Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Muted Sunshine 

I attended a special preview screening of the new science fiction film Sunshine on the 20th Century Fox lot in West Los Angeles last week, at an invitation to me as an editor of a science fiction website. Despite my location in Los Angeles, I get these sort of invitations only very rarely. I forwarded this one to Gary Westfahl, who'd earlier expressed interest in reviewing the film, but he lives 50 miles east in Claremont, and wasn't enthused about driving into LA on a weeknight; he passed. (He'll review the film after it opens officially in the US on July 20th, and opens in a theater nearer to his home.) So I went myself.

The film opened earlier in the UK, and I'd gleaned some positive reviews in the British press. Briefly, it's about an expedition to reignite a dying sun. The cinematic interest is that it's directed by Danny Boyle, best-known as director of Trainspotting (1996), as well as The Beach, 28 Days Later, and Millions -- in short, not a director you'd expect to oversee a high-tech SF drama. And it's written by Alex Garland, writer of some of those films, as well as novel The Tesseract, from his original idea.

What did I think? I'm afraid my brow was skeptically furrowed throughout most of the film. It's very pretty -- the visual effects are spectacular and mostly quite plausible. The universe of Sunshine is a 50-years hence NASA-style mission, not the space opera of Star Wars or even Star Trek. The crew of eight, a mixed white/asian crew (on the grounds that China and the US will be the two powers most likely to be able to afford such a mission, in 50 years), is dramatically portrayed as they deal with disagreements and problems and mounting dangers. The film has the pace of a thriller, suspense building as characters begin dying and the mission's success is increasingly in jeopardy. (Despite which...) The audience applauded at the end.

Sunshine aspires to be a sort of contemporary version of 2001, portraying a technically rigorous space mission while addressing larger questions about mankind's destiny, and it is rich with nods to that film (a scene in which astronauts go EVA to replace parts, another involving leaping into an airlock sans spacesuit, later a computer voice that deepens as its plugs are pulled, etc.) as well as to Alien and Solaris. After the screening, directory Danny Boyle got on stage, along with castmember Chris Evans and a Fox host, for Q&A; he commented specifically about doing a space movie in the shadow of those masterworks, how difficult it was to avoid solving certain problems in the story or film production in ways different from their solutions...

The film's ambition isn't fulfilled, alas; the conceptual premise is undermined by lapses in logic and scientific plausibility, and the thematic issues are lost in a formulaic suspense finale that trades the question of man's destiny for a hideously scarred bogeyman.

The plausibility issue isn’t the idea of saving the sun by dropping a bomb into it. The press release actually brags about the film's scientific credentials, on the basis of the producers having worked with British physicist Brian Cox to justify the idea of what might cause the sun to start to fade out. (The producers also consulted NASA advisors about the design of the ships.) The astrophysical thesis developed by Cox is that a theoretical supersymmetric particle called a Q-ball has fallen into the sun, somehow compromising its health, and the bomb being delivered by the ship Icarus is to destroy that, thus removing an infecting agent and restoring the sun to full brightness. OK, I don't dispute such speculation -- but it's entirely academic. It's buried in the press release and is nowhere in the film, which begins with a brief voice-over matter-of-factly establishing the sun's weak state, the current mission to save it, and the first mission's mysterious disappearance.

Still, I'll accept the film's implicit rules that the sick-sun premise is a given, just as I'll accept the film's aesthetic decisions to depict exterior shots of the spaceships and the sun with a great deal of ambient noise -- not just the rumble of the ships moving past, but the sound of the sun itself -- and to film almost all interior scenes (except those in airlocks!) as if the spaceships have artificial gravity. These choices compromise the intellectual rigor of the film, but can be accepted as conventions of screen story-telling (even though the latter is perilously close to the aliens who speak English crutch of media sci fi.)

It's harder to forgive the lapses of logic and plausibility that I imagine arise from the filmmakers' unfamiliarity with basic astronomy and physics and astronautics -- what I suspect most SF readers would know, even without Brian Cox. Here's a list:

  • To begin at the very beginning, why is it necessary to send a manned expedition to drop a bomb into the sun, even at a very precise location on its surface? NASA (and other agencies) have long histories of launching objects on years-long trajectories that accurately reach their targets. (Well, if there wasn't a manned mission, there'd be no movie. But they could have invented some reason -- maybe the Q-ball is moving unpredictably, or something.)

  • You realize gradually that the producers (or perhaps the screenwriter in particular, but given the collaborative nature of film work, I'll generalize) don't appreciate the dynamic nature of how spaceships and astronomical bodies necessarily move with respect to each other. (The word 'orbit' is mentioned with alarm at one point; I don’t recall hearing the word 'trajectory' at all.) Early on in the film, the Icarus II spots the earlier ship, the first Icarus, at a location just a few degrees from the current mission’s target... as if the ship is just sitting there in space, suspended over a spot above the sun's surface. (How?) Later, we come to understand that the current mission will have the Icarus II pull up at its target spot, release its payload, and then just sorta move back out of range before the payload explodes… as if it’s not deep deep in an enormous gravity well.

  • One of the crew becomes distraught after he alters the ship's course to intersect with Icarus I and forgets to adjust the shield angle, thus damaging it. He checked the figures three times! But not, apparently, with another crew member, or with the computer, which you might think would override, as it does in a similar situation later in the film.

  • There's a geometrical problem with the scene in which the ship turns its gold-plated shield partly away from the sun so that two astronauts can go EVA to replace parts without being fried. We are told, and shown, that direct exposure to the sun at this close range instantly vaporizes anything; that the shield is umbrella-shaped; and that the crew-occupied ship, which extends behind the shield like the umbrella's handle, must remain protected by the shadow. So how can the astronauts on an outside edge of the shield be protected without the shield turning away from the sun by nearly a full 90 degrees (which would expose the crew quarters)? The shield appears to turn only about 30 degrees, and somehow the astronauts change out parts in full shadow.

  • When astronauts need to travel from Icarus II over to the derelict Icarus I, the entire crew compartment (the umbrella handle) from Icarus II detaches from its shield (!), pivots around (!), then hard-docks itself to Icarus I. Yikes. As if two ocean liners needed to bolt themselves together amidships to exchange passengers.

  • Much is made near the end of the limited air supply aboard Icarus II, which might be enough for four astronauts, but not 8 or 7 or 6 or 5... (They used up air during their detour to check out the first Icarus, and they used up some oxygen to, counter-intuitively, put out a fire.) Yet, the interior of the ship is enormous -- especially the payload bay, which contains a cubic block of fissionable material that looks to be something like an acre on a side, and is like the crew quarters completely pressurized. If they're short of air, why not just evacuate non-critical areas (they're only 12 hours or so from the end of the mission by this point) and save that air for where it's needed…?

  • Oh, but the payload bay has to be pressured so that the one crewman (why only one?) who knows the code (why is there a code?) can activate the bomb mechanism (why isn't it automatic?) inside the payload bay (why there?) just before it shoots down into the sun.

The director does a good job with the characters -- such a good job of staging rivalry and disagreements and horseplay in fact that it's hard to believe these folks are trained, disciplined astronauts. Much the same could be said about the rogue commander of the first Icarus, who's undergone a bizarre conversion (I won't spoil it by saying exactly what kind, or kinds) that prolongs the conflict at the end for another scene or two. It is that conversion and conflict, in fact, that allows the producers to aspire to 2001-hood, by alluding to some larger issue beyond the simple rescue mission -- that of man's destiny and God's will. It doesn't work; the commander becomes merely a bogeyman to extend the suspense, Alien-like, of the final scenes, the issues he represents trivialized by his obvious insanity.

Like many a big-budget SF film before it, Sunshine is cinematically impressive but conceptually hollow. It's an SF film made by filmmakers who know SF only from other SF films.

Is it worth seeing? Sure. It has its good points. I just wish the filmmakers, instead of hiring a name Physicist to provide an abstruse theory that's nowhere visible in the film, had hired a physics grad student to shore up the basic plausibility of how such a mission might actually work.
A review that agrees with yours in almost every respect:


I think you've nailed the movie here.
I think you are being too nice. I found the film derivative to an extreme. And that the main protagonist turns out to be a deranged "bogeyman" was the final nail in the coffin for this poorly executed film. This could as easily have been a traditional cheezy horror film with people (read crew) trapped in an isolated location (read spaceship)with an unknown badguy picking them off one-by-one. Nuff said.
The problem is, almost all the critics who will review the film for mainstream newspapers, magazines and TV shows also only know SF from movies and television. They'll love it, and never understand why science fiction readers and reviewers don't agree with them.
More likely they'll hate it, and use it as an example of how silly science fiction is.
I show the movie here in Greece a couple of months ago. The most striking thing about the science in its plot had to do with the shield which while damaged had to have its damaged part in the shade for vital repairs to take place but then had to return into full light regardless of the fact that the repairs were not done yet, which would also mean destruction due to the damage. Why would a computer do that? And also what kind of scientists faced with the lack of oxygen would with a second's thought decide to kill one of their team. What about trying to produce some oxygen first? Otherwise it's a pleasant movie, but things like that take your mind off it.
Like so many big-bucks SF films, nice to witness (in terms of effects, pretty shots, attempts at verisimilitude) but still, at heart, a dumb movie. What blows me away is that the kinds of critiques Mark R. Kelly makes (and almost all of which I noted, with a wince, while watching "Sunshine") seem to completely elude the average filmgoer and critic. Why is that? And why is it SO HARD to make a plausible, interesting SF/space movie? I can think of so much source material (The Forever War, Gateway, Rendezvous with Rama, et al) that could, in my opinion, be turned into fun, fascinating and (mostly, at least; let's not ask for too much just yet) CORRECT SF movies. But it just never seems to happen. Then again, many people I know seem to think 2001: A Space Odyssey was "boring." Sunshine disappointed. Though still flawed, it would have been a better film minus the bogeyman and his thin-gruel philosophizing on what God wants or does not want. Bummer.
I hate how people who are “versed in SF,” people who have never ever created something as complex as a spaceship, believe that they’re so simple. There are numerous explanations for almost all of the basic gaps everyone sees, with the exception of the gravity onboard the ship. Many of these gaps can be attributed to the wishful thinking of many of SF gurus – everyone’s got their presuppositions about how the ship should look and function, or how crews should look and function. Outside of the gravity on the ship that comes out of nowhere and Trey making important calculations on his own, I don’t see any other glaring problems that couldn’t be explained.

• You’re right. There is no reason for them to send a manned mission as opposed to a robotic mission remote controlled from Earth. Though yes they could have invented some scientifically plausible reason.
• The film’s creators aren’t necessarily oblivious to how spaceships and astronomical bodies move relative to one another. They do mention the words “trajectory” and “slingshot” before they mention the word “orbit” (after they hear the signal from Icarus I, they slingshot around Mercury and Trey says that he could adjust their trajectory). Icarus II shows them their trajectory between the slingshot and the Sun, and there is a glowing red contact indicating Icarus I near the point they’re shooting for. Icarus I is in orbit around the Sun. You ask how, and the answer is Pinbacker. An obvious explanation would be that he deliberately set them in orbit around the Sun without the knowledge of the other crew, and then immediately destroyed the computer mainframe, which is shown damaged later in the movie. There also could be a reasonable explanation for how the astronauts would get out of the gravity well – they might be close enough to the sun to get pulled in if they shut off all boosters, but the crew quarters could have boosters capable of an escape velocity.
• You’re completely right on this point. An unplanned diversion from the mission wouldn’t be left up to one crew member. Everyone on board would have to be so intelligent that they would all have to double check the complex math involved. Not to mention the computer’s lack of correction.
• The “geometrical problem” isn’t a problem at all, depending on the size and width of the shield, its curvature, the length of the crew quarters that sticks out the back, how much the entire ship is angled, the proportional size of the shield to the crew quarters, and the crew quarters’ ability to move from perpendicular alignment with the shield. So instead of the crew quarters, shield, and Sun looking like this: ––I O they could look like this: ––/ O. If the shield is curved enough and big enough, the astronauts on the shield could have the 300-400 yards of shade needed. Plus at 31 minutes into the film, there are some frames of the Icarus shield turning rotating about 70 or so degrees, not 30. At this scene, you can’t see the crew quarters sticking out the edge, which means that it must be folded back some behind the shield.
• No, a hard dock isn’t completely necessary, but it’s possible. Similarly possible are the crew quarters detaching from the larger shield (they’ve got a smaller shield for the return journey) and pivoting. They would still be able to radio-control the movements of the shield.
• Yes, there is a lot of oxygen aboard Icarus II. However, it’s not necessarily counter-intuitive that they flood the burning oxygen garden with oxygen. If they didn’t, the fire would burn longer, break out, and create critical damage to the entire ship. Granted an oxygen garden, with the most potential for fire, would have the strongest compartmentalization of any section of the ship.
• The crew has a physicist/weapons engineer to go through the detonation process in case the ship’s computer is disabled, as it turns out to be. Furthermore, there isn’t a code; he turns a couple keys, presses a couple buttons, but he’s the one who is primarily responsible for the bomb, just like Cory was primarily responsible for the oxygen garden and Harvey was primarily responsible for the communications.

Everyone believes they’re smarter on the engineering and the physics than people who are attempting to realistically create the most complex spaceship in fiction. So you quibble, rather than looking at the film’s larger theme. No, the theme is not about generalized ideas about human destiny or God’s will. It has nothing to do with our destiny. The film is about the triumph of experiential faith in Humanity over irrational faith in God. From a rhetorical and philosophical standpoint rather than from an elitist SF view, all of the crew’s very sensual deaths were symbolically explaining our joy and wonder at our perceptions of the natural world.
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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