Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Let the sunshine! Let the sunshine!

Summary: What happens when a movie insists on breaking the spell it has created? If you want to know, buy a ticket to "Sunshine."

Man, I was right there. For the first couple of reels, I was thinking that director Danny Boyle's "Sunshine" was a rarity, an intelligent sci-fi movie intent on creating tension while confronting an escalating series of agonizing moral problems. Set mostly on a convincingly created spacecraft, "Sunshine" might appear derivative, but at least it's aping good movies: "Alien," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and maybe "Solaris" among them.

With a movie such as this, the ship's a major deal. Tell me you can resist a spaceship that comes equipped with an oxygen garden, a great, elongated room devoted to maintaining the plant life that enables the crew to breath. Floating through space like dark a metallic version of a Tinkertoy, the Icarus II hurtles toward the sun in an effort to accomplish the task all sci-fi seems destined to address: saving humanity.

Boyle, whose filmography includes "Millions," "28 Days Later" and "Trainspotting," works as both storyteller and orchestra leader, conducting a grand symphonic movie about an effort to ensure the survival of the Earth. Think Al Gore with the soul of a poet.

"Sunshine" dances along the fine edge between masterwork and folly, refusing fully to declare itself in either category. It sweeps you away with its grandeur and then knocks you down with a cliche. The longer it goes on, the more it feels like a workout.

Amid all the special effects, we find another noteworthy sight, the mysterious face of Cillian Murphy. Murphy's portrayal of a transvestite in 2006's "Breakfast on Pluto" probably should have won him an Oscar nomination, but didn't. In "Sunshine," Murphy plays an astronaut physicist whose face embodies as much mind-blown wonder as anything else in a movie that mixes gritty space operatics, cosmic warbling, white-knuckle tension and visual fireworks. Murphy's face becomes a kind of mini-replica of the sun, shown in luminous close-ups that encourage us to stare into his pale blue eyes.

Come to think of it, we do lot of staring at this movie, as Boyle tells the story of a moment when life on Earth is jeopardized. The sun is dying. After an initial failure, a second space ship -- Icarus II -- has been assigned the vital task of recharging the sun, a gargantuan mission that involves dropping a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan into the sun. This will create what the movie calls "a star within a star" and bring light to a world shuddering on the brink of frozen darkness.

A ragtag, multi-ethnic crew of eight has set out on this vital mission, which seems to be going smoothly until Icarus II picks up a distress signal from Icarus I, a vessel that was presumed totally destroyed. Should the crew make a detour or proceed straight to the sun, drop its payload and start back to earth? Could any crew drop a nuclear device into the sun and have even a remote shot at a round trip?

Even as you watch the crew make for Mercury, where Icarus 1 has been hiding, you may be thinking that this hardly seems the right time for a change in course. Leave the discovery of long-lost vessels to "Star Trek," you may be tempted to yell. "Make for the sun."

"Sunshine" is a strange contraption of a movie: Alternately cliched and cosmic, not to mention a little confusing in the final act, which pays homage to "2001: A Space Odyssey," the movie that turned cryptic finales into fabulous art. But Boyle doesn't have Stanley Kubrick's galactic-sized ego, which may explain why "Sunshine" never quite expands into full mind-warp territory, that and possible budgetary constraints.

What to make of this whacked-out wonder of a movie? I was glad to have seen it, but I wish that Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland had kept their mission on course, avoiding squabbles among the crew and other tired genre ploys. "Sunshine" thus amazes and frustrates. It has moments of greatness and moments that feel ripped from a standard movie playbook.

I was in and out of the movie, either wondering why Boyle had veered into spaced-out hysterics or gaping at the roiling surface of the sun as I entertained the kind of elusively "profound" thoughts that might have occurred to me during the '60s.

Nothing wrong with that, but I'm thinking that a movie that begins so smartly should leave you with more to say than "Oh wow!"

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