It’s written into science fiction lore, really. No matter how hard you try to make things safe in space, something will always go wrong. There are just too many frailties; metal, fuel, food, oxygen and sanity.
And not just among the crew of the spaceship either — they get to go back to a comfortable trailer between takes or a nice hotel at the end of the shooting day. “Unless you’re contractually obliged to make a sequel, you never do another one because it can take half your life away,” says Brit wunderkind Danny Boyle on the phone from Melbourne where he’s promoting a movie that couldn’t be any more different from the one that made his name 11 years ago — Trainspotting.
To call Sunshine an arduous shoot would be an understatement. The key cast and crew toured a nuclear submarine and lived together in student dorm accommodation for several weeks to give them the sense of the stressful, sweaty, cramped conditions they’d depict on screen as astronauts on a years-long round trip to the Sun and back.
But Boyle’s investment in this brilliant movie is infectious as he explains the appeal. “I just wanted to do something different and I’ve always loved what I call hard core sci-fi like Alien,” he says “You learn it very, very quickly. You’ll never make another one because it’s so difficult. I mean, James Cameron’s about to go back into space, but he’s a nutter.”
So after directing some of the most iconic actors in the current generation of British talent in a movie about heroin addiction, just how did Boyle deal with the effects-heavy environment that was Sunshine?
“I was briefly involved in Alien 4 but backed out of it because I couldn’t handle the special effects,” he says. “So when I got Sunshine I didn’t know how to do it but I knew how to learn how to do it. The problem is in editing because you have to wait for the effects to come through. You have to be so patient because if you speed it up you kill it. It took a year for some of it to get to us.”
It was worth the wait. 50 years in the future, the sun has started to mysteriously die, leaving the Earth a rapidly cooling graveyard. The crew of the Icarus II make their way through space to deliver their payload — a bomb that will reignite the sun’s core. But much more awaits them…
Sunshine is quite simply the best science fiction film for a very long time. As realistic as it is thrilling, awe-inspiring and psychological, Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland have taken some very accepted conventions and breathed fresh life into every one.
Boyle has as commanding a sense of visuals as any other science fiction ‘branded’ director working today. There’s plenty of CG, but it’s not the computer game graphics of many movies, it gets the best picture on the screen to tell the story. It’s seamlessly executed and you’ll never be surer you’re passing from the explosively lit front of the Icarus II to the darkness-enshrouded rear of towers and blinking lights spinning hauntingly through space.
But there’s much more to the visuals than just great effects. Boyle hardly ever just points and shoots. Many sequences are full of lighting and focus effects that make the whole thing feel even more surreal, a visual metaphor for the dreamlike state the crew are in after so much stress and so little activity.
Boyle owes more to 2001 than any other space opera. He makes space travel appear a perilous thing but oddly beautiful, like a dance. Rarely do we get to enjoy such complex, adult characters, realistic dialogue and stunning imagery in the other-worldly genres.