LAFF 2007: Sun Sets on the Festival

When it comes time to party after the movies, most celebrities tend to skip any mixers with the hoi polloi, or else bail after a very brief token appearance, like they're only partying with the people because it's their job.

Not so Danny Boyle. A Brit who's always dreamed of hanging out in L.A., he hung in there at the closing night party till nearly the end, meeting, greeting, and enjoying the free peach cobbler. My kind of director.

Prior to the screening of his latest movie SUNSHINE, Boyle told of stories he'd read about L.A. When he was younger, notably one about a brand new movie called Alien that was so scary, ambulances had to be parked outside one of the Hollywood theaters to revive people who were fainting from fear. Many years later, he was told it was probably a publicity stunt, which he found very disappointing. But acknowledging that Sunshine has a fair bit in common with Alien, he added that “there may or may not be ambulances waiting outside.”

There's a joke kids used to tell in Ireland (and you may have heard with other ethnicities involved) where an American is telling an Irishman, “America is the greatest country in the world! Why, we've managed to send a man to the moon!”

The Irishman responds, “Ah, but sure, that's nothin' -- here in Ireland, we're sendin' a man to the sun!”

The American goes: “That's impossible! The heat of the sun would burn him up before he got there!”

To which the Irishman says, “No, we thought of that – that's why we're sending him up at night.”

Wonder if Danny Boyle ever heard that joke, because Sunshine is like a full-length movie version of it, with Irishman Cillian Murphy as part of a team on board a spacecraft headed to the sun. Our star is dying, and our heroes are supposed to lob a nuclear weapon “the size of Manhattan Island” inside of it to kickstart a new reaction and bring it back up to par.

I suspect that isn't scientifically possible. But you just go with it for the film's sake.

Murphy plays Capa, the physicist of the bunch. Ringu and Wu Ji star Hiroyuki Sanada is captain Kaneda (an Akira reference, maybe?), and the crew also consists of communications guy Harvey (Troy Garity), organic garden-tender Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), and a bunch of people whose exact mission roles aren't 100% clear – hot-head Chris Evans, whose acting is the dodgiest; Cliff Curtis as a dude who likes to crank up the sunlight in the observation deck, and as a result is starting to get a nasty, blistering sunburn and hallucinations; Rose Byrne as The Hot Chick, and Benedict Wong as the Whiny Asian Nerd.

At first, things seem to have a meditative, Solaris-like pace. But the Alien comparison is the most apt – the crew even have a dinner table much like that of the Nostromo. That, and things start to go wrong when they follow a mysterious distress signal, which turns out to be the spaceship from the previous mission that mysteriously disappeared. It isn't long before the crew start dying, one by one – not so much because of any alien, but other bad stuff – some deaths are seemingly coincidental, but some clearly orchestrated. Can the crew complete the mission before time runs out?

2001: A Space Odyssey, and its lesser sequel, 2010, are also touchstones here – Boyle pays tribute to the “shooting into an airlock without your helmet” scene, upping the stakes with more realism regarding what we now know about the effects of a freezing vacuum. Though this may not technically be a horror movie, Boyle certainly loves him some bone-shattering and frozen blood.

Lots of advance reviews have complained that the film falls apart at the end, which I don't buy at all. Yes, the threat becomes more of an external than an internal one; inter-crew strife gives way to one principal villain, whom the survivors must rally against, and that turns the movie from a more meditative sci-fi into a suspense flick, but Boyle does both styles well. Maybe you don't want that tonal shift at all, but I'm fine with it. Comparisons to Event Horizon can be evoked at this stage – but Boyle is a better entertainer than PWS Anderson.

As for the ending, there really are only two possibilities – either they succeed in the mission, or not. Watch the trailer closely, and you'll already know.

Though maybe Boyle could have just faded to black before taking one of those options. Worked so well for The Sopranos, right?



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