It’s a cardinal rule of movies: if you lock n characters in a room, n – (x+1) characters will walk out. Whether that “room” is at the bottom of the sea (The Abyss), the deepest, darkest South American jungle (Predator), or the farthest reaches of Antarctica (The Thing), the success of movies of this genre depend on a couple things. First, whether you enjoy being trapped in that room with the characters that inhabit it, and second, whether the buildup, if not the payoff, is sufficiently enthralling. As to the second part, you could call this the “Jack in the Box” genre, because the interesting part isn’t when the box pops open, but the suspense that builds with every turn of the crank. In Sunshine (2007), director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) shows that he’s pretty good at cranking one out.
The basic premise of the movie is spelled out in the first few scenes. The Sun is dying, and with it all known life. In a last-ditch effort, the Earth is mined for all the fissionable material that can be found, and a spacecraft, ironically named the Icarus II, is launched on a multi-year mission to deliver this material as a massive neutron bomb meant to kick-start the Sun’s atomic reaction. You know a movie gets off on the right foot when they announce in the first 15 minutes that their mission is to blow up the Sun.
The “they” I refer to is the crew of the Icarus II, a steadfast group of plucky stereotypes, recruited, no doubt, because either A) they’re the best at what they do, or B) they cover a reasonable spectrum of the racial rainbow, including “white,” “really white,” “Asian,” and “indistinct brown.” Given that A is clearly proven false after a series of unfortunate plot devices events, we have to assume it’s B. The crew is cast to look like a Wee Pals strip, but their basic characters come from a long and illustrious line of genre movies. There’s Jeff Goldblum, Michael Biehn, and Kurt Russell. Even Bill Paxton makes an appearance.
(As an aside, someone needs to get on actually attaching a script to that cast, because I think I just inadvertently made The Best Movie Ever.)
Stereotypes aside, the acting is very strong throughout the movie. There is not a single character that is badly handled. Michelle Yeoh and Rose Byrne are very good as the emotional and moral centers to the movie, and Cliff Curtis is likeable as the psychologist that needs some of his own medicine. Hiroyuki Sanada has the squint and set jaw perfected as the self-sacrificing Kurt Russell character, and The Human Torch and The Scarecrow do great work as the Michael Biehn and Jeff Goldblum characters. Torch, in particular, is great as the only guy on board that seems to know what the hell he’s doing. The cast has no true stars in it, but all of them turn in star-quality work.
This is the first movie I’ve seen from Danny Boyle, but I’ve since added more of his work to my NetFlix queue. His direction is masterful here. What makes a Jack in the Box movie work is giving a clear map of the box our heroes are trapped in, and a consistent pacing that builds to the climax of the movie. Boyle provides both, and with aplomb. You always know exactly where you are in the caverns of the ship, and the tension builds with each passing second. In addition, this is a movie that just looks spectacular. From the use of filters to give you an idea of the ambient temperature of the room, to showing a character’s mental state just by how he’s shot, Boyle uses the visual language of film to show the audience more than just what’s present in the script.
And let’s be honest, the script isn’t a strong point of the movie. While the dialog is fine, the plot is made of recycled parts and retread ideas. The characters are all stereotypically stereotypical. Even the premise is stolen from the direct-to-VHS Solar Crisis (NOTE: despite having both The Chuck and Jack Palance, do not rent this. Here be dragons). Regardless, I loved it. What this movie ultimately proves is that as long as the direction and acting are of a high enough standard, it really doesn’t matter how good the script is.
From the start, you already know the box is going to pop. It’s just a matter of how the crank is turned.
Tags: 4-star, Bill Paxton, Chris Evans, Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis, Danny Boyle, Jack in the Box, Jack Palance, Jeff Goldblum, Kurt Russell, Michael Biehn, Michelle Yeoh, Predator, Rose Byrne, Solar Crisis, Sunshine, The Abyss, The Chuck, The Thing, Trainspotting