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Sound bites

Sunshine sheds little light on the sci-fi genre
By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 18, 2007
2.0 2.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Sunshine

Sunshine | Directed by Danny Boyle | Written by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland | with Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Hiroyuki Sanada, And Michelle Yeoh | Fox Searchlight | 108 Minutes
In space, so the tag line for Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi thriller Alien goes, nobody can hear you scream. In space, in fact, nobody can hear anything, and that poses a problem for filmmakers who feel obliged to rattle their soundtracks with loud noises. Not so Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He has an astronaut blown from space into an airlock. The explosion is silent, sound returning only as air fills the vacuum.

That’s one of many scenes from 2001 that Danny Boyle steals from Kubrick — omitting, however, the crucial detail of silence. He also steals the premise of that film (and of Alien, and Solaris): a microcosmic space vessel on a long voyage to fulfill a monumental mission and the effect of the prolonged isolation on the ship’s crew, both human and mechanical. These allusions, and many others, merely underscore how much better those other films are.

In 2057 (why are these things always set 50 years after the current year?), global warming is not the problem. Rather, the Sun is, somehow, running out of gas. Scientists have already sent out one spacecraft, with the ill-fated name Icarus, to stuff a huge nuke into the sputtering star to jump-start it. That ship disappeared. Now they’re trying again with Icarus II. It’s the world’s last hope.

Sounds exciting. In 28 Days Later and even Trainspotting, Boyle showed he could rev up the screen with kinetic editing and lacerating images. This time, though, he wants to be Tarkovsky. (Or maybe Steven Soderbergh imitating Tarkovsky, as he did in his useless remake of Solaris.) The characters spend a lot of time looking at the Sun (pretty dazzling at first, but after a while lacking in variety), or checking out the plants in the Oxygen Garden, or fighting over who gets to use the videophone before the ship enters the Dead Zone. Space travel seems about as exciting as waiting tenth in line for takeoff at Logan without a good book.

Until they get the Distress Signal. Could the first Icarus have survived? After some specious reasoning from Science Officer Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy, no Spock he), the crew decide to alter their course to link up with the lost craft. What will they find there? What does it mean? I, for one, remain stumped as to why Murphy’s character is named after the famed war photographer. Something to do with light, no doubt. In the end, though, the crew make the decision because otherwise the movie would consist of arty shots of celestial bodies and jewel-like spacecraft in stark solar light and pitch-darkness (check out Mercury passing before the face of the Sun) interspersed with the squabblings of thinly written, disposable characters.

And disposed they are. The deviation from course jangles the reason of some and the humanity of others and brings the mission into a confrontation with nothing particularly exciting or revelatory. So it comes down to who, if anyone, is going to survive to light the fuse. Some images emerge from the entropy. Wonder what happens when an exposed body hits near absolute zero degrees? It’s kind of pretty. But noisy, too. Unlike the films of Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Scott, Sunshine is empty of ideas. So Boyle fills the void with sound.

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