In all fairness, I was prepared to hate “Sunshine” by reviews that praised its “stunning” imagery but nothing else. Mainstream reviewers generally don’t know what to make of science fiction and when confronted by an incomprehensible mess like this movie they assume they’ve witnessed something deep and meaningful that was way over their heads, so they play it safe by praising the imagery. I approached “Sunshine” with extremely low expectations but was bitterly disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong, my family and I enjoyed watching it, once we got into “Mystery Science Theater 3000” mode. Viewed that way, “Sunshine” is in a class by itself. There are rare films like”Gattaca” in which good acting, writing and direction serve a plot driven by an intriguing SF premise. There are lightweight romps like “Star Wars” in which the heroes ride spaceships instead of horses. There are occasional clever transpositions of classical drama into SF, such as “Forbidden Planet,” based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” There are epics like “2001: A Space Odyssey” that break the rules and still mostly succeed. “Sunshine” fits in none of these categories. Although it wants to be “2001,” it is more akin to “Plan Nine from Outer Space” — the “Citizen Kane” of bad science fiction films. It is so bad that it is almost worth watching just for the fun of mocking it.
No plot spoilers follow here — because there is no plot to spoil. In any case, we’ve seen it all before. The only original plot device in “Sunshine” is a minor one (although it is unintentionally hilarious).
In some vague future the sun’s pilot light has gone out and the giant spacecraft Icarus Two is dispatched to drop a bomb to reignite it. Icarus One, we learn, went missing some years before. There are, I think, eight crew members on Icarus Two: Unstable Asian Guy, Sensible Asian Guy, Asian Chick, White Chick, Suntanned Dude, Sensible White Guy, and Soulful Bug Eyes, the purported hero. Wait! That’s only seven. I’m sure there was another guy. Oh well. It doesn’t matter. Nobody will miss him.
While passing Mercury they pick up a distress signal that comes from — surprise — Icarus One. Although the fate of the world depends on their mission and whenever this happens on Star Trek it means trouble, they decide to change course to investigate. Using a supercomputer, Unstable Asian Guy — their crack navigator — makes a mistake in his arithmetic that somehow sets fire to the greenhouse that produces their oxygen. They extinguish the fire by flooding the greenhouse with — brace yourself — oxygen. Honest. Bleeding the air off into space or filling the greenhouse with nitrogen doesn’t occur to these hand-picked, fate-of-the-human-race-rides-on-their-shoulders geniuses. The resulting flash fire forces them to choose who must be sacrificed to ensure that enough O2 remains to complete the mission. Pathos and heart-rending decisions loom, but fate lends a hand and characters start dying randomly from various misadventures, sparing them the need for any development.
Meanwhile, I think, they rendezvous with Icarus One and board it. Although the derelict is filled with several tons of dandruff its greenhouse is still going strong and there is much rejoicing on Icarus Two, but — surprise — a monster lurks aboard Icarus One. He has really bad sunburn and asthma — probably from the dandruff. We named him Crispy Critter. Crispy is the lone survivor from Icarus One and he has theological issues with the whole relighting the sun business, so he kills a couple of guys and sneaks aboard Icarus II, where he kills everyone else except Bug Eyes. Lots of things happen and there are bright colors and spectacular special effects and loud noises. Eventually, Bug Eyes drops the bomb on the sun and goes to Heaven or burns up or something, and the world is saved.
David Letterman used to have a spot titled “Limited Perspective,” in which a specialist would review a movie from his own narrow point of view: thus a dentist might evaluate the actors’ teeth or a doctor would enumerate the injuries likely to result during a fight scene. As a stunning imagery specialist, I found “Sunshine” underwhelming. The incessant lens flares and solarized frames mean nothing. They are intended to create the illusion that something deep and profound is happening, but, in reality, nothing is. The huge spaceship turns and tumbles murkily and incomprehensibly in needlessly tight closeups, so we never get a sense of its scale or any feeling that it is a vessel carrying people. The spaceship interiors consist mostly of long shiny corridors, which might be a welcome change from the standard smoky, claustrophobic, spacecraft interiors that “Alien” made de rigueur, if anything interesting ever happened in them, but nothing does. There is no reason to care about any of the characters and, indeed, we are delighted as they die off, because they are so astoundingly stupid and boring and every demise brings us closer to the end of this tedious and pointless ordeal.
With a good script, the premise could have been made to work. The device of an urgent space mission threatened by insufficient consumables engendered sweaty-palm suspense in Tom Godwin’s 1954 short story “The Cold Equations.” Instead of exploiting the drama inherent in the situation, however, “Sunshine’s” director throws it away by dragging a monster in by the ears. Even if we cared about it, the oxygen shortage becomes meaningless when there is a monster on the loose.
Bad money drives out good, and bad cinematic SF makes it harder to produce movies based on the good story ideas that remain untapped in literary SF. “The Cold Equations” could be produced with a minimal budget and a cast of two working on one set, and it would have infinitely more drama and pathos than a thousand big budget cow flops like “Sunshine.”