How much do you penalize an otherwise interesting film for a slightly cheesy opening and a botched third act?
That's the problem with reviewing Danny Boyle's "Sunshine." If I had another two weeks to just let this one simmer in the back of my mind, I might be better able to say whether what sticks with me are the gaffs or the sometimes mesmerizing "2001"-style visuals and space tension.
After a clumsy opening that has one of the astronauts talking to Icarus (the computer that runs their Icarus II spacecraft) as if she were Hal, and another sequence that seems just as dully copycat, the film settles into a pretty decent sci-fi thriller. The year is 2057. Icarus I was lost in space, and now it's up to the crew of Icarus II to deliver a massive nuclear payload to the sun to explode it and ignite a new star. Hanging in the balance is Earth, which is in near-darkness now because of the waning sun. It's a wonderful sci-fi premise, and one that reinforces the whole idea of what would happen if we lost some of the natural resources that we now take for granted.
There are eight astronauts who have various areas of expertise, but one of the most interesting things that Alex Garland does with his script is to decentralize the point-of-view. Rather than seeing everything through the eyes of a single character--which we first suspect in the beginning, as one of the astronauts narrates in voiceover--the point-of-view shifts several times. And the captain of the mission? He's relegated to having no more importance than any of the other crew members, largely because of these point-of-view decisions. It makes their tense and probably suicidal voyage to save the planet less heroic/martyred and all the more believable.
But a problem that results from the shifting points of view is that we never really get as emotionally involved with the characters as we did with, say, the "Apollo 13" crew. They feel as almost as one-dimensional as the characters who too often populate slasher films or action flicks. Then again, they're types: Cillian Murphy (who most successfully elevates his character) plays the physicist, Benedict Wong is the navigator, Michelle Yeoh is the biologist, Rose Byrne the pilot, Cliff Curtis the doctor, Chris Evans the engineer, Hiroyuki Sanada is the captain, and Troy Garity plays the mission's coward.
Still, Alwin Küchler's cinematography and a believable stranded-in-space tension are enough to make this film worthwhile, especially as things start to "heat up." There was plenty of interest without Garland and Boyle having to launch this thing into another solar system. The biggest (and most jarringly offensive) problem is that "Sunshine" begins like "2001: A Space Odyssey," takes a turn into "The Abyss" where they have to make some tough survival decisions, and ends up like any other cheap slasher film. Icarus and Freddie Krueger? I know I won't be the only one who thinks that if Danny Boyle & Co. had stuck with sci-fi and left the horror for another movie, this would have been a better film. It was a solid 7 before it veered off track like that. I can appreciate the blending of genres as much as anyone, but if you're going to do that you can't wait until the last act. As is, it's like watching "Apollo 13," then learning near the end that one of the crew is a flesh-eating zombie or something like that, and the rest had better scatter. Come on!
The 1080p picture looks very good, with an MPEG-4 transfer and 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Some of the scenes that have bright light tend to be grainy and also have a little "noise" flutter to them, while at other times the film just doesn't seem to have the sharpness it does in other frames. The best sequences are the close-ups and high-contrast shots, where you can see sufficient black levels at work and decent color saturation, with plenty of detail, even on the edges. Overall, though, it's a strong HD picture.
The audio is also decent, though the best sequences that make full use of the effects speakers also make you aware that there aren't more times in the movie where the room similarly comes alive. That's my only complaint. Well, that, and I constantly found myself adjusting the volume. It's recorded and transferred at a really high volume, but when you turn it down too far, all of a sudden you can't hear the people talking.
The featured audio is an English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless, with additional options in English, Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and subtitles in English (CC), Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. "Sunshine" is D-Motion compatible.
This 50GB disc is packed with bonus features, not all of which are interesting. The Blu-ray has the same features as the DVD, plus some Blu-ray exclusives. Fans will want to go Blu-ray not just for picture quality, but to see an HD-exclusive alternate ending that's one of 13 deleted/extended scenes.
"Sunshine" is the first Profile 1.1 disc to come from Fox, so you'll need a PIP-ready Blu-ray player to watch the film in "Enhanced Viewing Mode," meaning with picture-in-picture separately streamed behind-the-scenes clips. The consolation is that even if you don't, you can view the 10 short (and I mean, short--less than a half-hour, total) clips of behind-the-scenes footage and cast-crew talking heads separately or via "play all," in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Stunt jumps and cast preparations are the most interesting.
Another feature you'll need Profile 1.1 to access (unless you have a 5-6 channel audio hook-up) is the "Journey into Sound: Surround Sound Enhancement," which enables viewers to select from four scenes (Searle in Observation Room, Capa speaks with Icarus, Capa discovers Pinbacker, Capa battles Pinbacker) and different dialogue streams and play mix-and-match with them. You can also channel the sounds through different home speakers. But if I were a teacher (and I am) and the bonus features were a classroom (they're not), this one feels like "busy work."
So do the Web Production Diaries, which was mostly raw footage originally posted in 23 installments on the Internet. It's mostly promo, hype-it-up stuff that held no interest for me.
Better are one average and one very good commentary track, the first by Boyle (who reveals himself to be quite the techie), and the second by Brian Cox, a University of Manchester prof who also served as the film's technical advisor. His is by far the best, full of substantial information and more of the background stuff that fuels viewers' imaginations than Boyle's "I used such-and-such a lens for this shot."
But just as the film takes a bizarre turn, so do the bonus features. We get short films ("Dad's Dead" by Chris Shepherd, and "Molehills" by Dan Arnold) which are absolutely unrelated to "Sunshine." Boyle "introduces" these films and filmmakers in order to give them exposure. While that's admirable, it just doesn't fill out the package in a logical way.
Despite how derivative it seemed, I still found myself engrossed in the lives of these astronauts en route to save my planet. But when the slasher shenanigans started in the third act--literally coming out of nowhere and with no clues planted, even in retrospect--it just seemed like a gross misstep, and a cheap thing to do to your audience. The third act really flames out.