20 June 2008


Having hunted up an image of the Sun for solstice today, I am reminded that I've been meaning to say something about Danny Boyle's beautiful, flawed film Sunshine since it was released.

I don't give it my unreserved recommendation. A meditative art film in space is not for everyone. But I really loved it, and I'll try to explain why in a way that will tell you if you will love it too.

Most immediately, it's about how the Lonely Spaceship has become one of the major places in our cinematic dreamlands, joining settings like the Old West, the Noir City, Roman Times, Jiang Hu, the Steam and Flame Factory, and so forth. You know this place: it's where Alien and 2001 and Dark Star and countless other films take place. The recent remake of Solaris was a pleasure in part because director Steven Soderberg was obviously having so much fun playing with the familiar visual delights that this setting can offer, and also because of the way this said to us, “You've been to the movies, you know this place, you know the kinds of rules that apply, so now let's go there and tell a story.” Sunshine does something a little different; it says, “You've been to this place, you recognize the kinds of stories that happen there. But do you really know this place? How does it really work?” And by extension, it's asking not only about how the Lonely Spaceship works, but how film itself works.

To which point, film being a visual medium, Sunshine is about beauty. Everything in the picture is gorgeous, including the spaces in the ship and some of the loveliest effects shots I've ever seen. Catch this picture at the rep house if you can; it merits a big screen and the lusciousness of celluloid. The entire cast is intensely cinegenic, each in different ways, most notably the præternaturally gorgeous Michelle Yeoh and Cillian Murphy.

Which brings us very specifically to another thing the movie is about: Cillian Murphy's face. I'm guessing that closeups of Murphy fill at least 20 minutes of the film. That's not a criticism, it's praise: think of Clint Eastwood or Greta Garbo or Peter O'Toole or Katherine Hepburn and you realize that you've spent a lot of time looking at their faces. Mr Murphy is a good actor and an exceptionally beautiful man, but more to this point he has a peculiar screen magnetism, I'd say in the the very top rank with stars like Eastwood and Garbo. It makes the film a meditation on how movies can be driven by the human fascination with the human face.

The best scene in the film has exactly nine words of dialogue, followed by all of the characters looking out the window; half of that scene is just looking at the actors' faces.

This scene—if you've seen the picture, you know the one I mean—conveys the main note of the film: awe. We're not going to Jupiter here, or deep space, or imaginary planet X-23, or even Mars with the hope of Martian life, we're going to the Sun. The Sun. The root of light and life on Earth. There's a deep spiritual tone in the picture, which is brought to a powerful, wordless closure at the climax of the film.

That's not to be confused with the climax of the story, which unfortunately is simply a failure. I'm not giving anything away by revealing that the movie, true to the Lonely Spaceship genre, comes inevitably to a confrontation with a monster, which turns out to be so unsatisfying that a lot of the air leaks out of the film. I respect what the picture was trying to do, but it just doesn't work.

But hang tough. The real climax comes after—the other best scene in the movie—and if you're up for an art film about spiritual awe, it delivers. A friend who has been hit with the Big Zap while deep in meditation told me, after seeing Sunshine, “Yeah, that's pretty much how it feels.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yep. Agreed. That sun scene you are talking about shows the mystical experience perfectly.

the demon ex machina however...