Sunshine, and sound design

I saw Danny Boyle‘s moody and stylish science fiction thriller Sunshine the other night. As with everything from Boyle—from heroin addicts to flatmates trying to murder each other to zombies to saints—it was…intense. The setup—a spaceship, inauspiciously called Icarus II, heading straight toward the sun—is perfect for overwhelming imagery, and Boyle takes full advantage of it. Alas, the plot didn’t really justify the intensity. I had a bit of an “oh, is that all?” reaction to some of the crucial plot devices. I think at the very end it wanted a bit of 2001-style transcendence, but couldn’t really get there. 2001 itself only did that by becoming more or less incomprehensible in its final reel, something Boyle (and screenwriter Alex Garland) weren’t quite willing to do, opting instead for a more standard thriller device (of which I’ll say no more). Oh well. Maybe this is a film best seen stoned, so that you wouldn’t have to worry about the plot at all.

I did appreciate the shout-outs to 2001, Alien, and best of all—wait for it—Dark Star (no beach balls or surfboards, though). Apparently there are also references to Solaris, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never seen—in the little bit of commentary I saw, Boyle said that no “serious science fiction movie” can escape the shadows of 2001, Alien, and Solaris.

Among the things I liked both most and least about Sunshine was its sound design. The sound was as overwhelming as the visuals were: Boyle hits you hard with both the music and the incidental grungy spaceship noises. The overall impact was, I think, intended to disconcert and annoy—I was reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And that it did, to great effect. I’m all for disconcerting annoyance, but what I didn’t like, in my pedantic nerdliness, was the fact that the exterior shots of the Icarus II were as noisy as the interiors. I can’t help compare that to 2001, where the exterior shots featured only silence, music (the initial exteriors of the Discovery are accompanied by a singularly beautiful piece from Aram Khatchaturian‘s ballet Gayne; it turned me on to Khatchaturian), and, during the ill-fated spacewalks, breathing. I understand that 2001‘s pristine and minimalist sound design would not have worked in Sunshine—I doubt it would work almost anywhere else; minimalism is hard, and I imagine it takes a Kubrick-like genius to pull it off—but it is the superior work of art.

This weekend on NPR I heard an interview with legendary sound guy Ben Burtt, the man who gave us the sounds of the light saber and R2-D2, and now WALL·E. Asked what movies he hadn’t worked on whose sound he admired, he named 2001, for its minimalism. I felt vindicated.

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2 Responses to “Sunshine, and sound design”

  1. tilman Says:

    Well just saw this movie for the second time now.
    I realy fell in love with the sound and feel of sunshine.

    It is true, that the exterior scenes had a lot sound design going on… but they had to!

    The moments where the heat of the sun is coming around the shield were an extraordinary soundexperience to me. Music and SD whise.

    All the exterior spaceship sounds are treated as if they were
    underwater. To me these are some of the most interesting sounds in the movie.

    Actualy I just saw the movie 1 houre ago and searched the web to find out something about this great sounddesign 🙂 This brought me to your blog.
    Perhaps you could watch the movie a second time and maybe then you like all of the Sound Design?

    I think 2001 and Sunshine are complete different movies and can not be compared.

    Cheers Tilman

  2. matt Says:

    have you both watched sunshine with a really really good sub ? im not talking about a loud sub, but a proper high quality home theater sub thats capable of playing right down to 15hz or so? for me this is where sunshine stands out, incredible use of unsettling inaudible sounds to make the viewer feel like there there crapping there pants with the crew, i think the story line is a bit week but have still watched this film 4=5 times and expect i will watch it meny more times as i find the SD so gripping.

    any recommendations of other films with incredible sound design?

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