Oh Danny Boyle. A dazzling debut in Shallow Grave. A superb follow-up with Trainspotting. And then a downward spiral of quite alarming rapidity with A Life Less Ordinary (which was, indeed, lifeless and ordinary), and then his joint ventures with Alex Garland, The Beach and the painfully overrated 28 Days Later.Boyle’s tricks and flashy visuals tried — and failed — to hide the fact that Garland’s writing, for all it’s pseudy portentousness, is as shallow as the grave that first made Boyle’s name.
Boyle can make a decent film and tell a story — you’ve only got to see the utterly charming Millions (written by Frank Cottrell Boyce) to remind yourself of his talent behind the camera. Yet when he teams up with Garland, it’s all style, no substance. And, regrettably, Sunshine is more of the same. It’s set 50 years in the future, when the sun is dying. With the Earth’s future in the balance, a team of scientists is sent to detonate a high-energy bomb to try and reactivate the sun. The mission fails so, seven years later, a second team is sent to try again. As the end of their mission approaches, the crew of the Icarus II picks up a distress signal, possibly from the Icarus I. Investigating, the crew suddenly finds their mission in great peril, from an unexpected source.
For the first hour, Sunshine unfolds with a great sense of style and scope, a dazzling human drama with a scientific theme rather than standard sci-fi, and is unafraid of introducing bigger issues — particularly religious ones. The ensemble cast, including Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong and Chris Evans, are contained and believable in their roles, with an utterly realistic sense of claustrophobia and friction. It is, however you cut it, a tremendous start...
And then it all goes pear-shaped. The plot development isn’t to blame: the rescue mission / peril angle is predictable but it’s neatly introduced and well handled. It’s just that Boyle seems to use the revelation as a cue to shun the story and characters and, instead show everyone just how clever he is with camera angles, visual trickery and editing techniques. The result is utterly incomprehensible, thanks to Boyle demonstrating everything he ever learned in film school. Except, sadly, knowing when to stop and just tell the bloody story. Cameras flit about all over the place, Garland’s script kicks into full-on divine retribution themes — possibly intelligently, possibly risibly, it’s very hard to tell — and the effects budget multiplies tenfold. And the audience is left puzzling at what the hell is going on. It is, frankly, a colossal mess, a weird combination of Event Horizon and Solaris with the rapid and depressing realisation that Sunshine isn’t a patch on either. Fair enough, Solaris — either version — is a difficult film to emulate, but to set yourself up for comparisons with Event Horizon and still fall short? Oh dear.