Friday, April 06, 2007

Sunshine is the best SF film I've seen in a very long time

Sunshine opened in the UK this week. (It won't open in the US until September, which means that I'll be able to see its opening weekend twice.)

Sunshine is the entry by Danny Boyle and Alex Garland to the science fiction genre. Well, that depends a bit on how one views 28 Days Later, which was a bit of a SF zombie flick. But where the science in 28 Days Later could be viewed as just a plot device, in Sunshine, the science is central to the plot and, for the most part, fairly realistic.

A brief plot summary: it's 50 years in the future and the sun is dying. (How does this happen so suddenly? Who knows? I don't care. More on that in a bit.) The 8-person crew of the Icarus II is on the way to the sun to deliver a payload of fissionable material - some kind of mini-Big Bang to serve as a "jump" to the sun. Why Icarus II? Well, seven years earlier the Icarus flew to the sun to perform the same mission, but after it went out of communication range, it was not heard from again.

The film starts with the Icarus II moving past the point of no communication. The plot device here is that the "solar wind" is too strong to allow communications inside a certain radius from the sun. Is that true or not? Who knows. I think it would have been a bit better to say "solar flares" instead of "solar wind", but I'm happy to take this explanation. Next, the ship passes Mercury, and thanks to the iron in the planet, they pick up a distress signal from the Icarus, which is a bit off their planned course just a bit inside the troposphere.

This leads to a discussion amongst the crew. Is it possible that the crew of the Icarus is still alive? Well, both ships have large nurseries, so oxygen shouldn't be a problem. But there would not be enough food for eight people to live more than three years. Of course that begs the question: what if there were fewer than eight?

The navigator, Trey, has worked out an alternate course to their planned course, that will lead to a potential rendezvous with Icarus. Mace, an engineer, objects vociferiously to any deviation from the plan, but the psychologist/physician Searle suggests that there would be a valid reason to visit the Icarus. If the Icarus has a usable payload, that would be a good justification for the detour. There is no possibility of a third Icarus mission, so they have to succeed, or the sun will fade out and the Earth will freeze.

Mace suggests a vote, but Searle points out the mission is not a democracy. The best thing to do would be to come to an informed decision. Ultimately, the decision is up to the captain, who hands it off to the ship's physicist, Capa, who is in charge of making sure the explosion works properly.

After considerable reflection, Capa advises they make the detour. That turns out to be the wrong decision. The problems start at a minor level: Trey, who is so obsessed with the navigational calculations, does not instruct the computer to rotate the anti-solar shields when the course is changing. The computer fixes the problem quickly, but not before there is considerable damage, and a need for a space walk to see how much damage there is. At this point I'll stop summarizing the film, except to say that one mistake leads to a decision that leads to more problems, more bad decisions, and a general breakdown of the mission.

Why do I like Sunshine so much? This film does a fantastic job keeping the potential and limits of science in perspective. I'm particularly interested in the decision-making regarding the detour. My philosophy tends to be that science should be used to inform decision-making, and that good science analyzes any question from all possibe angles. The decision Capa has to make puts this decision-making process in perspective. Where Capa wants data, he has none. Which is more likely - that the detour will create problems, or that without a detour, the mission would fail because they only have one shot? No kind of analytical reasoning can answer this question. Life is only lived once, and the consequences of decisions can often happen much faster than analysis can.

Sunshine also breaks ground with regard to considering questions that had not really been considered. Recent SF films tend to be of a few types: there are the combat films that simply use SF to locate the film: Starship Troopers, Aliens, the Terminator films, the Matrix films, and legions of others. There are the space operas like the Star Wars films and Star Trek films, which are only minimally SF. A recent sub-genre that I enjoy a lot are the Philip K. Dick films that basically screw around with perceptions of reality. Blade Runner is the best of these, but it wasn't really allowed to be as good as it could be, as it ended up falling into a combat movie. Vanilla Sky and Minority Report are also both excellent films, but both suffer a bit because they star Tom freakin' Cruise! Then there are the AI/Robot movies, like Spielberg's AI and I, Robot with Will Smith. These end up reverting to tired cliches about the difference between being human and non-human.

I tend to prefer 10-minutes into the future movies, that don't try to change all that much, but use a little twist to create a different type of story. Children of Men is a good example of this type of film, 28 Days Later is another, and Solaris is another. Solaris is a tremendous story, and I applaud George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh for making an American remake (I've yet to see the Russian version). But Solaris is essentially a love story and the science ends up being secondary.

I do wish somebody would make films of other Lem stories. In particular, I think Fiasco would be a great candidate to be filmed.

Sunshine doesn't use many common SF cliches that kill stories. The worst of these is time travel. I stopped watching the Star Trek series when they started using time travel three times a season (or more!) Very few films do time travel well: Twelve Monkeys did a great job, and so did Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, although the latter film was a comedy. I also don't care about clones or androids, and virtual reality has been pretty much beaten to death. Look - creating a fake reality within a fake reality is really not so much of a trick. Not only can you nest fake realities, you can reverse the order of the fakeness, so character in reality X dreams that he's in reality Y dreaming that he's in reality X. You can do all of that because all of the realities are fake! None of this nesting (see Existenz for example) is even moderately interesting!

Sunshine does cut a few technical corners to keep the story going. I'm completely fine with that. I don't want SF to be "real life". I'm not looking for "real life" in fiction. I think the biggest corner cut is the artificial gravity on the ship. Artificial gravity is essentially a scientific impossibility. 2001 avoided this pitfall by having a rotating ship, but most space films simply use "artificial gravity" since, well, they are filmed on Earth, and it's too much of a pain to get rid of gravity. :)

The other main corner cut is the premise that the sun is dying. I'm more than happy with this premise. Indeed, I think one of the purposes of SF is to take possibly unrealistic premises and to run with them. Thus it is an excellent feature of Children of Men that the entire human population of the planet has gone sterile. The value here is that SF explores a completely different region of psychological space than our daily lives.

The theme that Sunshine uses is the end of history. It's true that this has been a fairly common theme in recent years, including films like Deep Impact, Armageddon, The Core (ugh!), The Day After Tomorrow (ugh! ugh!), among others. Somehow, though, Sunshine avoids becoming a cliche. Why is that? I think part of it is that the crew becomes quite conscious of the fact that not only are they are carrying the fate of humanity on their shoulders, but there is a very good chance that, even if they should succeed, none of them will make it back alive. Sunshine carries out this level of psychology a lot better than, say, Armageddon does.

To this end, a lot of the second half of Sunshine feels like a metaphor for life itself. Faced with the awesome tasks and destiny ahead of them, how do the crew react? Some act heroically, and some fall apart. Some become willing to make sacrifices, some don't, and then there are even different kinds of situations.

There is some criticism of the film's last half hour, and I think it's a bit justified. But I would just say that the film dropped only from being fantastic, as it was for the first hour or so, to being merely very good. But on the whole the film is excellent.

2001 has long been considered the standard for SF films, especially in the space travel genre. I think this is a great film, but I've long thought it a bit overrated, and its ending is particularly weak. What are my other favorite SF films? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of them. Alien (the first one) is great, though it's really just a horror film set in space. I also enjoyed Pitch Black and 28 Days Later a lot, but they were both just horror films in new settings.

One film I was reminded of a lot was Mission to Mars. There is a similarity to the two films: both have missions going into space to follow original missions that have curiously failed. Of course the stakes with Sunshine are much higher. Mission suffers, though, from a horrible Deus ex Machina ending. Deux ex Machina is exactly what I don't want in a SF film.

So, to sum up, Sunshine delivers the goods. I'll have to reflect on this a bit, but my first feeling is that it's the best pure SF film since 2001. It has good science, kept in perspective, and realistic human characters who just happen to all be scientists. It touches upon deep questions about human nature and our position in history, and does so (mostly) intelligently. It has a small flaw that I don't want to give away, but on the whole it is excellent.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great review ... You're definitely right that smart sci-fi is a dying breed, so it's nice to see there's still the rare exception .. I'm so pissed that they pushed this back in the U.S., so I guess I'll just have to wait a while

whispers said...

Glad you liked it!

Landru said...

Thank you...I hadn't heard of this.

You see what happens when you let yourself get all writing-constipated? Let it out, Doctor Death, let it out!

Anonymous said...

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