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September 19, 2007

Sunshine cold at box office, but profound sci-fi flick deserves more

When I heard that the writer and director behind 28 Days Later were teaming up for another movie, I was understandably excited. When I heard the plot outline, I was understandably worried. It goes something like this: Sometime in the near future, the sun begins to go out, and a mission is sent to re-ignite it. That’s it. And really, that is all the movie is about. There’s no surprise twist that makes it about some epic struggle for the universe or the “soul” of humanity. This movie is about a space ship that is sent to re-ignite the sun. And it ends up being a surprisingly honest and profound examination of the seat-of-your-pants morality that most human beings are forced to live by.

We all know the typical plotline for movies like this. The characters have to save the world from some imminent disaster, something doesn’t go according to plan; the characters have to improvise, and in the end all turns out well and the good-looking actors survive and return to Earth as heroes. That’s not how Sunshine goes at all. I’m not even spoiling anything by saying that every character in the movie dies. In fact, the movie promos even advertised this fact.

What makes Sunshine unique is its uncompromising and surprisingly optimistic view of humans trapped on the edge between extinction and survival and the hard decisions they have to make in order to ensure the continued existence of mankind. It can’t be stressed enough that this is nothing like any of the disaster sci-fi you’ve seen in the past 10 years. Sunshine doesn’t deserve to be relegated to the bargain bin along with Armageddon and Deep Impact. Instead, it deserves to be ranked with classic sci-fi movies that have a deeper message, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Much like 28 Days Later, Sunshine takes a classic, hackneyed sci-fi theme, and applies a lens of truth to it. At no time during the film did I think, “This is clearly beyond the range of possibility and normal human reactions to such a situation.” The writing is impeccable and brutally honest with its characters. There aren’t any melodramatic lines that seem horribly staged or forced, only a realistic depiction of a handful of human beings trying desperately to complete their mission.

For the entire first half of the movie, I was waiting for the surprise twist that would turn it into the classic sci-fi adventures I was used to. And if Sunshine had turned out to be a good rehashing of the Alien stereotype, it wouldn’t have been half-bad. And again, I’m not spoiling anything by saying that when the Alien Moment finally came, it ended up being far more profound and instrumental to the overall themes of the film than I could have ever imagined. It is, admittedly, jarring, and seems a little out of pace with the movie up to that point, but all I can say is let it play out before you conclude that Sunshine fell back into that same old trap of tired sci-fi plots.

The cast is made up of around half a dozen actors and actresses you swear you’ve seen in half a dozen movies before, the most notable of which is probably Cillian Murphy. This relatively no-name cast delivers a wonderful performance to the man, and its selection was a good move on the part of the producers. Because of the decision to cast an experienced and compelling, but little-known, cast, I wasn’t distracted by the big name on the screen, and everyone’s death seemed like it could come at any moment. If Brad Pitt had showed up, all the realistic, exciting, and visceral feeling of Sunshine would have disappeared while I waited for him to save the day. On a side note, I was also pleasantly surprised by the performance of Chris Evans, better known as the Human Torch from Fantastic Four. I never would have guessed that he possessed even half the talent he showed on the screen.

On a more technical side, for such a low-budget movie, Sunshine’s visuals were both beautiful and stunning. I was expecting some sub-par CGI, with more focus on the character drama aboard the ship. And to be honest, the film isn’t exactly big on the computer graphics, but this frugal attitude pays off in a few, brief moments of visuals that simply take your breath away.

It’s really a shame that more people didn’t make it out to see Sunshine this summer. It seems that most people didn’t see it simply because it only opened in a small number of venues, and the people who would’ve usually seen it in the local artsy cinema were scared off by its silly premise. It seems Sunshine is doomed to be one of those great forgotten sci-fis, which is a shame because, even among good movies in the genre, there are too few these days that approach humanity with an honesty that’s not distorted by either cynicism or some melodramatic fantasy.