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Starstruck: Danny Boyle's Sunshine

Boyle is clearly overeager to get to his set pieces. There’s little downtime in his new film, and its structure is conspicuously absent of transition shots, such that the beginnings and ends of scenes collide into one another like tectonic plates. This works most of the time, since Sunshine is all about the visceral pleasures of action unencumbered by narrative or character. It would be perfect if these three aspects could work on equal footing, but this is Boyle: Style is all. We are hardly made to care about any of the crew of Icarus II, each attributed a personality quirk and his or her designated spot to perish heroically (or not so heroically, as the case may be). Screenwriter Alex Garland (the pen behind 28 Days Later) uses each astronaut merely as a device in an elaborate game: Captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada) of course must die first, in a terrific sequence in which he is swallowed by solar flares; ship psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis) becomes obsessed with the engulfing immensity of the burning star in the ship’s observatory (great effects, these); communications officer Harvey (Troy Garity) proves the mission’s goat for valuing selfishness over mission objectives; and Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Rose Byrne and Chris Evans all also appear, in thankless roles.

Murphy’s Capa is the only member of the crew who can detonate the nuclear device. Shouldering the bulk of the film’s moral consciousness, the character isn’t given enough room to expand Garland’s ideas about primal fear, group dynamics and the fate of the galaxy. He does, however, set Sunshine on its entropic way by fatefully deciding to send the Icarus II to investigate the first Icarus ship, defunct but still carrying its active nuclear device. That turns out to be an enormous mistake for Icarus II, but the movie itself survives with enough eye-popping adventure sequences, many cribbed from 2001 (venturing out into space to fix the ship, improvising a return) but given their own originality. Boyle’s touches are excellent, from the globular visual motif (eyes, suns, various mechanical dishes), to the verdant garden for manufacturing oxygen, to the flash frames of the first Icarus’s dead crew.

The last act of Sunshine will most likely arouse controversy, and is the least defendable portion of the film. In it (and I take a deep sigh before writing these words), Icarus I survivor Pinbacker (Mark Strong, encased in a burnt shell that makes him look like a ready-in-waiting Freddy Kreuger), crazed with a god complex and a fanatical certainty that mankind is destined for extinction, tries to sabotage Icarus II. This sets off a frantic, incomprehensible and silly scramble to explode the nuclear device before Pinbacker realizes his scheme. (“For seven years I lived alone with God,” intones Pinbacker with all the portentous doom of the Wizard of Oz.)

But again, Boyle somehow makes it pay off. Complemented by a soaring score by composer John Murphy and Underworld (looks like the guy I knew was right, though I would have preferred Mogwai), the scene in which Murphy sets off the ship’s payload in a mammoth cube-like chamber is spectacular. The sense of a cataclysmic reaction causing a halt and then a rent in the space-time continuum is everything one imagines for in something so epic. This is all the philosophy Boyle needs to deliver: the visually incarnate truth of the universe’s mysticism.




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