Review: Sunshine Region 3 DVD
By Nouvelle Vague
September 20, 2007
In Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's latest collaboration, Sunshine, it's impossible not to appreciate the power of the sun. It's essentially God in the film, the beautiful, all-powerful and hypnotic force that, "in the beginning", has given us life, and now, or 50 years into Boyle and Garland's fictional future, is taking it away. In the movie's first scene, the ship's doctor, Searle (Cliff Curtis), is watching the sun from an observation room with the protection of a filter allowing only 2% of the sun's energy to penetrate the room. Mesmerized by it, he asks the ship's computer if he can increase the sun's presence but he's allowed to increase to only 3% for 30 seconds. The sun bathes the entire frame in a blinding white light and Searle is physically overcome by the saturation. It's an incredible feeling that gets its appropriate weight in the film. Our sun can blind us, or even reduce us to ash. The times that Boyle utilizes this image to emphasize the power of the sun, it feels as if the white light isn't just overcoming the people in the film, but the celluloid itself, melting it before our eyes.
The opening narration by the Cillian Murphy (who plays physicist Robert Capa) quickly and concisely brings the audience up to speed and easily serves the purpose of summarizing the film's narrative: "Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago, the Icarus Project sent a mission to restart the sun, but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left Earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload – a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose – to create a star within a star. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus Two."
What a great premise, don't you think? There have been SF movies, and there have been SF disaster movies, but not enough have dealt with the idea of the death of the sun. Perhaps Sunshine's closest cousin is Val Guest's excellent The Day the Earth Caught Fire (also a British product, and TDTECF came out of the Hammer studios). Just the two words that are seemingly contradictory in that opening narration: "solar winter" does a marvelous job of establishing the conflict and setting up the theme of dichotomy that exists over and over again in the film.
There are more paradoxical themes in Sunshine beyond the obvious ones like life and death, light and dark, black and colors. Sunshine spends a great deal of time dealing with two nearly identical ones that really are the core themes of the film - faith and reason and also science and nature. In Greek mythology, Icarus (the namesake of both spaceships in the film) escaped from the island of Crete when his father made him a pair of wings held together by wax. We all know that Icarus died when he flew too close to the sun, but what is most important for an analysis of Sunshine is that Icarus was warned by his father about the power of the sun, but he ignored those warnings and became seduced by the sun's allure and his hubris led him to his destruction. The astronauts and scientists of Icarus Two face the same conflict as they have been warned about possible failure when getting close to the sun because they know the first mission failed. But as they fly closer and closer, can they resist the power of the sun and their own hubris and complete their mission?
Sunshine's box office performance in the US continues a trend of intelligent SF films that underperformed in theatrical receipts (Alfonso Cuaron's fantastic Children of Men – which was on numerous top ten lists of 2006 - only registered $35 million in box office). While performing well in Boyle's native UK and other international territories, Sunshine has only managed less than $4 million in limited US release. It's not like Sunshine isn't accessible or wasn't well received by critics (74% at rotten tomatoes). Granted, the biggest name in the cast – Cillian Murphy – is not a box office draw, but it has fantastic special effects by England's Moving Picture Company, and is very entertaining with at least two breathtaking set pieces that can charm any movie audience. It's certainly as enjoyable as Boyle and Garland's last genre pic – 28 Days Later – which did $45 million at the box office in 2003. While still in a handful of theaters, Sunshine was released on DVD in some international territories, including a feature-packed Hong Kong Region 3 DVD.
Fox's Hong Kong DVD is nearly perfect and it looks and sounds simply amazing. DOP Alwin Kuhcler (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, Code 46)'s photography looks fantastic. Boyle and Kuhcler kept most of the colors in the film muted to emphasize the radiance of the sun – except for the bright greens of Icarus' oxygen garden. When colors do appear on the screen, they look as good as possible on standard DVD. Sunshine also has a fantastic score – a collaboration of Boyle favorite Underworld and composer John Murphy. Underworld's Sunshine score was influenced by Gyorgy Ligeti – who contributed some original music to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey – and the result is easily my favorite score of the year so far. The DVD comes equipped with a great 5.1 DTS surround sound track that, at times, is as beautiful as Kuhcler's cinematography. Boyle is never afraid of using music to extremes and during some set pieces; the soundtrack is nearly as overwhelming as the times the sun over-saturates the frame. The 5.1 mix utilizes all the surround speakers well, although sometimes the bass is extreme enough to produce some distortion in the subwoofer and adjustments may need to be made to your levels to reduce this.
The Sunshine DVD is also packed with special features including two commentary tracks. The best comes from the film's science advisor Dr. Brian Cox – who Cillian Murphy's Cappa was modeled after. Despite his status as an academic, Cox is far from dry. Clearly enamored of the film, Cox does more than discuss the science in the movie (or occasional holes in the film's science) as he provides thematic analysis on par with the best of film critics. He comes across as something like a renaissance man, and the combination of this analysis and his affection of the film are contagious and will provide fans of the film a deeper appreciation of it. Boyle delivers the second commentary, and while it is not boring, it's not as engaging as Cox's track – or Boyle's commentary for 28 Days Later. Boyle is at his best here when contextualizing Sunshine in the SF genre. He observes the numerous influences from SF classics (and over-rated Event Horizon), but also points out where he and Garland avoided the pitfalls of cliché and focused the movie on the human experience, rather than aliens (there's a wonderful joke halfway through the film that makes fun of this cliché), and robots that masquerade as muscle cars.
The DVD also contains several deleted scenes (mostly made up of character moments – no FX were left on the floor) and an alternate ending that doesn't affect the narrative (like the way the alternate endings would have completely changed 28 Days Later), but it does provide a strong character moment for the film's main antagonist and highlights the meaning of the film's title. I certainly prefer the ending used in the feature, but the alternate ending is a valuable addition to the DVD. Finally, the special features are rounded out with several production diaries, and two Sunshine trailers are available. Also, Boyle has also added two short films (Dad's Dead by Chris Shephard and Mole Hills by Dan Arnold) that have no relationship to the film, but are ones that Boyle loves and wants to give them an audience. Kudos to Boyle for thinking about the little guys.
Given that the UK Region 2 DVD is identical to this one, you can hope that the US release from Fox will be a direct port of this one, and, I'm praying that a Blu-ray release is also in their plans. Fox has not made an official announcement on the Region 1 release, so, if you're like me and don't want to wait (and own a multi-region player), you can find this release available at yesasia.com, amazon.co.uk and other international websites. Your SF friends will worship you.