re not dished out more than you want to devour that makes you want to take the journey again in the future.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Kubrick’s adaptation of Clarke’s novel, but one thing sticks out about virtually every screening: it never really occurs to me while watching it that Frank Poole and (to I suppose a lesser degree) David Bowman “die” in the film. The movie just feels larger than one or even two human lives. “Sunshine” does, too. And I think I love it so much because I can’t put my finger on why. There’s a scene in the film’s final third when the ending is finally revealed that is bathed almost entirely in sun light. There’s not much to grab onto visually except for gaping eyes, streams of haze, and a figure you can’t really make out…and yet it’s just hypnotic. There’s no scene there that has humbling, species-changing implications like Kubrick’s film had, and yet somehow, it still feels that important when you’re looking at it. The end of the film might be completely incongruous with what’s come before, but it isn’t illogical and it doesn’t betray the integrity of the film. It’s frightening, beautiful, and shot with an audacity that’s as much a tour-de-force of cinematography as I’ve seen in recent years. Much has been said of Danny Boyle’s reliance on strange camera effects to generate emotions, but in this case, I found the frenetic style suited the comparably frenetic situation impeccably well. It makes logical sense, too, for those paying some serious attention in the first act. I can honestly say that this film thrilled me from beginning to end, and I can’t imagine giving a higher recommendation for any film to lovers of good, old fashioned sci-fi movie-making. It’s a throwback told in a contemporary way, and it just plain worked for me. It may not for you. A parable exists with the film’s primary character (which, to be clear, is the sun) about which I could write a similarly long-winded review. But in the end, this is a personal movie. It’s personal to you in the way that you see “2001” in “2010” through all its flaws. And you love what is underneath the surface that much more that you have to squint to make it out. “Sunshine” makes you squint, and suffice it to say that this film’s undertones may be just as pretentious as they seem…or as meaningful as you want them to be.
Video: How does it look?
I think the biggest compliment I can give to this splendid 1080p Blu-ray Disc transfer of “Sunshine” is that it didn’t disappoint me. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a huge fan of the film, and I knew how good this was going to have to look to do the movie adequate justice. I wanted to be really impressed. As it turns out, Fox has delivered better than I could have ever hoped with this video presentation. Some have criticized the color palette as being too subdued and, as such, insufficient for showcasing the “pop” associated with top tier hi-def visual presentations. Stepping right up close to this image on my 46″ Aquos, I must say I respectfully disagree. There’s a tasteful amount of film grain that gives the image that feel of care and authenticity. The grain is never obtrusive and it’s consistent in level and texture. Detail is absolutely pristine, with even the tiniest minutia clearly visible, even in the drab hues of the interior scenes. Personally, I find a subdued range like this perfectly flattering to hi-def. But then, maybe it’s just that I’ve spent years looking at old VHS tapes and standard DVD’s that just didn’t bring out detail like this in sci-fi films, all-too-many of which take place on spaceships. The computer displays and graphics that are used to bring us up to speed on the Icarus I’s location are amazingly sharp and crisp. Outdoor scenes are possibly even more impressive, with deep, solid blacks (a necessity with this particular film) and colors that push the boundaries of saturation without ever smearing or becoming muddled. The crazed camera work during the last act is even handled well here, and I hope this wonderful presentation can finally put to rest the debate about whether the in-lens effects Boyle employs during the climax are intentional (they are). I noticed no other problems of any kind. No halos, no compression issues, etc. This is a top-notch presentation of potentially problematic material. Kudos, Fox. This is how I dreamed “Sunshine” would look at home. It should also be noted that the back cover for the release specifies an AVC encode at an average bitrate of 16mbps. Doing random bitrate checks on my PS3, I found this number to have little bearing on the actual average bitrate for the release, which more often than not stays closer to a more appropriate 25mbps-30mbps range. Optional English, Cantonese, Spanish, Korean, and French subtitles are available.
Audio: How does it sound?
While I’m only able to extract the DTS core stream of “Sunshine” at present, I can tell you that even that sounds spectacular. As this is more a “mood” than an “action” sci-fi film, envelopment is key. And I’m happy to say that envelopment is frequent. It is also very subtle at times, which I personally find to be the most impressive use of surrounds. Listen to the scene where Capa is talking to the computer about the payload projection when trying to make his decision early on in the film. This entire scene is terrific in showcasing a masterful sound design. Dialog is clean and clear, the ship’s computer voice is directional and emanates from all around the listener, as is appropriate. The scene this one leads into is an outdoor shot of the Icarus II with the score kicking into full throttle and the subwoofer getting a real workout. Great stuff. Again, this isn’t a demo track per se if you’re wanting the biggest visceral bang for your buck, but it’s very tastefully done and the audio perfectly compliments and enhances the visual experience. Transparency is just top notch on this one. This is, arguably, a restrained effort considering the subject matter, but I think it’s important to ground such an other-worldly experience as “Sunshine” with a life-like, tightened soundstage, and this one fits the bill nicely. A standard 448kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also available in English, French and Spanish for those so inclined.
Supplements: What are the extras?
There are two audio commentaries included on the Blu-ray release of “Sunshine”, and both of them are terrific. First up is director Danny Boyle. This track is extremely engaging for any sci-fi geek or fan of the film and covers most anything you’d want to know about the technical aspects of the film, as well as a few tidbits about the overriding themes as well. The second commentary is by the film’s technical advisor, Dr. Brian Cox. He discusses the science behind the film and is surprisingly interesting throughout and manages to avoid being overly dry. Well worth a listen. There are 20 minutes of deleted scenes (in 480p) divided into two separate sections on the Blu-ray, and while most of them are little more than inconsequential scene extensions and their omission from the finished film is understandable, it’s nice to have them included here to complete the package. Next up, we have nearly 40 minutes worth of production diaries (in 480i) shot during the making of the film. I’ve never been much of a fan of these types of extras, and these don’t do much to change my mind. They’re essentially on-set “look, we’re filming the movie” shots. But again, it’s nice to include them anyway. A few unrelated short-films are thrown onto the disc to promote up and coming film makers. Also included is the much-touted Profile 1.1-enhanced “A Brilliant Vision” feature, which is a very infrequent picture-in-picture feature that, again, offers little in the way of real meat for fans. It’s nice to see Blu-ray evolving in this way and I’m looking forward to more advanced implementation of the picture-in-picture function as we move forward. This just tended to interrupt the flow of the film for me more often than not. I’m not sure why it’s so desirable to some to watch the extras while actually watching the film anyway. I personally prefer to see a film with no interruptions and view extras on their own…but that’s me. Another nifty Profile 1.1 feature on the disc is the “Journey Into Sound” section, which allows the user to change directionality of specific sounds within their speaker setup. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t really amount to much more than a glorified speaker test signal with cooler visuals than a setup screen. Trailers are included (in full 1080p) for “28 Days Later”, “28 Weeks Later”, “X-Men: The Last Stand”, and “Alien vs. Predator”. All in all, a solid extras package that ranges from excellent to inconsequential. Still, I can’t recommend the film highly enough to science fiction fans, and for those who are fans of “Sunshine” already as I am, this release is really terrific – especially for such a low-budget picture – complete with a near reference-quality presentation of the feature that simply blows the SD version out of the water. Enjoy.